Family entertainer Fred Penner has a song list — and a philosophy — that will never go out of style.
For more than 40 years, the iconic Canadian children’s songwriter — who will perform at Centrepointe Theatres in Ottawa on March 22 — has shared his catchy, singable tunes peppered with upbeat reminders for kids and parents alike.
“This is a ‘we world,’ and we are capable of making differences in each other’s lives,” says Penner, who blends each of his high-energy performances with positive messaging.
“When I get on stage, for me it’s a balance; I sing and play my guitar, but I also talk to the audience about family, about caring and communication and values.
“By the end of a show, my hope is that the audience has experienced something — we can leave feeling good and it might help us make a difference in the world.”
Many years may have passed since he famously crawled through a fallen log at the start of his beloved children’s TV show — Fred Penner’s Place, which aired on CBC from 1985 to 1997 — but his fans have hardly forgotten his contagious enthusiasm.
In fact, many of those young fans —now university-aged adults affectionately dubbed “Fred Heads” — have been turning out in droves to see him perform at university and college campuses across Canada.
At a January performance at Sheraton College in Toronto, Penner says a student approached him after the show to share that he had chosen the music program because of the joy he felt in watching Fred Penner’s Place as a small child.
“I appreciate the level of feedback that I receive — in very heartfelt ways — about how my music has affected them,” says Penner. “It’s always very humbling to know that people feel that way about my work.”
Yet humble he does remain, despite the accolades. Penner has produced 12 children’s albums, performed in front of countless live audiences across Canada and the United States, won two Juno awards and received the Order of Canada, yet you won’t find a trace of ego about him.
“Ego will drag you down,” warns Penner, who says he sees today’s youth searching for their 15 minutes of fame via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. “You have to be grounded so you don’t get consumed in a false understanding.
“Don’t get trapped in the technology — don’t let that consume your focus.”
Looking ahead, Penner’s diverse life as a performer shows no signs of slowing down. His breakthrough song, The Cat Came Back — which made him a household name back in the late ‘70s — was made into a musical theatre production that premiered in Winnipeg about two years ago. Last year, the show expanded to Calgary and Toronto.
An accomplished actor, Penner says he would like to participate in more productions. “Stage work is certainly part of it,” he says of his future plans. “I like doing plays – it helps me stretch my creativity.
“I’d like to do something in a film — perhaps take on a more serious role.”
His personal life shows no signs of slowing down, either.
A dedicated husband and father of four grown children, Penner is eagerly anticipating the arrival of his first grandson this spring. Undoubtedly, he hopes to pass on the same timeless wisdom to his son and daughter-in-law that he shares with all parents: take the time to slow down and connect with the world around you.
“Listen to your children,” says Penner gently. “Then you learn who they are, and you can help them.
“Allow them to find a part of their world where they can be completely calm and quiet and within their zone of discovery. Allow them the ability to think and discover at their speed.”
Penner challenges parents not to hyper-schedule their children with extracurricular activities, lessons and endless electronic gadgets.
“We are now consumed with being busy. Why are we trying to keep our kids so busy?
“I think back to my own growing up, and I remember my mom would throw open the door and say, ‘Go out there and discover something!’”
Photos: Courtesy of Fred Penner