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By RON KAMPEAS
BALTIMORE, Md. -- Would you entrust your toddlers to four middle-aged guys with five-o-clock shadow, funny accents and a tendency to, well, wiggle?
Parents are doing it in droves.
A sold-out fall tour of the East Coast, a top-rated cable show and thriving video sales suggest that The Wiggles -- three Australian kindergarten teachers joined by an ex-rocker -- are on the cusp of becoming for preschoolers what the Beatles were for their ancestors.
And with parental consent.
"The Wiggles bring us so much joy," gushed Patti Capristo, lugging an expertly wiggling 2-year-old Katey to an hour-long concert after driving 75 miles through driving rain from Wilmington, Del.
Joy? A word probably not associated often with a certain purple dinosaur, or even a postmodern blue dog.
Even The Wiggles have been caught off guard.
"To be on the air against shows of the caliber of Blue's Clues, Sesame Street -- it's just an incredible honor," said Greg Page, who started the band with three friends 11 years ago. "We just wanted to do one album of children's songs."
Page, the lead singer, was studying early childhood education with Anthony Field (vocals/guitar/drums) and Murray Cook (guitar) at Sydney's Macquarie University. They recorded a cassette as part of their coursework, adding keyboardist Jeff Fatt, an alumnus, with Field, of The Cockroaches, a 1980s garage band that had charted in Australia.
Cook handed a copy of the cassette to a mother at the preschool where he was training, and she returned it the next day saying her daughter's repeated playings were driving her nuts.
"We realized we had connected," said Page. They hired a manager.
Appearances in suburban homes soon blossomed into an Australian phenomenon: The Wiggles are now among their country's top 10 entertainment earners -- along with the likes of Russell Crowe and Kylie Minogue -- and tour 10 months out of the year.
"The Wiggles" is Playhouse Disney's top-rated show (weekdays 8:30 and 9 a.m. EST), beating the Pooh- and Mouse-fare that is the channel's trademark, according to Disney Channel vice president Jill Casagrande. They nip at the heels of Nickelodeon's timeslot opposites, "SpongeBob" and "Bob the Builder."
They have sold close to 4 million videos in the United States (and an astonishing 3 million in Australia, a nation of just 20 million), and a three-video package is rated 10th in Amazon's overall VHS sales. Their 14-city November tour sold out in days.
Casagrande says Disney was unprepared for the response to The Wiggles. After airing their songs between shows on the commercial-free channel, "we were flooded with calls demanding a show. That's when we recognized how popular the group is." The Wiggles' show started airing this summer.
U.S. exposure began in 2000, when Lyrick Studios featured a Wiggles song at the beginning of its Barney videos. Parents saw the signs of life -- dancing and singing -- that the two minutes sparked in their toddlers, in contrast to the zombie trances typically induced by such videos.
"They dance, even my 8-year-old, although she'd die if her friends knew," said Jennifer Berger, a Schaumberg, Ill., homemaker who runs a Wiggles fan site.
The Wiggles are as musically tight as a rock 'n' roll outfit that has toured for 11 years. A highlight of the live show -- and a nod to the grown-ups -- is improvised celebrity impressions from audience suggestions. In Baltimore, they moved easily from Madonna to Eminem to Celine Dion.
Their self-penned songs are deceptively simple and repetitive -- "Hot potato, cold spaghetti, mashed banana" is an entire lyric -- but have complex harmonies, shifting rhythms and joyous, brassy counterpoints. The styles are varied, ranging from classic rock to calypso, reggae and swing.
The dances, involving waving, jumping, kicking and, yes, wiggling are calibrated to get toddlers to move. If anything, the performers' own obvious limitations -- "We don't claim to be dancers," Page says -- make the moves seem more accessible.
The teaching component is invisible, reflecting the band's training in early childhood education -- Page still reads the education journals -- and a relaxed Australianism. Where a lesson about tolerance might be applied with a moral mallet on a U.S. kids' show, The Wiggles get it across by switching from a Hebrew song to a Maori one to an Aboriginal one, as if the differences simply don't matter.
"They're real," said Michael Howe of Wilmington, Del., parent to 22-month-old William. "They're not saccharin."
The Wiggles attach a lot of importance to their status as male role models. "Studying to be teachers, we were amazed to learn how many children have single mothers, don't have father figures," Page said.
They come across like favorite uncles: at first, mortifyingly eager to please -- but ultimately persuasive. Each wears a bright color and an equally easy-to-spot personality. Greg (yellow) is clear-headed, Murray (red) is nurturing, Anthony (blue) is hyper and Jeff (purple), the only non-teacher in the group, falls asleep. Paul Paddick is the "fifth Wiggle," the tickling, whooping Captain Feathersword the pirate.
Then, there's the matter of the mommies and Anthony.
"He has a sparkle in his eyes, they twinkle," says Jennifer Berger. "The man is very handsome."
"All the little girls like Anthony," says Patti Capristo. "The big girls too."
Is the group aware of this particular secret of their success? Perhaps, but they won't wiggle there.
"We gauge our success on 'are we producing good quality videos and shows and CDs?"' Page said. "The other stuff we treat as a joke, in fun."