Fred Penner delights MRU’s young-at-heart
Famed children’s entertainer jams at The Hub
The nostalgia was so thick when Fred Penner played The Hub on March 16, you could almost taste it in the air. He had the devoted attention of the whole room when he took the stage, and it didn’t take him long to get everyone singing.
Penner is famous across Canada for his children’s show, Fred Penner’s Place, which aired on CBC from 1985 to 1997. He played songs he’s written over the years along with the old childhood favourites, saving medleys of “The Sandwich Song” and “The Cat Came Back” for the end of the show, much to the unrestrained delight of the audience.
The Reflector had the chance to sit down with him before the show to ask a few burning questions that we’ve been wondering since, oh, the ’80s or so.
‘Flec: What songs and music do you remember most from your own childhood?
FP: From my own childhood, the songs and music I remember are probably tunes you’ve never heard of. When I was growing up there was no such thing as children’s music. It was not a context yet. My mother and father listened to the swing music in the ’40s, so Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, lots of classical music. My dad loved opera, so I grew up hearing that, and my older brother and sister played the rock music of the ’50s. I have a really good musical memory. They’re still tucked back there somewhere so it’s been really good for me to draw on that as I grow and develop as a performer. And when I’m recording, I often use many different genres and styles because that’s what’s in my brain.
‘Flec: What’s your opinion of the current state of children’s entertainment on television?
FP: I’m a little concerned when it comes to children’s television, because there’s no more humans involved. It’s all about computer animation and technology. To get them activated into technology so early seems wrong. We’re trying to make them grow up sooner than they should, in many ways. Allow children time to chill and be by themselves, be with themselves, and enjoy and discover who they are without this constant backspace stimuli coming at them. But, that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. The idea that television has to have another hit every 15 seconds because kid’s attention spans are not that long. I don’t believe that. It depends on how you approach a child, what energy you give to them and what you expect back from them. You have to respect them, you have to listen to their answers. It’s that level of communication that I hope I brought to my recording world and my television world, and I’m thinking that that is what’s coming back to me now, because I absolutely respected you and your generation, bottom line. What goes around comes around.
‘Flec: Were you friends with your colleagues from that same era, like Ernie Coombs (Mr. Dressup)?
FP: Oh yeah, of course. On the television side, Ernie and I did each other’s shows along the way. On the musical side, Sharon, Lois and Bram, and Raffi, those folks — we were certainly friends. We played festivals together and I still consider them friends.
‘Flec: When Fred Penner’s Place came on the air, did you see yourself as pioneering in that genre?
FP: CBC called me in 1984 and asked me if I wanted to do a series. I said, ‘Really? How? What would I do?’ I did some soul-searching and dug into my own childhood, which is where I source much of what I do. I would think back to emotions I went through, or feelings I had, or places I would go. It was really important that getting to Fred Penner’s Place was not just ‘knock, knock, open the door, come on in.’ You had to go through a journey, because life is a journey. You run across the field, you jump over a fence, you balance on a rock, you wave at the birds, but you have to go through this trip, down this trail, up this hill, until you finally got to this log, the magic, hollow log. This wasn’t just a simple little path, this had a reason, a depth, a philosophy. The director would remind me, if there were so many things going on in my brain that I would start to drift a bit, that lens is going to the eyes and the minds of millions of children, but think of it as only one. That changes your perspective, and you look at the camera with intensity. That was really important.
‘Flec: Do you ever see the philosophy you built up on that show impacting the way we now look at early childhood education?
FP: My biggest concern about the education system is that the boards, the administration side, don’t really understand that the arts — whether it’s music or dance or any kind of stage stuff — is vital to a child’s life. Inevitably, when budget cuts come around, it’s, ‘well, if parents want their kids in music they can get them private lessons.’ It’s just wrong. Music is critical in the life of a child, and to deprive them of that is criminal.
‘Flec: Did you keep any of the set pieces from Fred Penner’s Place?
FP: I have the backpack. I have the bird. Set pieces, no. A lot of them were scrapped. There was a guy outside of Winnipeg who knew people at the place where it was being filmed, and when the show came down he brought his flatbed out and took four of the main pieces that are now on his farm.
‘Flec: The log?
FP: By the time the show was over, the log was pretty much gone. There wasn’t much left of it.
‘Flec: What’s something most people wouldn’t guess about you?
FP: That I was born on a Wednesday and I’m full of woe. Wednesday’s child is full of woe, and I am, deep in my spirit, a woeful person.
“You had to go through a journey, because life is a journey.”