Manitoba

Fred Penner just couldn't stay away, and his audience couldn't either

A new documentary for CBC television called Take Good Care of Each Other examines the life of beloved children’s entertainer Fred Penner through interviews with Penner, his family, friends and former colleagues.

Beloved children's entertainer the subject of new documentary for CBC TV titled Take Good Care of Each Other

Fred Penner does what he loves. (Submitted by Past Perfect Productions)

Take Good Care Of Each Other

Airs Sept. 14, 2019
7 p.m. on CBC Manitoba

>> Watch online now

Fred Penner's famous rendition of the infectious children's song The Cat Came Back might have never existed if it weren't for the generosity of a random stranger.

In the late 1970s, Penner was the composer and musician for a children's dance theatre company called Sundance. One day, after a performance, a doctor and his wife approached him and asked if he had an album.

He didn't. The couple offered to pay for him to record one.

That album was The Cat Came Back, and it went on to sell over 100,000 units, earning platinum certification in Canada and launching Penner's career.

"It all just seemed to come together in the most powerful way and I've never looked back. That was clearly the turning point of my life," Penner said.

"It immediately had this quality of engaging with the audience."

Penner's celebrated career is the subject of a new documentary for CBC television titled Take Good Care of Each Other (the name of another of his well-known songs). The documentary examines the life of the beloved children's entertainer through interviews with him, his family, friends and former colleagues.

Fred Penner's Place aired on CBC from 1985 to 1997. (CBC)

"The concept of taking good care of each other is so fundamental in our society, in our world," Penner said in an interview for the documentary.

"We get lost in our own lives and we forget about the value of really focusing on the people in your life. We're all in this together and if we don't take care of each other, it's doing a disservice to ourselves, ultimately."

The Cat Came Back was released in 1979, around the time fellow Canadian children's performers Raffi and Sharon, Lois & Bram were rising in popularity.

Together, these performers have had a lasting impact on children's entertainment and music.

"It started exploding in Canada. This was a Canadian phenomenon," said Bram Morrison of Sharon, Lois & Bram.

"I'm not saying there wasn't anybody in the States doing it, but it was the Canadians who brought it forward."

Penner said it was all about timing that can't be replicated in the age of digital streaming, YouTube and video games.

"There was such a hunger for good entertainment for kids. It was pretty amazing," said Penner, who starred in CBC's Fred Penner's Place for 13 seasons, from 1985 to 1997.

Fellow children's entertainer Al Simmons has another take on Penner's success.

"The thought that somebody gave him a whack of money to record an album. How does that happen?" said Simmons, Penner's former bandmate.

"Fred's just got some angel on his shoulder."

Odette Heyn, Penner's wife from 1981 to 2011, mother to their four children and his former partner at Sundance as director, choreographer and dancer, said Penner was a trailblazer in the industry.

"We're really talking about the pioneers. It's Raffi, Sharon, Lois & Bram, and Fred," Heyn said. "They really were the pioneers of what family entertainment looked like for almost 30 years.

'Quite a legacy'

Penner's television show ended in 1997, when he was 51. He decided to reconnect with his fan base with a tour of the universities and bars where many of them were now hanging out.

"I watched this sea of 35-year-olds transform from these cool Toronto hipsters to these children," said Penner's wife, theatre director Rae Ellen Bodie, "running around and dancing and laughing and crying, and they were so engaged and so in love with him."

Fred Penner performs for some of his older fans. (Submitted by Past Perfect Productions)

Penner crossed Canada, doing performances with no new music and without adapting his songs for adult audiences.

He played his classic children's songs in signature Penner style, with a cash bar.

"He hasn't altered his show into something to attract 20-year-olds. He's Fred Penner and they're going to see him," said Lesley Oswald, former director of Fred Penner's Place

"I think that's quite amazing. That's quite a legacy."

Penner believes the connection he made with his fans during their formative years bonds them for life.

"It's not just Fred Penner the musician coming there. I connected with them when they were at their most vulnerable time of life," he said.

"They've gone through their teen years and all the angst and the joys of puberty. They're now adults and they want to go back."

'Never stop working'

Penner is now 72 and still performs regularly.

In 2017, he released a new album, Hear the Music, featuring popular Canadian musicians like Terra Lightfoot, Ron Sexsmith and Basia Bulat. It also features vocals from all four of his children.

They agree that Penner isn't likely to slow down any time soon.

"He's busier now than he's ever been. I don't see him stopping," said Penner's son, Damien. 

"I love him and I see the road killing him one day, but I think he wouldn't have it any other way."

Fred Penner plays a song off Hear the Music to children at the Regent Park School of Music in Toronto. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Penner's daughter Hayley said performing makes her dad feel young and vibrant.

"I don't think it's true that 'Find a thing you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life,'" she said. 

"I think 'Find a thing you love to do and you'll never stop working, ever,' because you want to and because you love it and because it's a true expression of you."

The sense of community and friendship Penner creates is needed right now, said Rae Ellen Bodie, his wife.

"There's lots of things, I think, that are wrong with the world right now, but I think that Fred is one of the things that's kind of right in the world right now," she said.

"I think he just invites people into an experience of themselves and an experience of community that we don't get in a lot of places."

Fred Penner and his wife, Rae Ellen Bodie, arrive at the 2015 Juno Awards in Hamilton. (Ernesto Distefano/Getty Images)

Penner said the kids who watched his television show to become university students who attended his club shows are now parents who bring their children to his shows. 

That momentum keeps him excited about his work.

"As humans, we remember the stuff that influenced our childhood and we hold on to that because we cherish the vulnerability of ourselves, of what it was to be a child," he said.

"To be able to pull back for a moment, to that gentler, simpler time of life, is really important for humanity, for people, for all of us."

Fred Penner performs at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg on Oct. 31. Take Good Care of Each Other premieres on CBC television as part of the Absolutely Manitoba series on Sept. 14, 2019.

About the Author

Jeffrey Vallis is a writer and communications specialist. He was formerly the co-creator and editor-in-chief for Sandbox magazine, an award-winning magazine that put a spotlight on Winnipeg’s thriving and vibrant cultural community. Though he now resides in Toronto, he will always maintain his Winnipeg cellphone number.

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