Biography

The Wiggles are a children’s pop musical group formed in Sydney, Australia in 1991. Their original members were Anthony Field, Murray Cook, Greg Page, Jeff Fatt and Phillip Wilcher. In 2006, Page was forced to retire from the group due to illness and was replaced by understudy Sam Moran.

Field and Fatt were members of the Australian pop band The Cockroaches in the 1980s, and Cook was a member of several bands before meeting Field and Page at Macquarie University, where they were studying to become pre-school teachers. A school project led to the recording of their first album and tour in 1991. As a result of their background, the group combines music and theories of child development in their videos, television programs, and live shows. Since their inception, other regular characters (Captain Feathersword, Dorothy the Dinosaur, Henry the Octopus, and Wags the Dog) and a troupe called “The Wiggly Dancers” have toured with them and appeared in their CDs, DVDs, and television programs.

The group has franchised their concepts to other countries, developed Wiggles sections in amusement parks in Australia and the US, and won several recording industry awards. The Wiggles have been called “the world’s biggest preschool band” and “your child’s first rock band”. The group has achieved worldwide success with their children’s albums, videos, television series, and concert appearances. The Wiggles were named Business Review Weekly’s top-earning Australian entertainers for four years in a row and earned AU$45 million in 2007. They have earned seventeen gold, twelve platinum, three double-platinum, and ten multi-platinum awards for sales of over 17 million DVDs and four million CDs. By 2002, The Wiggles had become the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) most successful pre-school television program.

Motivated to utilise early educational concepts to create high-quality children’s music, the classmates created a music project for their classes and produced their first album in 1991, dedicated to Field’s deceased niece. Like a university assignment, they produced a folder of essays that explained the educational value of each song on the album. They needed a keyboardist, so Field asked his old band mate, Fatt, for his assistance in what they thought would be a temporary project. The group received songwriting help from John Field, Anthony’s brother and former band mate, and from Phillip Wilcher, who was working with the early childhood music program at Macquarie. After contributing to their first album, hosting the group’s first recording sessions in his Sydney home, and appearing in a couple of the group’s first videos, Wilcher chose to leave the group to pursue a career in classical music.

The group reworked a few Cockroaches tunes to better fit the genre of children’s music; for example, “Get Ready to Wiggle” inspired the band’s name. Field gave copies of their album to his young students to test out the effect of the music on children; one child’s mother returned it the next day because her child would not stop listening to it. At first, The Wiggles filmed two music videos with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to promote their first album; they also decided to create a self-produced, forty-minute long video version of their album. Finances were limited, so there was no post-production editing of the video project. They used Field’s nieces and nephews as additional cast, and hired the band’s girlfriends to perform in character costumes. They used two cameras and visually checked the performance of each song; that way, it took them less time to complete a forty-minute video than it was to complete a three-minute music video.

Using his connections with The Cockroaches, Field arranged for the ABC to distribute The Wiggles’ album in Australia. Field, Cook, and Page began their teaching careers, but on their manager’s advice, they toured in unusual settings throughout Sydney, New South Wales, and Eastern Australia. Their debut performance was at a pre-school in Randwick. They busked at Circular Quay, performing for crowds debarking from Manly Ferry, and toured in Westfield shopping centres. They performed at pre-schools, and were promoted by local playgroups or nursing mothers’ associations with whom they split their proceeds. Field, Cook, and Page, along with Fatt, decided to give up teaching for a year to focus on performing full-time to see if they could make a living out of it.

As Fatt reported, “it was very much a cottage industry”. They served as their own roadies and travelled in Fatt’s van, towing a trailer with borrowed equipment. The group decided, based upon their previous experiences in the music industry, that they would finance everything themselves and keep the rights to every song, video, and album they produced. John Field and Mike Conway, who later became The Wiggles’ general manager, performed with them. Their act was later augmented with supporting characters: the “friendly pirate” Captain Feathersword and the animal characters Dorothy the Dinosaur, Henry the Octopus, and Wags the Dog. These characters were initially performed by the original members of The Wiggles: Field played Captain Feathersword and Wags; Cook played Dorothy; and Fatt played Henry.

The Wiggles, called by their first names when they performed, adopted colour-coded shirts: Greg in yellow, Murray in red, Jeff in purple, and Anthony in blue. Anthony originally wore green but changed to avoid clashing with Dorothy the Dinosaur.Additionally, each Wiggle developed a “schtick” based on their actual behaviours: Greg performed magic tricks; Murray played the guitar; Jeff fell asleep (as Sam Moran said, “Jeff really does fall asleep”); Anthony liked to eat. These behaviours evolved into caricatures, and served the same purpose as the uniforms in differentiating their characters and making them memorable to young children.

Simple movements were developed by choreographer Leeanne Ashley to accompany each song. One of these simple movements, their signature finger-wagging move, was created by Cook after seeing professional bowlers do it on television. It became the group’s policy to use this pose when being photographed with children. They insisted that touching children, no matter how innocently, was inappropriate. The use of the pose protected them from possible litigation; as Paul Paddick has explained, “There is no doubting where their hands are”. The group incorporated more dancing into their performances after the birth of Field’s oldest daughter in 2004. “So [The] Wiggles have kind of become a bit more, dare I say, girly. Dorothy (the Dinosaur) does ballet now and we dance as well a lot more than we did”, Field reported. The group intentionally made mistakes in their dance moves in order to identify more with their young audience, although their performances were very energetic.

The Wiggles have always invited children with special needs and their families to pre-concert “meet and greet” sessions. According to Fatt, many parents of these children have reported that The Wiggles’ music has enhanced their lives, and that children with autism “respond to [The] Wiggles and nothing else”. Since 1995, The Wiggles have visited and performed for patients at the Sydney Children’s Hospital every Christmas morning. The group has always had a strict code of conduct based on zero tolerance of drug use, drinking, smoking, or bad language by any employee of their organisation.

Through the rest of the 1990s, The Wiggles maintained a busy recording and touring schedule, releasing multiple albums and home videos, and performing to increasingly large audiences in Australia and New Zealand. They produced a new album and video each year and toured to promote it. By 1995, they had set records for video and music sales, and approached the ABC for a television series to create more awareness for the group. They filmed a television pilot for the ABC, but “the project never got off the ground due to irreconcilable artistic differences”. They were told that they could not communicate with children by the ABC, who wanted them to “not speak, just sing”. The ABC insisted that instead of their “trademark colourful skivvies and black trousers”, they wear shorts and caps. The Wiggles responded to this criticism by creating two seasons of a self-produced television series, The Wiggles, which was produced and shown in Australia on Channel Seven and the Disney Channel in 1998 and 1999. They continued their practice of featuring toddlers as performers in these early programs.

In 1998, Disney arranged for the group to perform at Disneyland, where they were discovered by Lyrick Studios, the producers of Barney & Friends. Lyrick was reluctant to sponsor The Wiggles at first, thinking that the band members’ Australian accents might not be acceptable to American audiences, but changed their minds when they tested The Wiggles’ videos with American children. Lyrick began to distribute Wiggles videos in the US, advertised them in their other videos, and hired the group to perform during the intermission of Barney Live stage shows in the US. In 1997, Twentieth Century Fox produced a feature-length film, The Wiggles Movie, which became the fifth-highest grossing Australian film of 1998. For a few years during the late 90s, while “riding an enormous wave of success in America and the UK”, The Wiggles travelled in two planes and on two buses so that if disaster occurred, “at least half of them would survive and carry on”. After it proved to be a logistical nightmare, they ended the practice, although by 2007, they travelled in two separate buses between cities.

As they had done in Australia, The Wiggles depended upon grass-roots efforts to promote themselves in the US. One of their first appearances was at a Blockbuster Video parking lot. The videos were distributed in boutique stores such as FAO Schwartz and Zany Brainy, and on-line. They performed at small venues such as church halls and 500 seat theatres in Brooklyn and New Jersey. When tickets to their shows sold out, they moved to larger arenas such as the Beacon Theatre and Madison Square Garden. Their “strong connection” with the US was “forged in the shell-shocked weeks after the terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001,” when The Wiggles performed there, even when other acts cancelled their tours. Paul Field reported that “New York has really embraced them. It was a kind of watershed”. The decision earned them respect and loyalty in the US. They performed 12 sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in 2003, and have been in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the first time in 2001. In 2003, 1 November was declared “Wiggles Day” in New York City.

Strong sales of The Wiggles videos eventually caught the attention of the Disney Channel, who was impressed by their “strong pro-social message”. In January 2002, Disney began showing a Wiggles video clip between programs of its morning Playhouse Disney block. By June of that year, the popularity of these interstitials prompted the Disney Channel to add both seasons of “The Wiggles” to the Playhouse Disney program schedule, showing full episodes multiple times per day. In 2002, The Wiggles filmed four seasons worth of shows exclusively with the ABC: “Lights, Camera, Action, Wiggles” aired on Channel 7 in 2003, “The Wiggles Show” in 2004 and 2005, and “Wiggle and Learn” in 2008. The network called them “the most successful property that the ABC has represented in the pre-school genre”. Paul Field reported that a meeting at a New York licensing fair with Grahame Grassby, the ABC’s acting director of enterprises, led to the ABC’s “enthusiastic” agreement to produce The Wiggles’ TV shows.

Their success in music and television has led to extensive merchandising of Wiggles-branded books, toys, clothing, and other products for children by the Toronto-based toy company Spin Master since 2003. In 2005, the group franchised its concept to other countries, branching into Taiwan and Latin American markets with versions of Mandarin- and Spanish-speaking Wiggles. By 2007, The Wiggles employed 20 full-time workers in offices in Sydney and Dallas, Texas, as well as another 30 employees on their tours. They opened their own recording and film studios in Sydney, called “Hot Potato Studios”. They were the first pre-school production company in Australia to shoot their videos and TV programs in high-definition. The Wiggles became formally consolidated in 2005. The original four members serve as the group’s only directors; Paul Field has been general manager of operations since the group was formed, and Mike Conway has been general manager since 2001.

In December 2005, lead singer and founding member Page, at age 33, underwent a double hernia operation. He withdrew from The Wiggles’ US tour in June 2006 after suffering fainting spells, lethargy, nausea, and loss of balance. He returned to Australia, where doctors diagnosed his condition as orthostatic intolerance, a chronic but not life-threatening condition. Page’s final performance with The Wiggles was in Kingston, Rhode Island.

On 30 November 2006, the Wiggles announced Page’s retirement from the group. “I’ll miss being a part of The Wiggles very much, but this is the right decision because it will allow me to focus on managing my health”, Page said in a taped message posted on the group’s webpage. Page was replaced by Sam Moran, who had served as an understudy for The Wiggles for five years and had already stood in for Page on 150 shows. Initially, The Wiggles struggled over their decision to replace Page, but they decided to continue as a group because they thought that was what their young audience would want. They decided to be “honest” with their audience about Page’s illness because it provided a “teachable moment” and an opportunity to demonstrate to young children that it was “part of life”, as Fatt said.

Although Moran’s transition as The Wiggles’ lead singer was “smooth” for the young children of their audience, it was more difficult for their parents. Cook reported that Moran did well as a Wiggle, and that the addition of Moran changed their sound, forced the group to rethink things, and made the band stronger. Although Moran struggled with the spontaneity of The Wiggles’ stage performances, Cook said, “We’ve never felt like we had to carry him or anything. He’s a smart guy. But it is a bit different, just having a different person on stage”. Moran’s background in musical theatre was different from that of his band mates, so The Wiggles had to change the way they recorded their music. At sound checks, their practice was to improvise, but Moran often did not know the songs the other three used at those times. Cook reported that it took some time for Moran, but a year after Page’s retirement stated, “We’re slowly educating each other”. Moran was featured in his first DVD and CD as a member of the group in early 2008, and a sixth season of The Wiggles’ television series featuring Moran was filmed and began airing in Australia.

In September 2005, Australia’s largest theme park, Dreamworld in Queensland, opened a “Wiggles World” section, which included a Big Red Car ride and a full set for production purposes. The band received licensing rights and sign-off rights for every aspect of the section’s operation. Staff at Dreamworld had to take a “Wiggles boot camp”, to ensure they followed The Wiggles’ code of conduct when dealing with children and their families. Driven by the Dreamworld success, Six Flags opened its first “Wiggles World” section at their largest theme park at Jackson, New Jersey in April 2007, and planned to open 20 more at its parks across the U.S. in the next decade. The sections emphasised family involvement; they offered joint rides on which parents and children could equally participate. In 2008, Six Flags announced their intentions to open parks with Wiggles World sections in Dubai and across the Arab world.

At the end of 2007, The Wiggles donated their complete back catalogue of 27 master tapes to Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive. Also in 2007, The Wiggles organisation built a digital recording and television studio in Sydney called “Hot Potato Studios”, for the purpose of creating their own DVDs and CDs. In 2008, they began to offer downloads of Wiggles ringtones and songs, and streaming video on an on-demand website. By April 2009, however, The Wiggles began charging for access to many previously free services on their website, but after fan complaints, the free message board was reinstated. Also in 2008, The Wiggles made a deal with Volkswagen (VW) to help the company promote its automobiles. Road safety brochures were made available at Wiggles concerts and VW dealerships.

Edited by IRONICtypo on 23 Apr 2011, 14:24

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