Climbing the Charts Step by Step, the Jets Move Closer to Becoming Pop's Next Family Dynasty

updated 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Down in the dressing room at the old Warner Theater in Erie, Pa., the world's only Tongan-American rock band, the Jets, is getting ready to attack the stage. Fans of the band—made up of eight brothers and sisters whose parents emigrated from the South Pacific's tiny kingdom of Tonga—can't wait. "This is the biggest thing that's happened in Erie in 21 years," says one devotee, who's lived exactly that long. "I hear the Jets's music all over town. They're going to be famous!"

Don't bet against it. The eight oldest of Mike and Vake Wolfgramm's 14 children (two by adoption), the Jets specialize in a funky brand of bubble gum pop that's made Crush on You a Top 5 single. Their debut album, The Jets, is No. 29 on Billboard's Top Pop chart, a follow-up single, Private Number, is poised for takeoff, and with a national tour under way, the group hopes to become as well known as such famous musical families as the Jacksons and the Osmonds before the summer's out. That's not as farfetched as it sounds. Signed to a multimillion-dollar, seven-album record deal with MCA, the Wolfgramms—Leroy and Eddie, both 20, Eugene, 19, Haini, 18, Rudy, 17, Kathi, 15, Elizabeth, 13, and Moana, 12—have a 10-year plan for stardom that includes a TV-sitcom pilot and a cartoon series. "When the Jets are done," declares manager Don Powell, 41, "I want them set for life."

Eight years ago, the family seemed set on an uncertain road to musical obscurity, performing as a Polynesian revue in Hawaiian restaurants throughout the Midwest and Canada. Traveling in an unheated van and napping in highway rest areas, the family survived on bologna sandwiches, water and ambition. "My children learn how to survive, how to work," says father Mike, 42, a beefy optimist whose English still lurches, after two decades in the U.S. "They learn it takes hard work to make it."

A carpenter in Tonga (an archipelago that is the last of the ancient Polynesian monarchies), Mike moved with his wife, Vake, to America in 1965. Settling in Salt Lake City, Mike, a Mormon, supported his ever-growing brood by working in a grocery store and doing lawn work, while his older boys formed a pop band that played family parties. By 1978, when Mike quit his job, the future Jets were in formation, with Vake singing lead vocals. Mike decided to buy a van, outfitted it with folding chairs and chauffered his musical clan from date to date. After a Minneapolis hotel they were booked into went bankrupt in 1981, they settled in the city and found local gigs. "Dad always said one person would know how to get us to the top," says group percussionist Eugene. That person was Powell. A former Motown manager who once worked with the Jacksons, he had quit show business to help run his family's successful auto dealership in Minneapolis and had no interest in getting back into the pop music world. But Powell changed his mind in 1984 when he caught the family act, which was now straight pop rather than ersatz Don Ho. "They were magic," Powell says. "Not yet polished, but they worked the audience like no kids since the Jacksons."

Powell put up $850,000, part of which financed a four-song demo recording and got the family out of the van and into a luxurious tour bus. "It's a big risk in this business," Powell says, "but when you make it, and the Jets are going to make it, the money comes in bushel baskets."

The Wolfgramms will take the money (a 10-bedroom house in Minneapolis is planned for next year), but "family is most important," says Vake, a vivacious 39-year-old who, since calling her own stage career quits in 1981, travels with the Jets as creative consultant and spiritual adviser. "In Tonga," she says, "we believe children are a gift." Bible study sessions doubling as family meetings are held on the road each week, says Vake, who creates the kids' costumes and sees to their continuing education through correspondence courses and tutoring. (The two oldest boys are high school graduates.) "We talk about problems, then we try to change the problems, so the kids will go through the week with a lighter, happier feeling."

Stuck at home with relatives, most of the younger, nonperforming Wolfgramms eagerly await the day when they can join their siblings onstage. Next in line for takeoff is 11-year-old Jennifer, who accompanied the family to Erie. "I can't wait to be a Jet," she exclaims backstage. "I love this!" Whether the Jets ever equal the Jack-sons as a musical dynasty remains to be seen. But with six other children, including 4-month-old Donny, who, Leroy says, "cries in tune," the family talent pool is hardly running dry.

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