June 19, 1989 12:00 PM

Onstage, Donnie Wahlberg is asking the question everyone in the Tupperware Convention Center came to answer. “Orlando!” he shouts. “I’m only going to ask you one time: Are you ready to rock and roll?” The response that washes over him assures him that, yes, the crowd is ready to rock and roll and, yes, they’re also ready for New Kids on the Block, which has sold out the center, just down the road from Disney World. Then the New Kids, five Boston vocalists, go into their act, winking, grinning and dancing their way through their hits “The Right Stuff” and “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).” They are clean-cut, bright-eyed and almost excruciatingly wholesome, and if they seem like an Anglo version of Menudo—well, that’s the whole idea. It works like crazy. When Jordan Knight jumps into the audience, “about 10 girls grabbed me,” he later reports. “They grabbed my hair, ripped my vest off and divided it. It was great for me, but it was scary for the bodyguards.”

This bloodlust enthusiasm is something new for the New Kids, whose first album, released in 1986, sold a paltry 90,000 copies. The second, Hangin’ Tough, has passed the two-million mark and has earned the band a six-year contract with Columbia. The band—Wahlberg, 19, Knight, 18, his brother Jonathan, 20, Danny Wood, 19, and Joseph McIntyre, 16—was invented by producer-songwriter Maurice Starr (with then-manager Mary Alford) to meet a perceived need. In 1983, Starr had created New Edition—hot, young, wholesome and black. “There was Menudo, who were great role models for Spanish kids,” says Wahlberg, “and New Edition for young black kids. But for white teenage kids, you had the Beastie Boys, who were throwing beer off the stage and stuff like that.” Presto! The New Kids. Their gestures are controlled, their outfits from the Gap, and they propound a non-beer-tossing, antidrug message.

The fivesome were friends at Boston’s Trotter School when the band was formed and, says Wahlberg, “in the first years I think our friendship carried us through.” Since April the Kids have been on the road without letup, often as a guest act for Tiffany. “Our tour buses are just like home,” says Wood. “You have the living room, VCR, stereo, refrigerator, cooler, bathroom, and there are the beds. We love it.” But don’t think they’re going Van Halen. “We call home,” says Wood reassuringly. “We call our mothers and fathers.” Manager Dick Scott couldn’t be happier. “If I had to get [these kids] from central casting,” he says, beaming, “they couldn’t be more Middle America.”

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