BY JENNY WERTH
The Executive Producer
Imperato-Stabile was the executive producer for Twilight and both Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007), and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009), and Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties (2006) and its sequel.
Asbarez Provides in Inside look at the creative talent behind the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies.
It all started with a daring chipmunk that didn’t nervously scurry out of the way when Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. saw him in front of his car while driving in Yosemite. An intrepid chipmunk that stood his ground and showed his strength when faced with a car in front of him. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to envision Alvin the Chipmunk doing something similar just to prove his fearlessness in the face of danger. The challenge of that single unwaveringly chipmunk gave birth to three lovable characters known as Alvin, Simon and Theodore along with their manager and human father, David Seville (Seville is actually named after Bagdasarian’s stage name.) And now more than 50 years later, the world is still entranced by these animated chipmunks. With much anticipation, many await the sequel to the first Alvin and the Chipmunks movie to be released Christmas day. The movie is cleverly titled “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.” Many folks fondly remember the hit song “The Witch Doctor” that Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. released in 1958. It spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard Top 100. But, as Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. explained, his father was writing a Christmas song after the success of “The Witch Doctor,” and wanted a character for his song. Not long after, he came face to face with that life-changing chipmunk in the road. Soon after that, the chipmunks Alvin, Simon and Theodore made their singing debut in the song, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late), in the late fall of 1958. This song is a Christmas favorite that still plays on the radio during the holiday season and is also featured on some compilation albums.
Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and his wife, Janice Karman, took over recording the voice of the chipmunks after his father’s untimely death in 1972.
“I wasn’t scared (to record) but the tricky thing of it was that I wanted to pay homage to my dad and in the beginning (I was) trying to copy his style,” Bagdasarian Jr. explained.
But, with Karman’s support and encouragement, Bagdasarian, Jr. said he finally made the character’s his own. In fact, Bagdasarian Jr. said he and his wife have written 75 percent of the shows and specials for the last 30 years. He said they love working together and enjoy having each other as a sounding board along with constant support. Notably in 1982, Karman created the three female versions of the Chipmunks, The Chipettes. The Chipettes’ Brittany, Jeanette and Eleanor also have their own human guardian, Miss Beatrice Miller.
“We wanted to do something that revealed the characters really well,” Bagdasarian Jr. said. “(Janice) wrote all the key emotional scenes with the Chipmunks and The Chipettes….. when others write girl characters they have the inclination to make them bitchy. For Janice it was very important to not have (The Chipettes) portrayed as bitchy.”
For example, Chipette Brittany can be ambitious but that doesn’t make her mean spirited. Bagdasarian Jr. explained the importance of putting the characters in new situations in a way that the audience understands. Part of the allure of the Chipmunks is their ability to relate to the audience in real life ways.
“We don’t talk down to kids and preach to them. We have characters that our (young audience) identify with, every kid out there is able to identify to the characters…. They’re not cookie-cutter characters or goodie-too shoes, they’re real.”
And this concept makes a huge difference in how the audience connects to the characters. The stories Bagdasarian Jr. and Karman create are emotionally real. They make their characters struggle with the same feelings and manners of solving daily life experiences that kids experience everyday.
For example, Bagdasarian Jr. said, “when Alvin and Simon get into fights, they really fight.”
It’s not some fantasy fight that is resolved within a minute and never discussed again. That’s why when Alvin and Simon do finally makeup, the reconciliation is earned just like in real life. He also explained that if at the end of the day the audience doesn’t find the characters appealing, you’re not going to do any real business. However, he’s made it a priority to be sure his business is one worthy of its unprecedented success. Part of that success is speaking to children in a way that they understand.
“Somehow people think you need to speak to children in a demeaning and patronizing way…. (but when) an adult is speaking down to them, they totally cut you off and don’t hear a word. If you respect them and their intelligence, then they will listen,” he said.
Another telling equation of the Chipmunk’s popularity is the unusual ease with which they relate to multi-generational audiences comprised of not only children, but also many parents and grandparents. Bagdasarian Jr. said children make up a third of the audience.
“I think there are ways of telling stories that are very universal and revolve around family,” he said.
However, he also pointed out that the stories also include the heartbreak, drama and tragedy that families can experience. But they are sure to portray these experiences with characters that people can relate to.
Both Chipmunks film adaptations are voiced by Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler and Jesse McCartney respectively. Bagdasarian Jr. said the three actors grew up with the Chipmunks’ shows and were very reverential to their voice recordings. Indeed, Bagdasarian Jr. and Karman were there every step of the way to guide the stars during each recording process. He said the characters are so real for he and his wife that the actors’ voices had to be able to grab the characters as they really were.
“We are absolute perfectionists, so if a thing doesn’t ring true, or if it’s lacking, we do it again and again and again.”
Many a Chipmunk fan will tell you they’re thankful the Chipmunks act still is being done with such excitement and anticipation. And from the sounds of it, they have no intention to stop anytime soon. Naturally, these wonderful chipmunks must get in your blood! Bagdasarian Jr. said he did the voices of Alvin and Simon for a long time and has parts of them both in his own personality.
“I have that part of Alvin that is very confident and mischievous…. (And) I’m also very comfortable being Simon because he’s logical and reasonable.”
We’ll just have to believe that if Bagdasarian Jr. has some of Simon’s logic coupled with spunky Alvin’s wit and mischief, Chipmunk fans worldwide will have many more fantastic performances by one of this world’s most lovable characters.
“Our shows are made with all three generations in the audience and generations to come,” Bagdasarian Jr. said.