By the early 1990s, Fred Penner was widely recognized as one of the most popular family entertainers in North America. A product of Canada’s 1960s folk scene, he was a pioneer in that country’s children’s music business. “In the mid-1970s, when Raffi and Sharon, Lois & Bram and myself first came on the scene,” Penner explained to Contemporary Musicians (CM), “there was no specifically children’s music.... Our generation really spawned the children’s industry.”
The children’s music business, its fruits appealing largely to post-World War II “baby boomers” and their families, became a demographic phenomenon. Rooted in the idealism of the 1960s, its folk-derived tunes carried a hopeful message. By the mid-1980s, children’s music had gained a foothold in the United States; and by the 1990s a number of major record companies had not only established children’s divisions, but were diversifying their offerings.
By then, Penner had taken his place at the forefront of the movement. His polished technique and eclectic repertoire both set him apart from the competition and drew an intergenerational audience. At the heart of his success, however, was a genuine sense of mission. “If you nurture a child in a positive way,” he told CM, “then they will be positive, strong adults when they grow up.”
Born in 1946, Fred Penner was raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. One of a family of six children, he was exposed to a variety of musical styles at an early age. “We grew up listening to the classical music that was my father’s desire,” he told CM, “and ... the rock and swing tunes from the 1950s that my older sister and brother listened to.”
Penner taught himself to play the guitar while in grade school; his sister Susie, a victim of Down’s Syndrome, was his audience. It was then that he gained an appreciation for the power of music as a tool for building self-esteem—an awareness of which he would retain as a mature performer.
That sensitivity led to a series of jobs working with physically disabled children. Music, Penner discovered, served his students in two ways: “Learning the chords to a song, getting involved in a musical pattern allowed them to leave their troubles behind for a moment,” he remembered. “But it also gave them a sense of confidence, a sense of accomplishment that they were able to learn something and sing and share it with somebody else.”
As a teenager, Penner channeled his energy into musical comedy at the expense of more academic pursuits. Years later, the reluctant holder of a bachelor’s degree in economics and psychology, he was on the verge of a
Born November 6, 1946, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; married Odette Heyn (a choreographer); children: four. Education: University of Winnipeg, B.A. in economics and psychology, c. 1969.
Worked with physically disabled children; performed on folk music coffeehouse circuit, late 1960s; appeared in clubs throughout Canada with comedy revue Kornstalk, early 1970s; co-founded Sundance Children’s Theatre, 1977; released first album, The Cat Came Back, Troubadour, 1980; debuted television show Fred Penner’s Place, CBC-TV, 1985; co-founded Oak Street Music recording company, 1987; Fred Penner’s Place picked up by U.S. cable network Nickelodeon, 1989; produced family videos and series of illustrated books, late 1980s. National Ambassador for UNICEF Canada, 1991-92.
Awards: Juno Award for best children’s recording, 1989, for Fred Penner’s Place; Parent’s Choice awards for Ebeneezer Sneezer and A House for Me, both 1991; Royal Order of Canada, 1992; numerous Juno Award nominations.
Addresses: Record company —Oak Street Music, 108-93 Lombard Ave., Winnipeg, MB, Canada R3B 2B1.
career with Canada’s Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation when he came to an abrupt realization: the civil service was not his calling. “I suddenly stopped,” Penner recalled, “and said, ’Just a minute. What do I want to do now? I’m an adult, I’m 21 years old; let’s try to figure it out.’”
Penner’s soul-searching led him to the coffeehouse circuit, where he performed popular folk songs by Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Neil Young. That, he said, was an “opening door.” By 1972 music had become a full-time occupation. Penner had expanded his repertoire to include a wide range of folk, choral, and popular music, and was touring Canadian clubs with the comedy revue Kornstalk.
In 1977 Penner founded the Sundance Children’s Theatre with choreographer and future wife Odette Heyn. While touring Canada’s public schools, they won the support—and backing—of Winnipeg doctor Martin Reed, who financed Penner’s first recording, The Cat Came Back. The response to that album was so enthusiastic that Penner went on to produce four more— Polka Dot Pony, Special Delivery, A House for Me, and Happy Feet— all of which were to become Juno Award nominees.
In 1987 Penner teamed up with his manager, Gilles Paquin, to form the Oak Street Music recording company. On the Oak Street label he produced the 1989 Juno Award-winner Fred Penner’s Place, the multilingual Christmas release The Season, and Collections, winner of the Parent’s Choice Gold Award.
Sweeping regard for Penner stems from a sincere respect for his young audiences. His recordings are distinguished by refined production techniques developed out of a sense of responsibility to his fans. “Just because you’re producing work for children,” he told CM, “doesn’t mean that it has to be simplistic.... It has to be produced well. This is serious business—it’s not just a matter of putting on a funny hat and singing some silly songs—because you’re working with the most vulnerable segment of society.”
Similarly, Penner’s attention to musical variety is predicated on the impressionable nature of his audience; he incorporates folk, rock, country, and swing into his repertoire because “it’s important to present a variety of music to children.” “People are deceived into thinking that children just relate to heavy rhythm,” he maintained. “They need the nurturing of their soul and spirit as much as they do their body.”
Penner devotees appreciate the performer’s earnestness and respond in kind. His concerts, backed by the Cat’s Meow Band, attract listeners of all ages; pint-sized groupies, known as “Fred Heads,” are drawn to the entertainer’s participatory style, while parents applaud his sophisticated musicianship. Both generations seem to enjoy Penner’s expansive range of styles. Acting as a catalyst, he aims to create a dialogue between parents and children by presenting classic tunes of all eras alongside Penner originals. “During or after the show,” he posited, “the link between parent and child is made.. . . It’s a very organic process.
The Penner formula has smoothly translated to other media as well. By the late 1980s the entertainer had produced two family videos and a series of illustrated books and was the host of his own television show. Offering refuge from the dizzying pace of mainstream TV, Fred Penner’s Place filled a niche in the children’s market. “I wanted to create a secluded, comfortable space, in this case a wooded area,” Penner told the Kitchner-Waterloo Record, “where my friends enter through a magical hollow log ... it can represent anywhere that feels warm and safe.” Young viewers have entered that “space” in droves. The popularity of the CBC network program, which debuted in Canada in 1985, launched Penner’s career into the stratosphere; when the show was picked up for distribution in the U.S. by the Nickelodeon cable netowrk in 1989, his superstar status in family entertainment was cemented. By 1992 the program’s audience numbered 50 million children in the U.S. alone.
Still the idealist, Penner is pleased to have the opportunity to touch so many young lives. “If I didn’t feel that I was truly accomplishing something long-lasting,” he told CM, “then I wouldn’t really be able to do this.”
Published by Cherry Lane in the U.S.
The Bump, McGraw Hill, 1984.
Ebeneezer Sneezer, McGraw Hill, 1985.
Roller Skating, McGraw Hill, 1987.
Polka Dot Pony, McGraw Hill, 1988.
Fred Penner’s Sing Along Play Along, McGraw Hill, 1990.
The Cat Came Back, Troubadour, 1980, reissued, Oak Street, 1991.
Polka Dot Pony, Troubadour, 1981, reissued as Polo, Oak Street, 1991.
Special Delivery, Troubadour, 1983, reissued as Ebeneezer Sneezer, Oak Street, 1991.
A House for Me, Troubadour, 1986, Oak Street, 1991.
Fred Penner’s Place, Oak Street, 1988.
Collections, Oak Street, 1989.
The Season, Oak Street, 1990.
Happy Feet, Oak Street, 1992.
Also released Oak Street Music videos The Cat Came Back, 1990, and Circle of Songs, 1991.
Ann Arbor News (Ml), November 6, 1992.
Canadian Airlines Magazine, January 1992.
Daily Tribune (Grand Rapids, Ml), September 10, 1992.
Detroit Free Press, June 15, 1990; October 11, 1992.
Kitchner-Waterloo Record (Kitchner, ON), July 13, 1991; December 19, 1991; March 12, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1990; October 26, 1992.
New York Times, December 6, 1992.
North Shore News (North Vancouver, BC), January 29, 1992.
The Oregonian (Portland, OR), April 29, 1992; October 26, 1992.
Performance, November 29, 1991.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), July 22, 1991.
Pulse!, October 1992; December 1992.
Times-Colonist (Victoria, BC), November 23, 1991; February 16, 1992.
Today’s Parent, April 1992.
Toronto Star, March 6, 1992.
Vancouver Sun, March 6, 1992.
West, November 1989.
Contemporary Musicians spoke with Fred Penner on November 8, 1992.
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