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Wiggling Its Way Into Kids' Hearts

Once a warmup act for Barney, the Australian band the Wiggles is now headliner material

June 06, 2002|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Australian invasion continues. Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and now ... the Wiggles?

The Wiggles have emerged from Down Under as a superstar children's band. With their videos and CDs selling millions, they've already made serious inroads into Barney and "Teletubbies" territory. Now, with the Wiggles on their third solo tour of the U.S.--the first to reach California--preschoolers here are increasingly doing what their Aussie counterparts have been doing for a decade: dancing the Ooby Doo, toot-tooting, chugga-chugging and hoop-dee-doo-ing with this four-man band.

Once a warmup act for the "Barney" stage show, the Wiggles appear tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre, Saturday at the Long Beach Terrace Theater, Sunday at Oxnard's Performing Arts Center and Tuesday at the Fox Theater in Bakersfield.

The Wiggles in performance, like gushy Barney, can make some adults wince: toothy grins, unflappable cheer, unflagging energy, silly jokes, repetitive lyrics and cheery tunes so catchy that they can lodge for days in grown-up brains.

These four grown men, in black trousers and close-fitting, long-sleeved "skivvies" (Aussie for T-shirts), cavort onstage, play guitars, drums and keyboards, sing "Hoop-Dee-Doo" and do "The Wobbly Dance."

They cut up too, with costumed characters Wags the Dog, Henry Octopus, Dorothy Dinosaur and Captain Feathersword, a lacy-shirted pirate with magic buttons on his vest.

The Wiggles--Anthony Field, 39; Murray Cook, 42; Greg Page, 30; and Jeff Fatt, 48--aren't crafting their shows for adults (although they do attract a number of adult female groupies; in 1999 Field was named "bachelor of the year" by a leading Australian magazine).

"The underlying principle is being child-centered," Cook said from the Sydney studio where the band was taping its new "Lights, Camera, Action, Wiggles" TV series. "And that's really the principle from early childhood education, thinking what's important to children, what's in their world, what they'll understand. It's also not being condescending to them."

The Wiggles' own backgrounds in child development led to their signature nonviolent, upbeat and gentle personas, and even the brightly colored shirts they wear for easy identification: Field is the Blue Wiggle; Cook, the Red Wiggle; Page, the Yellow Wiggle; and audience favorite Fatt, the Purple Wiggle. In one regular bit, created to make children feel "empowered," Fatt's the "sleepy" Wiggle who must be jarred out of periods of torpor by audience shouts of "Wake up, Jeff!"

Field and his brother Paul started out with Fatt in a popular 1980s rock band called the Cockroaches. When the band dissolved after the death of Paul Field's infant daughter from SIDS, Anthony Field went back to school to earn a degree in early childhood education. That's where he met Cook and Page, two other musicians pursuing the same path.

It was Anthony Field who suggested that they "combine what we'd learned about child development with what we knew about music," Cook said. Fatt soon joined them.

The group's first years of renown came about through word of mouth and self-funded enterprises. As their popularity as classroom and birthday party entertainment grew, so did the demand for more recordings like their self-titled 1991 album, which they had assumed would be a one-time venture.

Paul Field, who is now the Wiggles' manager, says it's their talent as songwriters and musicians that lies at the heart of their appeal. "It was grass-roots support, not hype. In the early childhood world, if there's something kids love, there's a parents' network where you tell your friends. We've been lucky that way."

Today, U.S. sales of Wiggles videos and CDs, distributed by HIT Entertainment, are at 3 million and climbing. Sales in Australia top 4.5 million. The Disney Channel added Wiggles video clips to its Playhouse Disney programming block in February, and plans are afoot to replicate the band for the Asian market through a Disney-Wiggles partnership. It's a remarkable success story in a field dominated by character-driven entertainment.

Along with the undeniably canny, moneymaking enterprise, however, the sense of a calling, a la Fred Rogers, is evident too. Despite burgeoning relationships with media giants, the Wiggles retain tight creative control to protect their vision and ideas.

"The guys have self-funded most of their projects," Paul Field explained, "because even to this day, there's some who don't understand what they're about. I was with Anthony in an airport once, and a father came up and said, 'Oh, my kids love you guys,' but then he said, 'Don't you feel a bit silly doing what you do?' Anthony said, 'When you speak to your child, play with your child, you don't feel silly doing that, do you? Well, it's the same with us.'"

The Wiggles don't take their success for granted.

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