"The Day We Saw the Wiggles"
Tickets to a Wiggles concert make one dad a hero to his kids and send him back to his childhood, when a different Fab Four were all the rage.
Forty years ago in 1964, when I was 10, the Beatles were scheduled to perform at Suffolk Downs, a horse track outside Boston. (As we say in the sports pages, you can look it up.) By the time their appearance was announced, the British Invasion, with its principal beachhead on Ed Sullivan's stage, had already stormed ashore, and every 6- to 16-year-old American who did or eventually would love rock 'n' roll was its captive. My dad worked at a bank in Lowell, MA, and to me he was a god (and remains so). I asked Dad, who had taken my brother and me to Fenway Park for Red Sox and Patriots games (when, unbeknown to me, those tickets were going begging), if he could get me into the Beatles. I'm sure Dad tried, but he came up dry. The extraordinarily attractive Christine Dahlgren from next door, upon whom I had a 10-year-old's crush, got to go; her father worked at Sears and presumably had better corporate connections than did Artie Sullivan at the Union Bank. I'm sure that's the way the world worked, even back then.
Chris Dahlgren was a John girl, so I was a John guy. Most girls were Paul girls; some quiet boys were George guys; weirdos dug Ringo. That is by way of introducing my children and their Wiggle loyalties: Caroline, formerly a Greg girl and now maturing out of the fanship; Jack, a Murray guy; and Mary Grace, an Anthony girl through and through (like her mother). I presume the weirdos dig Jeff.
You know whereof I speak, of course. Wigglemania is at full throttle, as you and I, and parents everywhere, are only too well aware. That this is something of a secret among parents -- the Wiggles are nowhere on the radar screens of seniors or singles -- lessens the passion of the movement not an iota. Last October, I was sitting in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium during a Sox-Yanks playoff game with my buddy Mike, who now has a 2-year-old to go along with his 4-year-old. "Liam into the Wiggles yet?" I asked between innings.
"Oh, man -- nothing but. Morning, noon, and night."
"Fruit salad," I chirped in my tuneless, altogether terrible tenor. "Yummy, yummeeeeyy." At which point the blonde in the row in front of us turned around violently, glared at me, and said, "Jeezus, no, not here! I've got a night off!"
See: Among us, it's a thoroughgoing mania. And for those of you who understand this, the fact needs no statistical backup. You may (or may not) have read that the Wiggles have sold 14 million videos and CDs in the United States, Canada, and Australia, that they perform 300-plus concerts a year selling out huge venues like Madison Square Garden, that their show on the Disney Channel breaks ratings records, and on and on. You may be abstractly or intimately aware of all that, but you don't need the information to intuit how the Wiggles affect the universe. You know in your soul that Wigglemania is an extant phenomenon that affects the way we live -- morning, noon, and night.
So the most recent Wiggles U.S. tour -- Wiggles Over America? The Forty Licks of a Lollipop Tour? The Born to Run and Jump and Dance Tour? -- is coming to New York City, and my wife and I are constantly checking the Wiggles Web site for the precise date the tickets will go on sale because we figure we might be heroes (as David Bowie once observed), if just for one day. Yes, absolutely, I am dwelling on my father's own Beatles failure lo those four decades ago. There's a whole lot of Freud going on as I log on to the site each morning to learn that... not yet. Not on sale yet.
And then: They are on sale.
And then: They are all gone! Instantly.More shows to be added!
And those too are scarfed up in a nonce, and I am a slow-footed dunce.
Right around this time, there is an article in The New York Times about how Springsteen fanatics are giving out free tickets to True Believers in the parking lot at the Meadowlands. My friend Mike goes to every Stones tour, no matter how rickety Sir Mick or how absurdly dear the price, and my friend Ken goes to everything -- Dave Matthews, Elvis Costello in a club, Lucinda Williams in a Soho bar -- and never gets shut out. But parents who've gotten their mitts on Wiggles tickets do not let go, and so the precious commodity doesn't float on the open or black market once the sellout has occurred. Not in great quantity, anyway. Our nanny, Wendy, says she heard on the radio that some ducats for the Theater at Madison Square Garden shows are going for $500 per. The amazed DJ apparently made a comparison with the Springsteen-freebie situation in a can-you-believe-that? way. Obviously not a parent.
So the kids aren't going to the Wiggles.
Then I think about Mr. Dahlgren. It's all about connections, isn't it? That's how he beat Artie Sullivan, way back when. That's how I'll score Wiggle room for Caroline, Mary Grace and Jack.
As to the "how" of it: Being in the magazine business, when you want in, you get comped -- in the form of either a free front-row ticket with an unspoken quid pro quo attached or a working-stiff credential. I refuse to get comped to anything unless I'm really going to do something -- as in, produce something, no matter how marginal -- which is why you are reading (are you still reading?) this Wiggle-saga on the Child Web site. I have a friend at Child, so I call her up and say, hey, how about a post-Meet the Wiggles thing about Wigglemania at full throttle and...
She bites for it, and we decide to shoot for the Danbury, CT, show. The folks at Hit Entertainment are nothing but wonderful, and before you can say "Wake Up, Jeff!," my family and I have five tickets waiting for us in Danbury. The plan is that maybe the whole family can go backstage after the show and, well, Meet the Wiggles, and I can record their glee and go from there vis-a-vis Wigglemania. But, whatever, the kids are going to the Wiggles' Big Show.
I've been in this business a while now, and I know there's not a piece ever been written that's worth the weight of the paper -- or, I guess, the cyberspace it displaces -- if there's no research behind it. Most of you probably know that before Greg, Anthony, and Murray hooked up in an early-children's-ed college program in Sydney and put together their first kids' album as a thesis project, each of them had been part of the Aussie rock scene: Murray in a few different bands, Anthony as "Tony Field" in the Cockroaches, which also featured Jeff -- Jeff Fatt -- on keyboards (one Web site notes that Greg was a Cockroach roadie, although I haven't been able to confirm that). It's all part of well-known Wiggle lore, like Paul meeting George on the school bus. I also learn that the Cockroaches were actually a pretty big band back in the '80s -- a few Australian Top Ten hits -- even if they were unheard of north of the equator. This explains a couple of things: why folks like Tim Finn, ex of the New Zealand bands Split Enz and Crowded House, are always popping up on Wiggles videos and why Greg and Anthony often do Elvis shtick (they both dig the King, and Greg even performed an all-Elvis show in Vegas with a full back-up band). The Wiggles, in a previous life, were real players Down Under with individual musical styles and tastes.
So I've downloaded all this stuff into my brain, and feel ready for Danbury.
The kids are bouncing off the walls of the Sienna en route. I'm feeling great; this is such an obvious home run. Our tickets are waiting and our seats are front and center. The kids stand and marvel at the Big Show set, slowly chewing their popcorn. The twins, who are 3 years old and therefore right in the Wiggles' wheelhouse, are transfixed. They've seen this big-balloon background on television many times before, but here it's so big. Six-year-old Caroline is dripping in sangfroid. I'm sure she has first-grade friends at West Orchard School who, just yesterday, were ribbing her about going to the Wiggles concert. But I look at my elder daughter and can see that, beneath the pose, she's excited -- and not just about the prospect of cotton candy. She was a Greg girl only yesterday, and if this is an oldies show for her, well, oldies shows can be fun.
It reminds me: Back in the late '80s, Luci -- who was then my friend and is now my wife -- called me one afternoon and said, "Hey, I can get a couple of tickets to Paul McCartney tonight at the Meadowlands."
I think I said something like, "Paul? The Meadowlands? Ugh... Well... Geeez... Well, he was a Beatle." And we went. That was the tour when Paul got wise and stopped insisting on nothing but Wings junk, and finally dusted off some of the old catalog. The encore was the entire second side of Abbey Road. It was, in essence, the Great Lost Beatles Concert, and it was fabulous. It was fabulous, I think, because the Beatles were truly special. They were not only the biggest, they were special.
Are the Wiggles special?
They hit the stage and a shriek goes up. Jack jumps to his feet, Caroline gazes in something approaching awe -- the veneer has cracked -- and Mary Grace freaks, burrowing into my shoulder in fear. The Wiggles are waving and smiling, and they open their show brilliantly, by reaching out to the audience (in words, not music). They read all the signs that are being held up high, and they welcome Danbury to the Big Show. It turns out Anthony is more or less the Wiggles emcee.; if Greg is the lead singer, he is less out front at the concert than he is on the videos. All the Wiggles are moving about and waving. Murray's in the audience now, and now he's back onstage and they sing a song. They sing, of course, all the songs -- all the hits -- and they have big production numbers with the Wiggles dancers and they perform set pieces with Dorothy et al. The Captain steals the show on regular occasions, particularly when he dons roller-skates, and on regular occasions the Wiggles actually play their own instruments, throwing 2.5 minutes of that old Cockroach feeling into it (perhaps just for their own amusement). The energy level, on and off the stage, is intense. The Wiggles really put out, in the way the Beatles never did after Hamburg. And they stay in touch with their audience. At one point, a child seems lost; Murray notices, and halts proceedings until he has reunited kid and mom. Another time, when the ritualistic offering of the bones is being done on Wags' behalf, Anthony accepts a large one from a child being held up high by his mother. Anthony notices dismay as the child hands over the outsize, tin-foil-wrapped bone: "Ah, I think you'd like it back? Well, yes, sure."
The mother inquires of her son, then tells Anthony: "No. He wants Wags to have it. He would just like a handshake." Anthony smiles broadly, and shakes hands.
We've seen the Elmo show and Blues Clues and a few others, but they're not a patch on the Wiggles. I think, as I drink in the Big Show, that's because the Wiggles are human (most obviously) but also extremely earnest, caring, childlike. There is nothing ironic about the Wiggles, and this is crucial. Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) once said that if you tried to fool or fib to a kid, you were doomed -- he'd see through it every time. Fred Rogers said something similar. Maybe the Wiggles read about it, or maybe they just know it instinctively. Whatever -- they're on the right wavelength. They may have been Cockroaches once, but they're Wiggles now, and comfortable in their red, yellow, blue, and purple skin.
The Wiggles are special.
The Big Show is over, and I scan the crowd. The kids are satisfied and, in the aftermath, still a-tingle. For our part, Mary Grace (who, after calming down, enjoyed the concert best), Jack, and Caroline are smiling and happy. We take pictures in front of the Big Show set.
As for backstage, that's not happening today -- at least not for the whole gang. That's fine. It might even diminish the magic.
More or less as a courtesy (and because I'm supposed to be "working"), I go to chat briefly with an available Wiggle, who turns out to be Murray. He's as nice as can be, gracious, helpful, and happy. I ask about how big this whole Wigglemania thing has gotten and he says, "It is amazing. It used to be 'What's a Wiggle?' but now everyone's so enthusiastic." I tell him about the DJ talking about the $500 scalped tickets. "Amazing. We hear this stuff, but..." I ask if there are, you know, Wiggleheads -- folks who go from show to show. "Yeah, there are people we see in different towns. I'm not sure who's spurring that, the kids or their parents. In Australia, some of the old Cockroach fans are Wiggles fans." Are any rockers Wiggle fans? "Well, John Fogarty came backstage at one show. Clint Black. The bass player from Blink-182, I heard, is a fan. Seinfeld came backstage once, and DeNiro. That's all very exciting." And who are you a fan of? "I listen to a lot of stuff, the Beatles and the Stones, some crossover stuff. I went to see the Strokes the other night. That was great." I ask, just for something to ask, if the Captain is the Fifth Wiggle or if he's just a character. "Oh, he's more than a dinosaur, sure. You know, Anthony was the original Captain. Paul Paddock was in musical theater, appearing in West Side Story in Sydney. His girlfriend was sharing a house with Anthony's friend, and one night he filled in as the Captain. That's how we met him."
"What's next for the Wiggles?" I ask. "I don't know. We really haven't contemplated life after the Wiggles. We still love it. There are some other Wiggles starting up. There's a Taiwanese Wiggles. They sing our songs and wear the colored jumpers. The red Wiggle's actually a girl; she's five feet tall." Does it ever get overwhelming, all this Wiggling? "Well, there are certainly a lot of pinch-me moments." Thinking about my own kids, I ask about Murray's: Are they huge fans? "They're 9 and 6. I think the Wiggles, for them, are just like any milestone. My son's really into it. My daughter, who's 9, says 'Oh, I think it's quite a good show for kids.'"
It is that, I tell Murray.
And then I do something I've never done.
There are certain rules in this business, and one of them says, "When you're working, you're working." As I say, I've been doing this for too long a time now, and in that time I've gotten to meet some people. Not to drop names, but they've included folks from Clint Eastwood to Tony Bennett to Allen Ginsberg to George W. Bush to Mia Hamm to Steven Spielberg to Chris Evert to Ted Kennedy to my wife's favorite, Emeril. A few years ago, I met Ringo Starr. I have never asked for an autograph.
But now, I think back to 1964. Let's say Artie Sullivan had been able to get backstage at Suffolk Downs, and let's say he had brought back to the Oldsmobile a piece of paper with...
I flip my notebook to a clean page, and ask Murray if he might oblige me. And there he writes, "Hi Caroline, Jack, and Mary Grace! Happy Wiggling, Murray Wiggle."
I head back into the auditorium a hero... if just for one day.
Robert Sullivan is a writer, editor, and major music fan who lives in Westchester County, NY.
Copyright © 2004.