Origin stories: Fred Penner, entertainer and musician

Keeping the creativity rolling

Iconic Winnipeg-born musician and children’s entertainer Fred Penner is still bringing kids joy after 50 years, 13 albums and 900 episodes of television. (Supplied photo)

Children’s performing legend Fred Penner recently returned to Manitoba for gigs in Winkler and Portage la Prairie. The Winnipeg-born musician moved to a half-acre property near Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island with his wife three years ago.

“We’ve been settled there for a bit on a lovely piece of land. Lots of green, lots of birds, lots of things growing,” he says.

Born at St. Boniface Hospital 76 years ago, Penner lived in half a dozen homes in River Heights and Crescentwood while growing up. He played music and sang in choirs throughout school and university.

He graduated from the University of Winnipeg with an economics degree, but life-altering events prompted Penner to change careers.

“In the early ’70s, my father and my sister died within a year of each other. I was faced with mortality, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life. I realized I did not want to be an economist,” he says.

Recognizing that playing guitar and performing gave him joy, Penner decided to pursue that line of work. As his musical career started to take off, Penner was concerned that a move away from Winnipeg would be necessary.

“When my career started to unfold in the ’70s, there was a time where I thought I would have to move to Toronto if I wanted to succeed in the acting or music world. Once it was clear that being in the centre of Canada made way more sense because I’d be traveling east to west, I stayed in Winnipeg,” Penner says.

Eventually, Penner became the host of Fred Penner’s Place, a musical children’s TV show.

After 900 or so episodes, CBC abruptly quashed the beloved series. Penner was told one morning his show was cancelled. By that afternoon, it was gone.

“It was completely out of the blue. I did not anticipate that at all. It was not a pleasant ending to that part of my life,” he says.

Penner’s not the only performer in the family. His eldest child, Hayley Gene Penner, is a singer/songwriter and author who lives in Los Angeles.

Penner says his daughter “really needed, not just wanted to pursue (music) for herself. She needed that for her creative energy.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, he also focused his creative energies on music, especially songwriting.

“Over the pandemic, I worked on many beginnings of lyrics and chord progressions. I do feel there’s another album in me. I hope I can guide that to some fruition before too long,” he says.

In 2020, he celebrated the 40th anniversary of his hit song “The Cat Came Back” with an anniversary tour. The fourtime JUNO Award winner said he may never retire.

“I’m certainly trimming back on the amount of touring that I do. I don’t expect I will ever completely retire. I will always find some new path that will keep my creativity rolling,” Penner says.

Published in Volume 77, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 3, 2022)

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