The power of Penner

Renowned children’s performer Fred Penner marks 44 years on
the road with Cranbrook concert

Fred Penner

Fred Penner

Barry Coulter

Fred Penner has never underestimated a person’s ability to make a difference in the life of a child. That philosophy has led to decades as one of the most renowned children’s entertainers in the world.

“This is my 44th year on the road — a fairly intense commitment,” Penner told the Townsman, just before setting out for Cranbrook. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t feel some excitement and inspiration, and enjoyment from the audience.”

Yes, the Cat’s Coming Back to Cranbrook. Penner’s pending appearance created a lot of buzz, so much so that demand for tickets for his upcoming show this Saturday prompted the Key City Theatre to move the concert outdoors, where it will take place right in the heart of the Kootenay Children’s Festival, Saturday, May 7. Penner takes the stage at 1 p.m. Local songwriter Dawson Rutledge is coming on first, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Penner says his shows like this are a wonderful connection and reconnection with the fan base that’s been following him for decades.

“The wonderful thing that’s happened over this multi-decade career is that the ‘FredHeads’ who watched the TV series in the ‘80s are now the young parents bringing their kids to the shows, and there’s such a wonderful excitement that comes up as their children are being exposed to what they had,” he said.

“It’s not something I would have necessarily anticipated when things began. You have no idea where it’s going to go. Fortunately I’ve been able to maintain this career since I started performing in 1972.”

Penner, along with other notable Canadians, was one of the key figures in what is considered a golden age of children’s entertainment. But the whole industry, indeed, the whole market, for children’s entertainment has changed substantially in the past years.

“The ‘80s and early ‘90s were the heyday for what I was doing, along with Raffi and Sharon, Lois and Bram,” Penner said. ”We were filling multi-thousand seat venues across the country and doing festivals, and there was a real vibrancy about the music that came from the post-war generation boomers.  That’s the generation that spawned our industry, because they were demanding quality for their kids.

“It’s such a huge demographic — that’s where Robert Munsch came from, that’s where Sesame Street evolved from — there was a lot of stuff happening. And then as the ‘90s progressed and technology came along, the industry realized they could actually make money in the children’s market.

Penner said that for a long time children’s material was thought of as “off in its own world.”

“But once the business people realized they could tap into that market, they started flooding it with a lot of crap — kiddy pop and poorly produced, poorly presented material that watered down the quality of the whole market. That was kind of frustrating. It led to the demise of Fred Penner’s Place (Penner’s iconic TV show for kids) in the ‘90s, because they wanted to go into more technical stuff — computer generated animation. Stuff they didn’t have to pay as much for.”

That being said, Penner is still working his magic. While he says the whole thing of bringing music to an audience now is almost looked on as unique — “it’s not what the kids generally get” —  he’s still working at it.

“To actually get out of the house, go into a venue and share in that most personal or organic moment of sharing music …  is very empowering. It’s a wonderful thing to see. And I’m still very committed and delighted in where it’s going.”

His approach to an audience hasn’t changed over the years, Penner says.

“The material changes, songs come and go ‘(The Cat Came Back’ will always be there, ‘Sandwiches’ will always be there). But what I try to relate to is the values, the values of a family, the values of a human.

“I talk about being proud, I talk about taking care of each other, I talk about ‘you can do this if you try.’ It’s all about about cooperation and love and communication and energy and the kinds of things that keep a person energized and a family moving in a positive direction.

“The philosophy I’ve carried forever, the adage, is ‘Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child. And I bring that constantly to my work.

He even has a new album due out this year, along with Ken Whitely — “a folk Blues icon from Toronto” — who produced some early recordings by Penner and by Raffi in the 1980s.

“I’ve reconnected with Ken and in about two weeks will be doing the bed tracking, and by the end of the summer will have the essence of the album done and will be launching it in the fall, probably in November some time.

“The process is right upon me, and everyday I’m sitting down and going through the 20 songs that I have to whittle down to a dozen or more. It’s a good challenge, because I have so much music inside of me and I sit down after a couple of days and look at the same tune and say ‘maybe I can extend it this way or that.’ So I have to get to a point of saying ‘okay, this is where it is now, work on what you got and stop trying to change it all the time.’

“Penner will be showcasing some new material on Saturday. He is taking the stage at 1 p.m. At the Kootenay Children’s Festival at Mount Baker Field beside the high school and the Key City Theatre, along with Paul O’Neill, who’ll be adding some guitar and some vocal harmonies.