(c) Image by Juri H. Chinchilla.

On March 5, 1963, Arthur Melin, co-founder of the toy company WHAM-O, Inc., received a patent on the hula hoop. This week, On Remand looks back at the hula hoop and one of the era’s other crazes: Alvin and the Chipmunks.

By the time the hula hoop received its patent in 1963, it had already enjoyed great success. The hula hoop fad started in the summer of 1958, and by fall, WHAM-O had at least twenty-five million customers gyrating and swiveling their hips to keep the hoop in motion. By Christmas, the hula hoop had become the “Tickle-Me-Elmo” of 1958. Everyone wanted one, including a chipmunk named Alvin.

Alvin, and his chipmunk pals Simon and Theodore, also debuted in 1958. Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., a composer, singer, and actor now better known by his stage name David Seville, created the singing squirrels by manipulating the playback speed of his voice on a tape recorder. His gamble – spending $190 of his last $200 on the fancy machine – paid off. By Christmas, one of the songs from the first Chipmunk album, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” had reached number one on the charts. In it, Alvin pleads for the year’s hot toy: “me, I want a hula hoop!”

By the mid-60s, Americans had lost their enthusiasm for the hula hoop and Bagdasarian had grown bored with the Chipmunks. When Bagdasarian died unexpectedly in 1972, his son Ross Jr., a chip off the old block, longed to revive his father’s creation. First though, because his father had insisted, Ross Jr. went to law school. . .

After graduating from Southwestern University School of Law, then passing the California bar exam in 1975, Ross Jr. turned his attention from case books to acorn crooks. But no one was interested in the Chipmunks until 1980, when a DJ played Blondie’s hit “Call Me” at a higher speed, sparking renewed interest in squeaky-voiced music. Following the example set by his father, who had refused to sell to Walt Disney, Ross Jr. made the Chipmunks a family project. He and his wife voiced the characters, and Ross Jr. put his JD to work by studying the incoming contracts. After creating Chipmunk buzz with some new albums and a cartoon on NBC, Ross Jr. signed an exclusive licensing deal with Universal in 1996. In 2000, unhappy with Universal for letting the Chipmunk brand languish, Ross Jr. sued, eventually settling the case and getting back all rights to the Chipmunks. With his rights restored, Ross Jr., made a deal with Twentieth Century Fox. That collaboration produced three chipmunk films, beginning in 2007 with Alvin and the Chipmunks. Despite poor reviews, a second movie – The Squeakquel – followed in 2009, and a third – Chipwrecked – in 2011. The three films grossed about a billion dollars without crossing the 30% mark on the Tomatometer.

The first Chipmunk movie also uncovered another potential cache. In the course of clearing legal hurdles for the 2007 movie, Ross Jr. rediscovered a 1968 contract his father had signed with Capitol Records providing certain manufacturing and distribution rights to 112 master recordings of the Chipmunks. Since 1985, Capitol Records had licensed those recordings for use in film and television (including appearances in Rocky IV, Almost Famous, and the Sopranos). But, after reviewing the contract again, Ross Jr. thought Capitol’s licensing activities exceeded the scope of the contract. So, in 2008, twenty-three years into Capitol’s licensing campaign and fifteen years after first reviewing the contract, Ross Jr. sued. He prevailed, bringing more Chipmunks intellectual property to the family. Critically for Ross Jr.’s success, the lower court excused Ross Jr.’s delay in bringing his suit (he said that although he knew about the contract, he had not “focused” on it). (Sidley Austin wishes its judge had been as understanding about lacking focus.)

After his successful suit against Capitol Records, Ross Jr. continued to expand the Chipmunks empire. In March 2008, he filed an application to trademark the letter “A.” More specifically, he filed three trademark applications, each for a stylized capital “A” to be used on clothing. Major League Baseball, and three teams – the Braves, Angels, and Athletics – seemed ready to pounce, but they never did, so Ross Jr. got the trademarks.

Today, Ross Jr. and his wife and business partner, Janice Karman, continue the legal warfare. In an ongoing case against Twentieth Century Fox, they seek half the profits from “The Squeakquel.” Karman, who provided Fox a draft screenplay, believes she is a co-owner of the script’s copyright. The case is still pending.

The pesky rodents are not going away soon. Perhaps encouraged by Chipwrecked’s 12% Tomatometer rating that called it “lazy, rote, and grating,” Fox decided to produce a fourth Chipmunks movie. It is scheduled to open in time for Christmas 2015. Me, I’d rather have a hula hoop.

Chipmunks Legacy Is A Family Affair [Los Angeles Times]
Alvin And The Profits [Bloomberg Businessweek]


Samantha Beckett (not her real name) is an attorney with more than ten years of experience working in Biglaw. When not traveling back in time, she is most likely billing it. Her writing has been featured in state and federal courts across the nation and in the inboxes of countless clients, colleagues, and NSA analysts. She can be reached at OnRemand@gmail.com.


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