Pillbox

The Wiggles

From five thousand kids and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the river, it rattled in the dell;
But the kids came downtown not to watch McCutchen hit the ball;
For the Wiggles, mighty Wiggles, were advancing to the hall.

The Australian children’s band drew throngs of excited children and their parents to the Wiggle Town tour’s stop at Byham Theater on Sept. 27. Children trailed by their families trickled under the flashing marquee and through the glass doors. Some rode on their parents’ shoulders and some excitedly skipped down Sixth St., thrilled to see their favorite band in person. Their parents, rather than the beleaguered faces I assumed would line the theater, seemed just as excited to see their kids watch the Wiggles as the kids were. The Byham Theater, which rose in place of a famed vaudeville theater, was set to be the new home of many family memories.

There was an atmosphere of such anticipation as families began to arrive. The temperature began to drop as the wind blew off the Allegheny River and many of the children coming through the door had been whisked from an afternoon nap. They needed the energy to match their excitement for the show. For many of the children, maybe even most of them, it was the first show they ever saw. Some hadn’t fully woken up when we went to ask them questions, but as they did, they became more eager to tell us their favorite Wiggle or their favorite song. Their parents joyfully helped them along, trying to simplify our questions — I’m not very good at talking to children — and seemed to revel in the whole experience.

One woman stood near the door, waiting for her nieces to arrive. She had seen the Wiggles before; she took her daughter at one point. She described that show as “amazing,” and though her daughter decided she was too old for the Wiggles this time, the rest of the family certainly didn’t agree.

The continuous stream of Kodak moments never seemed to stop. A woman even walked in with a Dorothy the Dinosaur costume flanked by two miniature Wiggles on either side of her. Children’s activities are often meant to be silly, but it’s hard to remember how fun that is when you’ve cast it off as childlike and immature. I never made it inside the actual show, but just a glimpse of the people coming in was necessary to know what the night meant to them.

As more people began to come down the street it wasn’t hard to tell who would continue across the Roberto Clemente Bridge to watch the Pirates’ gasping playoff hopes finally die and who would slip into the theater. More than a few of the children were decked out in the Wiggles’ signature monochromatic turtlenecks and some had even donned face paint for the occasion. Emma Watkins, also known as Yellow Wiggle, was a particularly popular costume choice among the young fans. Maybe it’s a quirk of Pittsburgh’s sports team logos that nearly every girl mimicked Watkins’ yellow turtleneck and black skirt, but it showed the power of representation that she resonated so strongly.

And it would be a natural progression the Wiggles would strike a chord with so many girls; the story of the band begins with a young girl. The tragic origin the Wiggles can be traced to the death of founder Anthony Field’s young niece as Field was trying to gain a foothold in the music industry. The heartbreak gave him a profound sense of empathy for young children, something that would later become a thread through everything the Wiggles founder accomplished. Fields went on to study early childhood education before founding the Wiggles, who continue to donate to SIDS research and prevention.

It was there, in the vaudeville house that saw its new life as a cinema and then again as a theater, that Field’s memories of his niece saw new life in the children’s music that Field creates and again in the moments the families in attendance will never forget.

Oh somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
And Tuesday night that was in Pittsburgh — the Wiggles left no doubt.