David Swanson — The Link (B.C. Institute of Technology)
BURNABY, B.C. — Everyone has a few T.V. childhood idols that to this day still bring a peaceful smile to their face. For many of us, they were fictional, masked super-heroes that new martial arts. They were probably fit physical specimens with super-natural powers, high moral character and majestic origin stories.
But the characters that were most influential for us probably weren’t animated. They were people like Mr. Dressup, the Friendly Giant, Mr. Rogers, and my personal favourite, Fred Penner.
Fred learned about the therapeutic value of music at an early age. His younger sister Suzy suffers from Down syndrome and during his teen years, he would entertain her by playing songs on his guitar. He studied her behaviour while she played and quickly discovered that Down children are particularly sensitive to music.
During a phone interview from his home in Winnipeg Manitoba, Penner told The Link,“After listening to a song or two, [Suzy] would flop down and begin to sob. I thought my goodness; music has the power to bring her to tears. That is a very powerful image for a young impressionable teenager.”
After graduating from Kelvin Secondary, the halls of which he shared with Fred shared Canadian musician Neil Young, Fred pursued a degree at the University of Winnipeg. Here he volunteered with physically and mentally challenged kids in residential treatment centers while studying economics and psychology. In doing so, he began to understand music’s innate ability to make a difference in a child’s life.
In the 1970s, Penner played in the comedic folk rock band, Kornstalk. The quartet extensively toured all over Canada and was well known for incorporating audience participation into their performance. He said, “I think for a bar act, [the band] caught people by surprise. We demanded some level of participation with the audience. It was very interactive.”
After the band retired, Penner’s wife Odette convinced him (with little dispute) to revisit his passion for kids’ education and together they opened a children’s dance theatre company which eventually landed Mr. Penner his now famous CBC television seriesFred Penner’s Place which aired from 1985-1997.
Fred always thought the show had major benefits for children but has only come to realize its profound impact in recent years. The majority of his audience is now in their 20s and is giving him extremely supportive feedback. Penner told The Link, “I often have young adults coming up to me and saying they are getting into education or teaching because of me. That is what is keeping me energized and excited about what I am doing.”
Like most musicians, Penner is upset with the political climate surrounding Canadian arts and is unsatisfied with the current level of government funding. He believes that the Harper government doesn’t understand the cultural importance of the Canadian arts community and is ignores of the role it plays in human development simply because it does not generate large amounts of money.
“[In the arts] you are not going to make big money. They need to support the arts communities across the country because they are raising children to be full well rounded people.”
Regardless of funding, Penner is still very involved in the arts community. On March 25th he played a benefit concert in North Vancouver to help raise money for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre. He has also recently written and is staring in a stage adaptation of his famous 1980 hit single The Cat Came Back which he has performed all over Canada.
It is clear Fred still loves to entertain and isn’t planning to retire anytime soon. He said, “Ever performance I go to, something happens that gives me excitement and joy. I do this and will continue to do this as long as I possibly can.”