Fred Penner, Both he, and the cat, came back
By Cece M. Scott cecescott.com
Fred Penner, started his career some 46 years ago. Initially, when he took to the stage, he considered himself an actor and a musician, and performed for audiences of all ages. “I didn’t study music formally; it was more that I grew up around a wealth of music,” says Penner. “My parents were into swing era and orchestral music, and my siblings played 50s and 60s music. This vast array of sound got inside of me and encouraged me to step forward and make a career out of music.”
Now 72, Penner is best known as a children’s entertainer, and received the Order of Canada in 1991.
Penner’s sister, Suzie, was born with Down Syndrome, and was an important source of inspiration for him. Music deeply affected Suzie, often bringing her to joyful tears. “It gave me a sense of what music was capable of doing. It formed my foundation.”
Throughout high school and university, Penner worked with kids in treatment centres, who had physical or behavioural challenges. Music became a logical part of his connection with them. Towards the end of the 1970s, Penner and his ex-wife, Odette Heyn, founded the children’s dance company – Sundance. Shortly after, Penner recorded The Cat Came Back in 1979. “The value of the power of music, to connect with multiple generations, was highly evident,” says Penner.
With an eye on Penner, CBC approached him in the mid 80s about a television series. Fred Penner’s Place ran for 12 seasons – just shy of 1,000 episodes. He was known as the gentle giant, and brought audiences together through his songs, lyrics and positive energy.
Penner was the first children’s entertainer to headline at the Los Angeles Amphitheatre. He’s recorded 13 albums, and performed live in thousands of shows. He is also a four-time Juno Award winner for Fred Penner’s Place (1985); Sing with Fred (best children’s album, 2004); Where in the World (2015); and Hear The Music (2018). In addition, Penner has received the Parents’ Choice Award four times, is a recipient of the Canadian Institute of Child Health Award (2000), and is an Order of Manitoba inductee (2010),
The people in the audience of Fred Penner’s Place were to feel like they were part of his show. He would invite them to imagine themselves crawling through the show’s secret hollow log into a safe place, where they would engage in songs, stories and receive a daily lesson from the Word Bird. “There was a sense that we were all in it together,” says Penner.”I do not condescend when talking to kids. I talk to them the way I would talk to anybody.”
Many of the young people who grew up with Penner’s music have their own memories of the show. “Many came from broken homes and did not have a strong father figure. They identified with me as a father – a gentle man,” says Penner. “People related to that, and felt a comfort from the energy that I exuded.”
The show’s 12-year run was a rollercoaster of creative energy for Penner. When it was discontinued in 1997, he felt lost. “I have always been a resilient person, but that was probably one of the biggest hurdles that I’ve faced. I thought, what am I going to do now? Maybe it was time to retire, to sit in a rocking chair and wait for the phone to ring.”
Penner maintained his career by singing and touring festivals. He also started to receive emails from Fred Heads – those fans who were now in university and reflecting on their childhood influencers. “Many of their memories came down to me and Fred Penner’s Place. I thought that, maybe, going to visit a campus wasn’t such a bad idea.”
His first date was at the University of British Columbia’s Pit Pub, and more than 400 students jammed the place. “It was a love fest,” say Penner. “The students were into a little primal therapy. We had a musical dialogue around why certain songs resonated with them. It was clear that it was important for these students to feel the kind of vulnerability they had as children; for them to know that they could carry that childhood vibrancy into adulthood. Ultimately, this experience opened the door to playing pubs right across the country.”
The university students eventually graduated, and as parents, they introduced the Penner experience to their own children – and the cycle began again. “With the challenges of adulthood being massive, there is a desire to go back to simpler times,” says Penner. “Being a part of the Penner experience, again, allows audiences to remember childhood experiences, even traumatic ones, and move on from those memories to an understanding of how these experiences shaped, and helped, them to grow.”
Penner describes himself as a calm person with a commitment to helping others. His spiritual side is supported by his wife of two years, Rae Ellen Bodie. Penner takes frequent walks and does polarity exercises, after having stints in his heart, and is very mindful of his physical and his emotional well-being. He also continues to see the therapist who helped him through his divorce, as a means of understanding the positives that were garnered from his 30-year marriage, including his children.
In fact, four of Penner’s children, Damien 37, Hayley 33, Danica 30 and Kendra 27, are featured on his 13th award-winning CD – Hear The Music. All four had sung on previous recordings, and now return as adults. “There is nothing like siblings singing together. All four children are really good people, who care about others.”
Penner’s songs may have grown in quality, and in depth, but his approach to performing hasn’t changed. Fred Penner’s Place sent a message of universality and inclusiveness, which still resonates today. “We need to feel compassion, to be connected – not put up walls between humanity,” say Penner.
With 100 tour dates in 2019, and a family movie in the works, relaxing isn’t in Penner’s near future. The cat is back, but thanks to thousands of Fred Heads, he never really left.