It might not be surprising, considering his career longevity, but it seems Fred Penner was ahead of the curve when it comes to the most beneficial ways to entertain young kids.
With TV shows especially, the general advice is slow-paced and gentle trumps fast-moving and action-packed.
(See, for example, Fred Penner’s Place, which ran on CBC TV from 1985 to 1997.)
“One of my huge inspirations was my sister, Susie, who was born with Down syndrome,” says Penner, 76. “Susie taught me at a very early age in my early teens how powerful music is for a child. As I grew into writing songs, [I realized it was important] to be not condescending to the child, using whole words and full sentences, and communicating from spirit to spirit. It’s not about flashy colours and fast-paced music. It’s about prodding the curiosity, and very honestly saying, ‘Hi, it’s great to see you. Come on in. Let’s share some music together.’”
That approach clearly stuck with his original audience—now well into their 30s. After his TV show ended, Penner decided to take a page from the Mr. Dressup playbook, and tour college campuses.
“I thought, ‘Let’s put my name out to the university circuit and see what happens,’” he says. “That’s the generation that grew up on me. Instantly, the student population jumped at the chance.”
In particular, he recalls one 6-2, 200-plus-pound guy approaching him after a show at Louis’ bar in Saskatoon. “He opens his arms and says, ‘I’ve got to give you a hug,’” Penner says. “That’s the feeling that excites me, to know the audience feels strongly enough that they want to come to the show and reconnect with me.”
Back in 2018, Penner performed two shows in Whistler—both a children’s performance and an “After Dark” show that some in the resort still talk about. And he’s coming back for that same set of dual performances as part of the Whistler Children’s Festival on May 20.
While the adult show will feature childhood favourites, he will also include some of his top picks too.
“After the news of Gordon Lightfoot [who died on May 1], I’ll play some of his tunes, and Joni Mitchell, just the artists that made a difference in my formative years,” he says. “Who knows where it will all unfold?”
This time around, he won’t have quite as far to travel to Whistler. Shortly before the pandemic, he and his wife decided to make the move to Bowser, B.C., on Vancouver Island.
“My wife was living in Toronto in a 14th-floor condo,” he says. “She’d been in Toronto for 20 years and we were ready to move out of there. She was born and raised in Delta, just outside of Vancouver, so really wanted to get back to that. I was moving into semi-retirement, changing directions a little bit. We started digging around. We have lots of friends on the Island … We got a little spot, a half-acre of green beauty.”
While it was a good place to spend the pandemic, after 50 years of performing, Penner was ready to get back out on the road.
“Getting back onstage was very unusual,” he says. “One of the first gigs I did was Powell River on the Sunshine Coast. It was tearful. I was close to tears a number of times. The audience was crying because the beauty of going to see somebody in a theatre and feeling that energy and exchange of music and ideas in the course of a performance; you miss that. I know I missed that.”
Penner performs as part of the Whistler Children’s Festival on May 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets available here: showpass.com/wcf-fred-penner. He also plays an After Dark, 19-plus show at 8 p.m. with tickets at showpass.com/wcf-fred-penner-after-dark.