The Wiggles: Superstars of the preschool set


Who can resist the Wiggles? The Australian group has spent the last 20 years clowning around onstage, bringing its songs, smiling faces, brightly colored turtleneck jerseys and bubbly personalities to kids around the world.

Anthony Field, Murray Cook, Jeff Fatt and Sam Moran, color-coded as, respectively, the blue, red, purple and yellow Wiggles, appeal to kids with their carefully choreographed simplicity and lyrics such as “Fruit salad, yummy yummy! Fruit salad, yummy yummy!”

On Sunday, kids can see the “Wiggly Circus Live!” at 1:30 and 5 p.m. shows at Universal City’s Gibson Amphitheatre. The group’s U.S. tour will feature 75 performances in 26 cities.

In addition to the Wiggles and their buddies Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog, Henry the Octopus and Captain Feathersword, trapeze swingers, trampoline jumpers, dancers and clowns will join the performance. Field says the circus will be “gentle, with lots of slapstick and fun. And interactive.”

Managing to enunciate through super-spread smiles, the Wiggles take care to encourage their young fans to clap their hands and dance as well as remember to wear seatbelts and eat their vegetables. The Wiggles also exaggerate every expression and movement so their pint-sized viewers won’t miss a thing. Motions are choreographed down to the fingers, such as their trademark gesture, a wiggling of the index finger.

The enthusiasm is especially remarkable considering that three of these middle-aged guys have been performing together and reworking the same material since 1991.As their audiences outgrow preschool entertainment and join the big kids on the kindergarten playground, the Wiggles remain stuck in time. To the Wiggles, the explanation for their longevity is simple. “It’s all about the children,” Field says.

“All” happens to be quite a lot.

The Wiggles release albums, videos, books, toys, clothing and even a furniture line. Live performances number about 200 each year, and the Wiggles appear on TV in more than 110 countries, including the daily “Sprout’s Wiggly Waffle” show in the U.S. As well, the Wiggles’ name endorses healthful edibles such as fruit snacks, yogurt and applesauce. In recent years, Wiggles spinoff groups have been created in Latin America and Taiwan. All this brings in up to $45 million each year.

Entertaining little kids is big business. After all, the genre brings together two profitable obsessions: parenting and shopping.

In contrast, the early days of children’s music seem quaint. In the 1950s, folk singers Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Ella Jenkins released child-friendly albums that combined classic American melodies with original compositions.

Singer, songwriter and musician Raffi, who emerged in the late 1970s, followed that tradition too. Never employing elaborate showmanship, he once rejected an invitation to play New York’s Madison Square Garden, saying he wouldn’t be able to connect with children in such a large venue.

The Wiggles, on the other hand, packed the Garden with 12 sold-out shows in 2003.

When the group formed, three of the Wiggles, including original member Greg Page, were studying early childhood education. (In 2006, Moran replaced Page, who withdrew from the Wiggles because of health problems.) Their first recording began as a class project, which Fatt contributed to. Eventually, they abandoned their teaching careers. Their watershed moment in the United States came in 1998, when they were invited to perform at Disneyland.

Now, there’s a new crop of children’s music, and artists who got their start as indie and rock musicians, such as Laurie Berkner and Dan Zanes, have become popular.

Meanwhile, TV shows are offering modern counterpoints to “Sesame Street.” Hosted by three instrument-wielding animal puppets, “Jack’s Big Music Show” aims to teach children musical concepts such as dynamics, pitch and tempo. “Yo Gabba Gabba!” incorporates a retro-indie aesthetic while covering such toddler topics as friendship and nutrition. The show’s highlight is “DJ Lance’s Super Music Friends,” which has featured groups such as Weezer, the Shins, MGMT, Money Mark and Jem.

The new choices for children’s music and entertainment seem endless. But some questions haven’t been answered. Do kids need all this?

The Wiggles say yes.

Field says children need music created especially for them. “You need to have something in their world and in their language that they can understand and relate to,” he says. “Children get lost and drift away when adults treat them like adults.”

Other opinions differ. Many parents of preschool children say kids need real music, not the cute and dumbed-down entertainment that adults think kids want.

However, the Wiggles have no plans to change the act as they head into their 20th year. Nor do they feel challenged by new, parent-friendly musical acts and TV shows. As Field says, “After we were successful, quite a few groups came along. But we’re happy with the way we do it, so we didn’t react too much to that.”

And why should they? The group has clearly found a successful formula.