Fred Penner was the gentle, bearded, sweater-wearing star of Fred Penner’s Place, the popular children’s show that ran on CBC Television from 1985 to 1997. Over the course of almost a thousand episodes, Penner, guitar often in hand, entertained young viewers with stories, music, and words—you might remember the famous “Word Bird.” In the process, he endeared himself to an entire generation of young Canadians.
Penner grew up in Winnipeg. It was through playing songs for his younger sister Susan, who had been born with Down’s syndrome, that he came to see music as a way to connect with and make a positive difference in the lives of children. After graduating from the University of Winnipeg, he started performing and touring around Canada, both as a solo musician and as a member of various groups. In 1979, he recorded his first LP of songs for children, The Cat Came Back. It became hugely popular, selling more than 150,000 copies in Canada alone.
Popular children’s musician Raffi noticed Penner’s success, and invited him to tour around North America together. After a few years of performing, both with Raffi and on his own, the CBC approached Penner and invited him to develop a children’s show based around his music.
The rest is history. Fred Penner’s Place was born, and quickly became one of the most-beloved children’s shows on Canadian TV. His warm demeanour and obvious love for music endeared him to children across the country. And although the show was abruptly cancelled in 1997, Penner has never stopped believing in the importance of his work. He has continued performing, writing music, and connecting with young people right up to the present. He’s a recipient of the Order of Canada and multiple Juno Awards, and is actively involved with numerous children’s organizations and causes.
Fred Penner certainly had an impact on my young life, and it was a thrill to meet him in person. In our conversation, we spoke about his life growing up in Winnipeg, the surprising story of how he came up with ideas for Fred Penner’s Place, and whether he would ever consider running for political office.
Originally posted at broadcastingcanada.com. Edited for republication.
Kevin Caners hosts The Public, a weekly radio interview show for CIUT at the University of Toronto. Learn more about Broadcasting Canada, his series celebrating CBC voices and personalities, at broadcastingcanada.com.