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A BLOCK PARTY FOR KIDS

Call them New Kids on the (Trading) Block. This adolescent dream team peddled $150-million worth of recordings, concert tickets and merchandise to adoring fans in the past year. Call them New Kids on the (Chopping) Block. Just as many critics have lampooned the group's fresh-faced image and falsetto harmonies. Many barbs are aimed at Maurice Starr, founder of teen-pop sensations New Edition and New Kids on the Block. Starr's shrewd packaging has turned these Kids' lives into a Block party.

"It's like finding all the pieces to a map, and you win $50-million," Starr told a Washington Post reporter, adding that he was looking for "a look and charisma. I can teach anybody how to sing, so I didn't worry about that."

His first find was 16-year-old Donnie Wahlberg, who impressed Starr with his rapping abilities. Wahlberg, recruited a break-dancing buddy, Danny Wood, and they soon invited brothers Jordan and Jon Knight to join the group. Jon was the oldest at 17. The Kids still needed to find a pubescent male presence and hired 13-year-old Joe McIntyre as the Donnie Osmond/Michael Jackson archetype.

Intensive dancing and singing training programs sharpened an appreciation for black music styles gained by living in Boston. None of the members play instruments onstage. Starr broke the act in with a rhythm-and-blues audience that booed its first performances. Within two years, the Kids would earn standing ovations at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

The Kids were not immediate Block-busters on record charts, either. A 1986 self-titled debut album fizzled in the black radio market to which it was promoted. Two years passed before Starr manufactured a follow-up, Hanging Tough. It languished on the charts for months until teen magazines pumped out New Kids on the Block propaganda, part of Starr's superb marketing plan. Soon there were a half-dozen paperback biographies, shirts, posters and canny tour dates, including 45 Grad Night parties at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

Results were immediate and stunning _ critical and cultish. Reviewers dismissed the band as a homogenized New Edition, derivative but falling short of the Jackson 5. Much has been written about Starr's blueprint for prefabricated stardom and his reported influence over the Kids.

"Some people think we have no talent and that Maurice is this crook Svengali-type puppeteer," Wahlberg told Rolling Stone in an interview last year. "And that's a lot of garbage. Especially with kid acts, people think there's got to be evil stage parents or evil, greedy adults behind you. We're not Menudo. Danny's not going to get replaced if he grows a mustache. We know who we are, and we're not puppets. There are no strings."

The general public isn't completely sold, either. In the current issue of Rolling Stone, the Kids were cited for the Worst Group, Album, Single and Tour in a readers' poll. Like the Osmonds and Menudo before them, New Kids on the Block are typecasted as bubble-gum pop-playing nerds by some older, rock-oriented listeners.

That shouldn't matter to the Kids. There are enough faithful followers, mostly female and adolescent or younger, who invest money in their merchandise and time memorizing fanzine facts. They can recite each member's favorite food, first kiss and pet peeve. They can also purchase more than 10-million audio and video units and make this current tour a constant sellout in 148 dates.

Six Top 40 singles have catapulted all three New Kids albums to platinum status. Three American Music Awards proved that a segment of the nation loves them. Plans are in the works for a Saturday morning cartoon show and an action/adventure movie.

Even detractors cannot deny that the Kids' positive influence on their youthful fans. Members take a staunch anti-drug stand in interviews and on-stage patter. New Kids has been a frequent contributor to charities, especially United Cerebral Palsy, which received a portion of the receipts for the Top 10 single This One's for the Children. Terminally ill children have met the group through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Those acts are positive and public, but the Kids have a hard time understanding their effect upon the private lives of fans they never meet.

"Are we that powerful that someone can see our face and miracles happen through us? It doesn't seem possible," Wahlberg said in The Washington Post. "People say: "I went to the concert, and Jordan sang so great on This One's For The Children that I was healed.' Or "Donnie made a great speech, and now I'm drug-free.'

"It's an amazing thing."

New Kids believers and those who aren't would agree with that.

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