Fresno native's chipmunks charm 3 generations

LOS ANGELES — All Ross Bagdasarian Jr. wanted to do in the late ’70s was pay tribute to his father, Fresno native Ross Bagdasarian Sr., the man who created Alvin and the Chipmunks.

He decided to release the album “Chipmunk Punk,” eight years after his father’s death.

“I thought I would do it for about a year,” Bagdasarian says. “I really revered my father, and I wanted his passing not to be something completely forgotten. I wanted people to appreciate what he created.”

For more than 40 years, he’s been creating projects for the three singing rodents, who show no sign of retiring. They have been featured in several TV shows, DVD series and albums since their comeback. Their 2007 feature “Alvin and the Chipmunks” sold more than $360 million in tickets worldwide and generated more than $127 million in DVD sales.

The furry gang is back this week with “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” which opens Wednesday in theaters.

Bagdasarian says he thinks the Chipmunks remain popular because three generations have grown up with their antics.

It all started with Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who worked in local vineyards but whose real passion was to be a songwriter. He moved his family to Los Angeles in 1950, when Ross Bagdasarian Jr. was 1, to pursue a music career.

He co-wrote with his cousin, Fresno author and playwright William Saroyan, “Come On-A My House,” a huge hit for Rosemary Clooney in 1951. But it was the 1958 novelty song, “The Witch Doctor,” that established him as a songwriter.

That same year, under the name of David Seville, he wrote the No. 1 hit “The Chipmunk Song” — and the family business was established.

Ross Bagdasarian Sr. died in 1972. It was six years later that Bagdasarian Jr. decided to revive the Chipmunks, a delay caused by his attending law school at the insistence of his father.

It’s been a real family business since then. Bagdasarian’s wife, Janice Karman, has been part of the Chipmunk revival since the late ‘70s. In 1983, she created the three Chipettes, who make an appearance in the new film. The Chipettes — Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor — have been the biggest change to the Chipmunk empire. Along with wanting to be able to cover some songs by female artists, Karman created the characters to be counterparts to the Chipmunks.

Bagdasarian Jr. has been asked many times to make the Chipmunks a little edgier, but he says that’s not going to happen under his watch.

“We believe in who these characters are, and we will not allow them to be pushed in a direction that is not true to who they are,” Bagdasarian says. “You know, we could do a joke that people would really howl at, but would be wrong for your character to give, and you just started to kill off that character if you do it.”

The couple’s passion for the characters was helpful in making the movie.

“Ross and Janice know what you are supposed to do because they have done the shows for so many years,” says Christina Applegate, the voice of Chipette Brittany. “They know how it’s supposed to work.”