April 2, 2006
By PAUL SCOTT
Moments before a recent show in Peoria, Ill., the world's No. 1 preschool band appeared on two projection screens flanking a stage already set with a drum kit, an electric guitar, a Spanish galleon and a smiley-face house. Calling into the camera with their standard welcome — "Hi everyone, we're the Wiggles: I'm Greg. . .I'm Murray. . .I'm Jeff. . .and I'm Anthony" — the Australian quartet seemed to come straight toward the audience in a cartoony red car, smiling, waving and giving everyone a big thumbs up. The car soon disappeared behind an opening marked "Stage Door," a tip surely lost on the fans in attendance, most of whom could not yet read. Then a dozen red-coated dancers skipped brightly from the wings, waving shimmering flags of gold and maroon to the tape-tracked chords of "Toot Toot Chugga Chugga Big Red Car." Close on the dancers' heels and fastened into a real red car with fake seat belts came the Wiggles in the flesh: four Australians otherwise known as Murray Cook, Anthony Field, Jeff Fatt and Greg Page. All wore single-color jerseys with stripe-legged pants and logo-emblazoned belt buckles. "Toot, toot, chugga, chugga, big red car," Page sang in a smooth baritone. "We'll travel near, and we'll travel far. Toot, toot, chugga, chugga, big red car. We're going to ride the whole day long." The song bounced atop an infectious eight-bar pop, and the audience quickly became a roiling sea of 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, some dressed as their favorite Wiggle and others clutching some colorful piece of Wiggles-sanctioned toyage purchased deep within the crush that earlier swarmed the merchandise tables out front. The cautious sat staring from laps, while the less cautious began to bob in the spirit of proximal disconnectedness otherwise known as parallel play, dancing without paying attention to one another. They spilled into the rows and aisles, forming a light cluster at the foot of the stage in a kind of preschool mosh pit.
The song quickly ended — all Wiggles songs are short — and the band jumped out of the car and bounded forward to wave some more from the front of the stage. After a buoyant welcome to everybody in Peoria by a gently paternal Cook, Field brightly called out, "Hello, everybody!" The Wiggles audience is always "everybody." Never "boys and girls." Never "children." There is a reason for this, just as there is a reason that Wiggles songs are short and feature simple body movements, that the Wiggles stare continually into the camera in their videos and that their stage show features plenty of audience participation and that their bulging library of original children's pop is focused on activities like hair combing, sleeping, bouncing, shaking, pointing and singing. For the Wiggles, three of whom met while studying early-childhood education, every bit of pop extravaganza is rooted in how they believe very young children learn, think and play. The Wiggles operate from the premise that a young child has a short attention span, is curious about a limited number of objects and activities, loves having a job to do and is thrilled by mastering basic movements. These ideas may seem simple, but for parents shepherding young children through an overhyped children's entertainment marketplace, simple can be reassuring and welcome.
Ever since Field was told by a bystander during an early Wiggles performance that playing a piccolo with his nose could cause children to try to copy the stunt and injure themselves, he takes care to model safe behavior. "Walking is great fun," Field told his audience in Peoria. "But when you go out walking, you want to make sure you are very careful." Before his cautions could cast a pall over the proceedings, an organ started all the children bouncing again, and the band and dancers segued right into "Look Both Ways." It was hard to say where the safety assembly stopped and the disobedient pop act emerged. But by the song's "ooh, la, la-la" Lennon-esque refrain, it didn't matter. The Wiggles bounded offstage and deep into the arena, eliciting peals of delight and managing hug rushes as deftly as mall Santas. Over the next hour or so, the band, their coed contingent of dancers and a multispecies quartet of costumed sidekicks — Wags the Dog, Henry the Octopus, Dorothy the Dinosaur and the friendly pirate Captain Feathersword — sang and danced their way through a succession of mostly rocking and mostly original children's songs with names like "Rock-a-Bye Your Bear," "The Monkey Dance," "Bow Wow Wow" and "Can You (Point Your Fingers and Do the Twist)?"
Because the Wiggles wanted to involve their fans in a spectacle that would otherwise sail smoothly over their heads, they issued frequent directives during the show, telling the kids to sing along, to dance if they felt like dancing, even to give themselves a "big clap" at the end of most songs. And because the Wiggles say they believe that very young children need to be let in on a gag or surprise ahead of time — so that they won't feel left out and won't be scared if something unusual happens — Field set up the band's "Who's on First" routine: waking up Fatt when he periodically dropped his head and pretended to have fallen asleep. "If you see Jeff fall asleep, could you please remember to help us wake him up?"
Between the remoteness of computer-generated cartoons, PBS fare like Teletubbies and Boohbah and Barney and the sometimes hyperkinetic programming at Nickelodeon, few offerings for very young children seem to place much stock in real people singing and dancing. Not only are the Wiggles real, but they also bring to their calling a naturalness that feels increasingly uncommon in children's entertainment, and it has paid off handsomely. Last year the former schoolteachers and professional musicians took in $45 million from their prolific output of CD's, DVD's, books, TV shows, toys, clothing, furniture and a touring schedule that has the band playing an average of two shows a day, 200 days a year. Last year, the Wiggles sold out shows in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Miami and mounted a nine-show run in November at Madison Square Garden. This month, they begin a West Coast tour. In the United States alone, the band has sold more than 12 million DVD's, with titles like "Yummy Yummy," "Top of the Tots," "Wiggle Time" and "The Wiggles Dance Party."
The Wiggles still own their brand, signing off on every product that bears their image. They recently cut the ribbon on a Wiggles World section in Dreamworld, Australia's largest theme park. And they have started a global Wiggles franchise, branching into Taiwanese and Latin American markets with Mandarin- and Spanish-speaking Wiggles clones. There are plans for a Japanese foursome as well, and the band is now available via satellite television in Vietnam. Wiggles clones are chosen for their preschool skills and their ability to embody the music, not the appearance, of the original Wiggles. The Wiggles' success can make it hard to remember that Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers and the hosts of "Romper Room" and ³Wonderama" were far from brand empires — and at some cost to themselves. At the height of his popularity, Bob McAllister, a "Wonderama" host, still worked his road shows out of his van. And it is highly unlikely that anybody was enjoying his songs in Taipei.
"Sometimes I walk out and can't believe all this is going up for us," Cook said, as he watched the crew erect a 30-foot backdrop for the Wiggles Sailing Around the World Live Tour. It was the day after Peoria, and the band was in East Lansing, Mich. "When we first started, it was just us in a van, playing little halls and stuff."
The Wiggles may have started out modestly, constructing their own sets and performing in malls, but that has not stopped them from jumping into the big business of children's entertainment, with all of its attendant contradictions. It took only four years for the Wiggles' Australian TV series to be picked up in the United States by Playhouse Disney, right around the time that a Canadian toy maker named Spin Master also took notice of the band's buzzing video sales. "They had sold six million videos in North America," says Harold Chizick, vice president for promotional marketing at the Toronto-based company. "Everyone who had a preschooler told us they loved to watch the Wiggles. For us, that raised the flag of opportunity." Spin Master signed on to make the band's toys in 2003, and that Christmas the company sold what Chizick would only say was "a ridiculous number" of Wiggles toy guitars. Wiggles furniture, rugs and party favors hit the shelves in 2004. That same year, the makers of Yoplait printed 1.5 million packages of yogurt with the band's faces. A proof of purchase and $4.99 bought a "Yummy Yummy" video, helping to make it the band's top-selling DVD. By 2005, Mott's, the food product giant, signed on to sponsor the Wiggles Live tour, printing the band's faces on half a million packages of applesauce and juice products and putting Mott's ads in every Wiggles tour arena, program and poster.
The success of the past four years does sit atop 11 years of hard-won, nonapplesauce-assisted Wiggles fame. Talented multi-instrumentalists, the Wiggles began in the ashes of a Sydney party band known as the Cockroaches. During the late 1980's, Anthony Field was playing with his brothers John and Paul and Jeff Fatt. The band toured Australia, recording two albums of catchy roots rock that made Australia's Top 10 but never found a home on American radio. When the band fell apart, Anthony enrolled at the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University in New South Wales to become a schoolteacher. One of only half a dozen men in a program with roughly 500 women, Field soon met two of the other men: Cook and Page, both former musicians. "I'd played in rock bands and didn't get anywhere in the 80's," Cook told me. "Part of the appeal of doing early childhood education was that there's a lot of need for music." Page enrolled for similar reasons. "As a teenager, I had always played guitar and sang," he said. "I thought as a teacher I'll just write songs for kids and sing them."
With a batch of catchy Cockroaches songs gathering dust, Field, hoping to offer an alternative to the nursery rhymes that fill preschool music collections, recruited Cook, Page and Fatt to put together an album of children's songs. With the help of his brother John, Field raided the Cockroaches library, rewriting the band's songs into playful tunes centered on eating, dancing, ponies, rainy days and rocking a stuffed bear to sleep. A swing-rock Cockroaches number called "Get Ready to Wiggle" seemed like an apt description for how toddlers dance, so the group put the name on its first CD in 1991, and through his connections with the Cockroaches, Field found a label to distribute the disc in Australia.
"It got bigger than what we planned almost right away," said Page, padding around in baggy shorts backstage in Peoria. "We really just thought we were going to release one CD of songs. We didn't plan on doing any live shows." But the group's manager suggested that they tour to promote their new CD. As a preschool teacher, Cook had used puppets in class and knew that children especially loved dinosaurs, so he had written a song called "Dorothy the Dinosaur" to sing in class. "We had seen how powerful that was, that children will respond to puppets when they won't respond to a teacher," he said. They began doing shows with an actor in a green-and-yellow-spotted dinosaur costume. After children swarmed a pirate hired to do a birthday party, the Wiggles developed a friendly pirate character, Captain Feathersword, who tours with the group and is portrayed by an Australian stage actor, Paul Paddick. The group began hiring themselves out to shopping centers, children's parties and preschools, as Cook and Field taught preschool and Page finished his studies.
Beginning in 1993, the Wiggles decided to do their own TV show and produced 13 episodes, which they later sold to Australia's Disney Channel and Channel 7. During the tapings, the band was often flanked by spirited children. The Wiggles didn't try to dance perfectly, and they let the kids wander on and off the set, a level of spontaneity that must have seemed refreshing in a marketplace used to scripted children. But their biggest break came five years later, when they made a deal with a company that was eventually bought by Hit Entertainment, which now handles Barney, Bob the Builder and Thomas and Friends — the big three of preschool brands not generated by Nickelodeon, Disney or Sesame Workshop. Wiggles shorts were used as trailers for Barney videos, and they appeared as an intermission act for "Barney Live." In preschool world, this was sort of like getting the warm-up slot for the Stones.
Thanks to the Barney connection, the Wiggles' first two videos began climbing the children's home-video charts at Amazon, soon landing in the Top 10. "That's when someone at Wal-Mart looked at the charts and said, Who are the Wiggles?" Paul Field remembered. The big-box retailers placed orders for Wiggles videos, and in the next three years the band released nine DVD's: "Wake Up Jeff," "Toot Toot," "Wiggly Wiggly Christmas," "Wiggles Dance Party," "Wiggly Playtime," "Yule Be Wiggling," "Wiggly Wiggly World," "Hoop De Doo" and "Wiggles Safari."
"I think it's difficult to put your finger on it," Cook said when I asked what made the Wiggles such a hit. "A lot of what we do is communicate pretty directly to children, because we learned to do that as teachers. I also think maybe it has to do with the music, that we didn't just go down the route of what people think is kids' music." The Wiggles have recorded hundreds of original children's songs, instrumentals, lullabies and two-minute toddler-tailored compositions, drawing on rock, pop, swing, Motown, R&B, country, jazz and folk traditions the world over. They use xylophones, violins, a Beatles bass, trombones, accordions, guitars, organs, zithers, trumpets, bouzoukis, fuzz pedals, synthesizers and car horns. "I'm very impressed with their songwriting," says John Fogerty, formerly of Creedence Clearwater Revival, who appeared on a Wiggles video two years ago, largely to impress his 4-year-old daughter, Kelsy. "They're having fun. They're riffing on the Beatles, surf, old Art & Dotty Todd. The drum sound they get is absolutely wonderful."
The Wiggles produce this content during marathon songwriting sessions, delivering roughly three albums' worth of material a year by sequestering themselves for a month each summer. Paul Field told me the material comes easily: "There's not much that doesn't excite a young child if you put it in their language. They don't get a chance to do a lot of things." The band starts most of its songs with the chorus (children need to get to the goods quickly, Field said) and works with the Australian choreographer Leeanne Ashley to develop simple moves to accompany every song. Reflecting their belief in the power of basic movements to enchant young children, their videos include frequent close-ups of wagging feet, shaking hands and bobbing heads. By the point in one song when a lyric asks, "Can you stand on one foot and shake your hand?" the projection screens flanking the stage will project an enormous shot of Page's foot lifted off the ground. For some toddlers, this is big news. People can really stand on one foot and shake their hands? Other rules, Field said, include keep it simple, always smile and always look into the camera — everyone, always. "It comes from that whole idea that children are quite egocentric," he told me. "They don't realize there's anyone else out there watching the show." As if to prove the point, he recalled an incident when a young girl approached Paddick, said hello and offered a familiar koan of toddler understatement as the group filmed its show in a Sydney park. "She just said, 'I see you on TV, you know."' Paul Field said. "It was very brief, but she just told him that she sees him on TV, and that was it. I said: 'Guys, remember that. That's the audience."'
Members of that audience, Anthony Field explained, want you to talk to them about themselves: "They're really not interested in you as much as they are in themselves. If you keep talking to them about themselves, and encouraging them, they'll like you, because every time you come along, you want to know about them. You want them to dance with you; you want them to help you make fruit salad." Occasionally, this self-focus is the source of humor. "Sometimes you'll get a child that just really wants to be heard," Paddick, who plays Captain Feathersword, said. "They'll be down there, and they'll go, 'Anthony, Anthony, Anthony, Anthony, Anthony, Anthony' and basically just keep going until you notice them."
As it turns out, the "who's your favorite Wiggle" quiz is something of a Rorschach test. Cook, 45, who wears red and plays the guitar, is surely the sensitive Wiggle, the one who most looks as if he still thinks he is teaching preschool even when working a crowd of 2,000 paying Peorians. Fatt, the 52-year-old purple Wiggle, provides exaggerated sight gags, is widely considered to be the favorite and is a gifted colorist with a Hammond organ. Page, 34, who wears yellow, plays the straight man, hits his marks and makes it look easy. And then there is Field, 42, who wears blue, exudes an easy charm and can play the bagpipes.
A toddler's Wiggles fixation often takes on groupie dimensions. Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and the Parker-Brodericks have all brought their progeny backstage. Parents with less pull resort to staking out the hotel lobby. On their Web site, the Wiggles recently posted a request asking parents not to try and locate them, so that the band won't have to disappoint kids in order to stay on schedule. But the morning of the show in Peoria, the Wiggles were approached by a child in a Wiggles costume, and the Wiggles quickly made the best of it, turning their 20-foot walk from the bus into the hotel lobby into an impromptu meet and greet. Had Paul Field not been tagging along to prepare for a coming live taping in Connecticut, there would have been almost no buffer between the talent and the public at all.
There is a definite esprit de corps in a Wiggles road show. Most of the troupe wear Wiggles track suits during lobby call. They eat together and sleep together in dark-paneled buses (including the dancers who play Henry the Octopus, Dorothy the Dinosaur and Wags the Dog); all are encouraged to avail themselves of local masseuses and chiropractors at each stop; and everyone, including each of the Wiggles, hauls his or her own luggage. Anthony Field was even towing his small collection of belongings in tot-size Wiggles luggage, perhaps out of convenience but maybe also out of loyalty. After all, the Wiggles are practically a Field family business: Anthony is a Wiggle; Paul is in video direction; John is a principal in the songwriting; Anthony's infant daughter played the baby Jesus in one holiday DVD; and Paul's daughter Clare basically grew up on Wiggles DVD's, stealing the screen during a host of mid-90's tapings or at the very least during a song called "The Monkey Dance."
The Wiggles may seem like the best preschool teachers in the world, but to get there they appeared mainly on television and on video, and screen time, as those who know will tell you, cannot teach very young children much of anything, no matter how much we may hope otherwise. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television viewing at all for children under 2 and only one to two hours a day for those who are older. But a recent study from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation determined that 68 percent of American children under 2 log, on average, two hours of screen time a day, and the U.S. alone absorbs four new Wiggles DVD's annually, indicating that some very young children may be spending serious Wiggle time watching "Wiggle Time."
"With the right kind of shows, used the right way, with the right age group, there is some evidence that TV can help kids learn their words and letters and phonics," says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital in Boston. "But this is the 3-, 4- and 5-year-old age group, and it is content-specific." Rich's concerns extend beyond television viewing, however, to the insertion of a commodity called Wiggles — or any number of competing children's entertainment acts, for that matter — into a place once occupied by gadget-free, unbranded dolls and trucks and plain wood blocks. Like everyone else, the Wiggles characters show up in what's called "trans-toy" form as toothbrushes and backpacks: ordinary objects that might otherwise become a blank canvas for a child's imagination. "Most shows have so much merchandising attached to them," Rich says, "that much of the programming for young children can justifiably be called an infomercial. " Susan Linn, a founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a watchdog group based at the Judge Baker Children's Center affiliated with the Harvard Medical School, agrees. "All of the licensing inhibits creativity," she says. "If you feel like you need a Wiggles guitar to play music, as opposed to a regular guitar, to me that's sad."
The Wiggles certainly aren't the first operation to turn a toothbrush into an ad for themselves. There are Care Bears mobiles, Mickey Mouse crib bumpers and Elmo, Big Bird and Cookie Monster pacifiers. But, Anthony Field maintains, the Wiggles have tried to license only products that the band members believe in. "We've got little fruit things," he told me, searching for the word for the fruit-juice based snacks that somehow always get positioned two feet off the ground near the cereal aisle in grocery stores. "We try and keep it healthy. If it's a toy, we'll try and keep it so that it fosters the imagination or language development," Field said. "Sometimes we've been more successful than other times. We've put a lot of books out that are really good for children — they can read or even do prewriting things. We have little guitars that come out that encourage children to believe that they're making music." He paused apologetically. One Wiggles guitar literally stood on its end and danced. I told him some people thought kids would have been better off with guitars that didn't have all the sound chips on them.
"Well, the guitar would probably be better for a child if it were a foam cutout as opposed to all the musical things," Field agreed. "A kid could have just as much fun without those buttons. But the kid will have just as much fun with the buttons. So you could put out a foam one, and you could put one out that has the gizmos. The toy manufacturers probably wouldn't put out one without all the gizmos, because you're up against Elmo the doll." He looked at Jeff with a question in his eyes. "I think we did do a foam guitar."
When pressed, Anthony Field acknowledged that kids do get obsessed with branded merchandise. But where some see only consumerism shaping still-developing minds, Field sees something positive at work. "I got my daughter a Dorothy on her shirt," he said, referring to the Wiggles character. "She won't go to bed without Dorothy. She believes Dorothy's with her when she's got that on. She's using imagination." And in Field's view, a branded toy guitar can spur bigger dreams. "Murray has people in bands come up and say, 'You're the first guitarist I watched.' If they are happy to go and use the one without a brand on it, great. To early-childhood purists — which we are — it's a balance between that and the commercial reality, which is what parents want. And they do want things with Wiggles on them.
"I do it myself. My daughter liked the show called 'Boo!' I don't know if it's on in America. If I saw Boo the doll, I'd get her the doll, because she likes Boo. And she loves the Wiggles. So I get our own samples and give them to her because she wants them."
Fatt, who had been listening quietly while he ate his lunch, chimed in: "It's not just gratification for the child. It's gratification for the parents."
When I told a 6-year-old neighbor that I was going to meet the Wiggles, she turned to her mother and said, "The Wiggles are real?" It turns out that convincing your audience you are real is something of an occupational hazard when playing to preschoolers. But this was not a problem for Vitto Bonanni, a 5-year-old from suburban Detroit who was backstage with the Wiggles before their second appearance in East Lansing. Vitto and his parents were among the families chosen to meet the Wiggles as part of the band's practice of visiting with handicapped children before a performance. Alternating between two sets of four plastic chairs, the band worked its way through the session with a gentle efficiency: greet a child and parents, describe the characters they will see in the show, ask the child to help them wake up Jeff, pose for a photo and then move on to the next family in line.
Vitto, who had Down syndrome and leukemia (which has since gone into remission), was the last child they would see. Once children meet a Wiggle and take a picture, there's usually not much left to say, other then telling the Wiggles that they have watched them on the television. Not Vitto. He had had his picture taken and had woken up Jeff, and when most kids would have been gently scooted on their way by their parents, he quietly started demonstrating the hand gestures that accompany the Wiggles song "Hot Potato." Alone in the room except for Vitto's parents and a few handlers, the Wiggles sat with him and quietly hummed their way through the song's first two verses. They petered out after the second verse, the one about mashed bananas, but then Vitto nudged them into the third verse with its fluttering finger motions for cold spaghetti.
Vitto didn't speak very well, but he really came alive with the hand motions. When the song was finally finished, the band seemed to linger, and Vitto started into the hand movements that accompany a song called "Quack Quack." At one point, Page stumbled over some of the lyrics and hand movements. But Vitto had no problem remembering how the song went; he had spent a lot of time in chemo and had memorized the tape. With a brush of his hand, he corrected the mistake and showed the way you put your hand on your head to make it look like a chicken, and the yellow-shirted Wiggle found his place and jumped back into the song.
Paul Scott has written for Outside, Men's Journal and other publications.