Four years ago, Rich Collins and his band were largely unknown when they came to Charleston for a show.
They left feeling like stars.
"Charleston will always have a special place in our hearts," said Collins, who with Scott Durbin, Dave Poche and Scott "Smitty" Smith form the kid-pop group Imagination Movers.
In March 2005, the New Orleans-based group played at the first FamJam festival held by the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry. They also played the event in 2007.
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"We played probably our favorite road show ever our first time through Charleston," said Collins, 40. "It was at the Charleston Music Hall, and there was this really nice stage, in a nice-size room with a built-in light show.
"We drove up there in our van, and we went in there and we had lights, a haze machine and everything, like we're this big-time rock 'n' roll band.
"That was one of our first tastes of what it would be like to go out to another city and have a good crowd."
Now, they are that "big-time rock 'n' roll band" with a hit Disney Channel TV show. And when they return to Charleston for shows this week, they will be bringing their own sets and special effects and playing to a new set of preschool Gearheads, their name for fans.
GETTING A START
Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, Collins moved to New Orleans in the 1990s to be closer to his wife's family.
There, he met the men - husbands and dads - with whom he would form the Imagination Movers, America's answer to the Australian sensation The Wiggles.
Always interested in music, Collins played in several bands and worked as an entertainment reporter for a weekly paper in New Orleans, where "I got to interview tons of people I admire," he said.
He and his wife, Becky, the parents of five children, have a long history with the other members of the group and their wives: Durbin, a teacher and father of two; Poche, an architect with two children; and Smith, a firefighter who is married without children. Some of them have known each other their entire lives; others went to college together.
"We are friends in real life," Collins said.
In 2003, Durbin dreamed up the idea for Imagination Movers. Initially, the men worked their day jobs, then met in each other's homes a couple of nights a week after their "general husband and father duties" to write and play music, typically working from about 9 p.m. to midnight.
They describe their music as alternative rock for kids or "Beastie Boys meets Mr. Rogers." Within that rock sound are songs about subjects they know well: topics such as messy rooms, healthy snacks, sibling rivalry and being scared of the dark.
Their motto is to "reach high, think big, work hard and have fun!"
With nine kids between them, they have their own test market right in their own houses.
"I feel like I am inspired by my kids," Collins said. "They really enjoy hearing the music and they watch episodes of the show. My two little ones are smack-dab in our target demo. My 3-year-old is so immersed in it. She wants to watch the (show) 10 times in a row, but then she knows Wendy, who plays Nina, in real life. I think the show and real life are all mixed up in her head."
HITTING THE BIG TIME
By 2005, the Imagination Movers started playing a few concerts around the Southeast. Then, on Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans and three of the Movers lost their homes and most of their possessions. Smith's house in a higher part of town sustained wind damage.
Scattered in hotels with their families, the quartet didn't know what the future held, but they knew they had a show scheduled the next Saturday in Dallas, and they decided to honor their commitment.
They bought new blue jumpsuits, their signature outfits, and borrowed instruments. As a firefighter, Smith was involved in search-and-rescue and cleanup efforts in New Orleans and skipped a couple of shows.
The first song they recorded in the wake of the storm was "We Got Each Other." Now, they credit the Katrina experience with teaching them about what really matters and keeping them grounded.
Over the following couple of years, they made three critically acclaimed independent CDs: "Calling All Movers," "Good Ideas" and "Eight Feet." And they started playing more concerts.
Collins, who also works the controls in the recording studio, was the first to give up his day job.
Soon they were noticed. Disney representatives saw them at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and signed them to a deal. They released their award-winning CD "Juice Box Heroes" in March 2008.
"We are very proud of our accomplishments, from basically sitting around in our living rooms dreaming up this idea, and working bit by bit through all the unbelievably unglamorous parts to make it happen," Collins said.
In September 2008, they debuted a series on the Disney Channel that is part of the Playhouse Disney programming block for preschoolers. The show is one of the channel's biggest hits. Now in its second season, it airs in 40 countries and in 12 languages.
"It's hilarious to us that some child in Mumbai is watching these four guys in New Orleans," Collins said.
Their latest CD, "For Those About to Hop," came out earlier this year and features songs from the first season of their TV series.
They won a Daytime Emmy last month for outstanding original song in the children's show/animation category for their song "Boing, Cluck Cluck," which is on that CD.
THE NATIONAL TOUR
On Saturday, they left New Orleans on a 40-city coast-to-coast tour that will stop in Charleston for two shows Wednesday. The tour ends in Spokane, Wash., on Dec. 13.
"This is our first-ever tour of this scale," Collins said. "Now we have tour buses, 18-wheelers with our sets and all the rock 'n' roll rigmarole. We've been rock stars in our heads for seven years now.
"To finally have some of the trappings of a real rock band and a real rock tour is great. In our indie-rock days, we had to do the best we could on a small budget. Now we have an actual crowd behind us."
Collins said he is hoping some of the people who came to their earlier Charleston shows will come see them again.
"We are all looking forward to being back there," he said. "Charleston is a highlight of the tour for us."
The live show will include about 15 of the Movers' favorite songs with a narrative threading them together. It will have the same premise as the Disney show, with the Movers brain-storming to solve "idea emergencies" in their Idea Warehouse.
"It's a nice hybrid of a real rock concert with guys playing instruments and making magic right then and there and our Disney show," Collins said. "That gives it unpredictability and can make for some really exciting moments.
"We'll still use all of our gadgets, so it will feel like an episode, but also a cool concert."
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Imagination Movers' tour comes to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center for two shows Wednesday.
TIMES: 3 and 7 p.m.
INFO: (843) 529-5000 or www.imaginationmovers.com. Tickets are $18.50 to $39.50.
TUNE IN: "Imagination Movers" airs weekdays at 9:30 a.m. and weekends at 10 a.m. on Disney Channel.