A face recognized and loved by many, whether they be fans of his show or music, Fred Penner is a performer who has touched the hearts of children, parents and other music lovers across the country.
Developing a strong fan-base with his television show, Fred Penner’s Place and continuing to perform long after the series’ end in 1997, Penner said many of the fans who enjoyed his show in the 90s grew up to become fans who enjoy his music as adults.
“I’ve been able to follow my audience basically all of the decades,” said Penner. “I don’t think many performers are able to do that.”
Penner’s performance style is also to credit for having such a broad audience. He said that his style is very engaging and he does not talk down to his audience. Instead, he encourages audience participation and talks with the audience, something that people of any age can relate to.
“Often children’s entertainers feel they need the sound of their voice and basically talk down to the child,” said Penner. He added his style of performing for children where he talks to the audience and develops a dialogue to engage them, is something that is becoming more rare but was common when he was growing up.
Penner went on to say that his songs have strong lyrics and good chord progressions. Essentially, they are good songs and can be appreciated by any age group. As such, the songs Penner might play at a children’s or family concert are the same songs he often plays for an all-adult audience.
Penner has had a very long and successful career. He said while many might consider the height of his career to be while Fred Penner’s Place was on the air, he has no particular favourite era.
He said he still enjoys performing now just as much as he did then and doesn’t care about the size of the audience that see him, adding some of his fondest memories are from shows in small venues.
Penner said the 80s and 90s were a heyday for children’s performers. He mentioned fellow family entertainers Sharon, Lois and Bram of The Elephant show, saying they, like himself, were trendsetters in the world of children’s and family entertainment.
“We were burning up a trail in those couple decades,” said Penner.
It is the connection made with an audience that Penner said is his favourite part of performing. He said, knowing that each show is different, or not knowing what will happen at each concert, is exciting for him and the audience.
“When you are on a stage and you look out to the audience and they are looking at you with expectation and with excitement in their eyes and they are waiting to hear the first chord, the first song and you never know where it’s going to go once you get rolling. But I love performing because of the feedback that happens between performer and audience,” said Penner.
Although he was immersed in music from a very young age, often singing or making up songs, Penner said it wasn’t until he got older that he started playing musical instruments. He only dabbled in learning to play the piano and organ as a child and didn’t even get his first guitar, the instrument he is certainly most associated with, until he was 15.
“I was absorbed in music in my early days,” said Penner. “Music was always in me.”
Penner said his sister Susan, who had Down’s Syndrome, was critical in developing his music career. Susan helped him recognize the awareness and appreciation of music in a child’s life, said Penner.
Susan died in 1971 and Penner’s father, Edward, died a year later. It was around that time that Penner began to really think about what he wanted to do with his life.
“I was in my 20s, and those two mortality checks sort of rocked the foundation of my world,” said Penner. He decided to follow music as a career path, wanting to do something for himself that he would enjoy. “Music was a key to my world,” said Penner.
In the early 70s, Penner started playing in lounges and bars and anywhere else he could get a slot. That led Penner to meet his good friend Al Simmons with whom he performed in a band for many years. In turn, that led to Penner meeting his future wife, choreographer Odette Heyn.
It was through working with his wife that Penner’s career shifted to children’s and family entertainment. Together, the couple started a children’s dance theatre company.
Now, after 40 years of making music, Penner is still going strong and said he plans to continue his career for as long as possible.
“I want to continue being relative to the audience, whatever age they are.”
Penner performs tonight in a sold-out show at St. Andrew’s United Church at 6:30 p.m.