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  • Annette Dawm

Making a Difference with Fred Penner

For over four decades, Fred Penner has been making music that “touches the lives of families”. The award-winning entertainer has embarked on countless tours across North America and he still loves making music.

He has also made some great friends throughout his career, including Sharon, Lois and Bram and Ernie Coombs (Mr. Dressup). He described his friendship with Mr. Dressup as a “beautiful experience”.

“Mr. Dressup was, in the truest sense, a gentleman—a gentle man. I think we were very similar in many ways. We had a love for our audience and the children and families that we were connecting to. He was just really aware of how important that work is. You know, to make a difference in the life of a child. Ernie was just a beautiful, sensitive man. I loved being on his show for a couple of episodes and having him on mine. That was really an exceptional time for me!”

More recently, Fred has befriended Jeremy and Jazzy star, Jeremy Fisher. “….He’s a beautiful songwriter and a lovely performer. He has a gentle spirit that I always look for when I meet entertainers who are looking to work with families and children…. There is something in him that is very gentle and positive and I try and give him as much encouragement as I possibly can.”

Fred’s own show, Fred Penner’s Place ran for over 900 episodes. He could often be seen with a puppet character named “Word Bird”. Currently, Word Bird is on display at The Canadian Museum of History! The exhibit, “From Pepinot to Paw Patrol Television of our Childhoods” runs until September 1, 2023.

As Penner explained, “….They have little bits and pieces from me, from Mr. Dressup, all of the French stations, Razzle Dazzle and other shows….” When the exhibit closes, he said, “The bird and the backpack will be coming home to me! There is also a yellow shirt.”

Additionally, the yellow shirt (which features a bicycle) can be spotted in the first few minutes of Take Good Care of Each Other: The Fred Penner Story. Prior to its release in 2019, Fred worked with videographer/director, Aaron Floresco for seven or eight years on the project:

“….He filmed some of the university or bar shows that I did…. He did lots of good interviews. I was very, very proud of that work. It was informative. I think it gave people a sense of who this bearded guy is and what he does in this world. I enjoyed it very much…. I’m always—I’m not sure if the word is ‘amazed’—but when I see programs about myself, it’s really, ‘Who is that guy? Is that me?’”

In March 2020, Fred’s 40th anniversary tour for The Cat Came Back was cut short by the pandemic:

“Oh my goodness! Everything shut down pretty quickly!” He recalled. “We went from London, ON back to the Prairies. I got as far as Edmonton. We did The Cat show in Calgary and then we went north to Edmonton. We had everything ready and we were hearing the information about something happening and possibly shutting things down. We didn’t know what that really meant. We proceeded as if we were going to do the show in Edmonton. We had everything set up. It was a beautiful video screen and we had our lovely audience ready to go. About two hours before show time, they said, ‘Nope. That’s it. We’re shutting down.’ It was a sad day.”

But there was still work to be done. Penner quickly adapted and took on several virtual shows from his home.

“It was what needed to happen, first of all. I enjoyed doing that because I could do it on a calmer level somehow…. I try to be relaxed and open when I am on a big stage, but I am projecting. I am singing louder than I would in a virtual performance. So I had to approach it from a different angle. I had to sort of bring it down and be more aware of what this medium was. I can’t do any wandering around. It’s just you and me on a screen. I just tried to be as aware as possible of what that limitation might be, but also what the value might be. We were able to be in a closed environment like this and share a moment and share some music. That’s what being on a big stage is about, creating moments. It’s a theatrical perspective. You create a moment that draws an emotion and a feeling from the audience members, whether they’re singing along or just enjoying the music that they’re hearing. So, it was a different perspective but I enjoyed it. I still do a few of those along the way when I’m not able to get to a particular town or school….” He added that doing shows via Zoom is something he has grown used to and considers it to be “old hat”.

Now, at home on Vancouver Island, Fred has been excited to see the first signs of spring as he prepares for his next round of in-person shows:

“I’m just looking out at the trees and buds and birds that are starting to grow here. Things are starting to come out of the ground. It feels like spring. Next... I’m going to Edmonton. There’s a little town just west of Edmonton called Spruce Grove and I’m doing a ‘Cat Came Back’ show at The Horizon Stage Performing Arts Centre in Spruce Grove, AB (March 26). So I’m looking forward to that. Then we have two shows in a place called Port McNeill, BC (April 1). It’s a small community a couple hours north of where we are. I’m looking forward to that because I haven’t done a lot of stage shows in the last while. Oh boy! Can I still do this? I believe I can, although it’s the process of getting on stage and doing that. That can be exciting and a little daunting at the same time.”

For anyone who has not attended a Fred Penner concert, he said that he often likes to start with his song, “Celebrate Being”. It goes:

Celebrate being a dreamer,

Celebrate being real,

Celebrate being good, good friends,

Telling each other how you feel,

“That song, I wrote for The Down Syndrome Society at a conference they had a number of years ago.” Penner continued. “I had a sister who was born with Down Syndrome. She was just such an important part of my life because she was so sensitive. Music got inside of her spirit so deeply. So when I had the opportunity to go to this conference in Ottawa, I was thrilled! I was taking the name of the conference, which was ‘Celebrate Being’ and putting it into a song! I was very, very pleased that I was able to do that! So that’s often the kick-off song that I do at shows.”

“I’ve been at it for a long time, obviously—four or five decades. I am very fortunate that I have been able to be an entertainer for humans. Not just children, but their families. Along the way, I’ve been so over the moon that this has been my career, because I never knew where this was going to go in the beginning….”

Over the years, Fred has been approached by other artists who would like to follow in his footsteps. However, he admitted that not everyone possesses the same kind and caring qualities that are required for the job:

“The first thing I say to them is, ‘Why do you want to do this? What is your philosophy? What is your motivation? What is your desire for performing and making music specifically for children?’ ….And if you don’t have an answer for that, figure that out! What does this really mean to you? Because the truth is, never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child. That’s the bottom line. So if you’re going to go into an audience with children, with parents, you really need to have an approach that is going to at least attempt to make a difference in their lives!”

“Find songs and ideas that aren’t just a bunch of colour and jumping up and down. If you follow me, it’s not all about the lights and the colour and the flash and the dancing…. It’s about bringing it down and saying, ‘Hi, how are you today? I’ve got a song I want to share with you.’ Then we get into that one-on-one feel, even in a large audience. I always try and do things that will touch an individual.”

“A group may join in and that’s great if they do or they don’t, but always approach it and say things in a way that touches one child in the heart a little bit. It makes them think about what I’m singing about. The sensitivity that I feel is necessary to do this work is not something that all children’s performers have learned yet. They’re not approaching that necessarily right away. The perspective needs to be really clear that you’re making a difference. Songs don’t always have to be teaching songs, obviously. If the overall energy is trying to bring you along on this musical journey or perhaps on an emotional journey—depending on where the songs go—just try to reach a little bit deeper into the spirit of the child.”

As many grown-up children will remember, each episode of Fred Penner’s Place ended as Fred said, “Take good care of each other”. To him, this message seems to be more relevant than ever:

“In this crazy, crazy world that we’re trying desperately to live in, in a positive way, that’s the bottom line. Take good care of each other.”

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Photo courtesy of Fred Penner.

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