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Watching your son skyrocket to stardom in New Kids on the Block

Alma Wahlberg pulls back the curtain on the summer that launched the music careers of her son and his four friends — and initiated a cultural phenomenon.
/ Source: TODAY

All week long, TODAY is marking the 30th anniversary of the summer of 1989 with a look back at some of the notable (and not-so-notable) people, milestones and moments from that wild and crazy time.

Back in 1988, Alma Wahlberg knew what was coming, even if the rest of the world didn’t. She saw it in plain sight, happening right in her Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. New Kids on the Block, the local group of music-making heartthrobs that included her son Donnie, was going to be incredibly famous.

New Kids On The Block
In the summer of 1989, New Kids on the Block reigned as the kings of pop culture. Kevin Winter / Getty Images

“I mean famous,” she told TODAY. “I don’t mean everybody in Dorchester is gonna know who they are. I’m thinking the whole world will know who they are.”

It’s been three decades since, so we know how that prophecy turned out. By the summer of 1989 — five years after music entrepreneur Maurice Starr formed the group with hopes of re-creating the success of his R&B quintet New Edition — the hysteria surrounding Donnie Wahlberg, his middle school pal Danny Wood, brothers Jordan and Jonathan Knight, and youngster Joey McIntyre indeed culminated into something close to global domination in the pop culture sphere.

Photo of New Kids on the Block & Maurice Starr
Maurice Starr, the music producer who formed New Kids on the Block, poses with the band in 1990. Ron Pownall Photography / Getty Images

Unlike other boy bands who had brief runs on the charts before the shrieking girls moved on to their next fixation, New Kids on the Block inspired a longer-lasting frenzy. What happened with the group was rare. And we know that because people still talk about it, examine it and sell out tours.

“I don’t mean everybody in Dorchester is gonna know who they are. I’m thinking the whole world will know who they are.”

Alma Wahlberg, who’s been stealing fans’ hearts since the 2014 debut of “Wahlburgers,” the reality show centered on the Wahlberg family burger chain, has an idea as to why. Before the whole global domination thing, when the guys were just buzz on Massachusetts radio stations, she saw in them an energy that was hard to pinpoint.

Wahlburgers Grand Opening
Alma Wahlberg, the now famous mother of New Kids member Donnie Wahlberg, knew from the get-go that the band would take off. Marc Andrew Deley / FilmMagic

“There was just something about them” is a phrase she repeated often when reflecting on their early days.

Whatever that something was, New Kids on the Block had it. And Alma Wahlberg can name the moment she knew for sure that they did: when the band won over the Apollo Theater’s tough Amateur Night crowd in the spring of 1988. Taking place after the April 1988 release of their single “Please Don’t Go Girl,” the performance was met with such a positive response that the Apollo asked them to come back in the fall for a TV broadcast.

“I looked at Donnie when they were through, and he said, ‘What did you think?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? You guys are unbelievable,’” Alma remembered. “I mean, I knew they were good. But to actually see them, the music, the stage, everything. I knew at that moment, ‘This is it; they’re going to be famous.’”

Fast forward to Oct. 7, 1988, to when the New Kids appeared on “Showtime at the Apollo,” a career-defining event that catapulted this group of dreamy dudes into superstardom and set the tone for a following year defined by absolute pandemonium.

New Kids on the Block's second album, "Hangin' Tough," reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in September 1989.
New Kids on the Block's second album, "Hangin' Tough," reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in September 1989. Amazon

By 1989, the Block party had commenced, escalated and was thriving as a full-fledged rager — and everybody had an invite. NKOTB was on top of the world.

For the guys, this meant living at the center of constant hysteria, a climate that couldn’t have been easy for a group of adolescents on the brink of adulthood. It was even less easy for a mom whose family was thrown into it by proxy.

“They never had a moment of privacy,” Alma said. “Not a moment ever. ... It. Was. Crazy. I had to have policemen outside my house 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And ‘no trespassing’ signs. Every time I looked out my window there were, oh, God, hundreds of girls out there.”

She embraced the band’s fame where she could. She said she and the other guys’ mothers started the band’s very first fan club. “At first it was nice. The next thing you know we’re renting an office, we’re hiring people. That’s how big it was getting. But I loved every minute of it.”

New Kids On The Block On Tour 1989-'90 File Photos
Jordan Knight sings to a group of fans at New Kids on the Block show in 1989.L. Busacca / WireImage

The New Kids on the Block obsession translated in the charts, too. When the summer of 1989 rolled around, the band’s infectious bops were possessing national radio stations.

“I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 on June 17. “Hangin’ Tough” later topped the chart on Sept. 9, the same day its eponymous album clocked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (about a year after its release). The band’s first album, “New Kids on the Block,” which hardly garnered attention when released in 1986, even charted at its peak of No. 25 by year’s end.

The demand to see NKOTB live had also reached a fever pitch. The group served as an opening act for pop singer Tiffany when they first hit the road in the summer of ‘89. By the end of the tour, Tiffany was opening for them.

Jonathan Knight;Tiffany;Jordan Knight
Pop singer Tiffany with Jordan and Jonathan Knight of New Kids. Robin Platzer / The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

The force of the fame and frenzy took some adjusting, sure, but it was also exciting and brought along blessings that were never lost on Alma — or the guys.

“When I think about it, I had nine children, three girls and six boys, and they gave me a run for my money,” she said. “What it took to survive — I mean, I had to get welfare food for God’s sake. So it was really tough.”

Her family’s financial situation did improve as the band’s fortunes rose, she acknowledges, but with that came some fears, too.

“I was getting nervous that I don’t want this to get carried away and think they’re, you know, all that,” Alma acknowledged. “I want them to appreciate this. And they did.”

Some might say Maurice Starr, with his fierce determination and ear for a catchy bop, is truly responsible for the New Kids boom that culminated in 1989. That and millions of boy-crazy fans around the world.

Ask Alma Wahlberg, and she boils the source of the infatuation down to something simple that was baked into their character.

“I don’t want this to get carried away and think they’re, you know, all that. I want them to appreciate this. And they did.”

“The bottom line is, they were good kids,” she said. “They didn’t think they were all this and that. They were just good kids. You could tell they really cared about each other. To me that was the key.”

But perhaps the real main ingredient in the recipe for a sensational boy band is something even more simple: a mother’s confidence.

“There was no doubt in my mind,” she said. “And Donnie says to this day, ‘My mother knew. She said everybody in the world is going to know who we are.’”