Toronto Star Article
Fred Penner and the cat are both back
He stars in a musical based on his famous song, The Cat Came Back, at Young People’s Theatre until March 16
The cat came back. So did Fred Penner.
The beloved children’s entertainer who leapt to national celebrity with his engaging song about that indomitable feline is back in the limelight again, after more than a decade of what he called “treading water” once his CBC TV series Fred Penner’s Place was cancelled in 1997.
Those with fond memories of the lanky bearded guy with the kindest eyes in the world will be able to renew his acquaintance at Young People’s Theatre from now until March 16. He’s appearing there in a theatrical version of his signature song, “The Cat Came Back.” It also stars the joyous Jay Brazeau, best known here for his turn as Edna in Hairspray.
Penner is 66 now, hair grey but posture straight, still every inch the Manitoba man who first became a celebrity when the vinyl version of his famous song was released in 1979.
“I toured with Raffi for five years, which gave me a national presence,” he recalls, taking a break from rehearsals at YPT. “Then Dodi Robb at CBC gave me Fred Penner’s Place and I did it for 13 years.”
He’s always ready to entertain children with any kind of a physical or mental challenge, the legacy of his younger sister Susan.
“She was a huge influence on me,” he says, his eyes showing a deep sadness. “She passed when I was in my early 20s and she was 12. She was a Down syndrome child with a severe heart murmur. Inoperable.
“But watching her grow up and seeing how deeply music affected her, I learned so much. She would put on the soundtrack to West Side Story and I’d watch her getting consumed by the music. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s real power there.’
“The value of music is not to be denied and I’ve seen it on so many levels, and I’ve been blessed with a career that has allowed me to share it. Never underestimate the ability of music to make a difference in the life of a child.”
Although it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that Penner saw what he could do with his gift, he was in love with music from an early age.
“In Grade 1, I had a teacher named Miss Menzies, a wonderful woman who had a happy, bright, glowing face. She had a song that was part of our daily routine and the words changed every day.”
Penner turns into a 6-year-old boy again as he sings the ditty.
“Singing is fun, singing is fun, singing is fun for everyone.
The more you sing, the better you sing, so sing, sing, sing.”
He laughs. “She’d put any verb in there: laughing, running, studying. It always worked. What it did was to put a rhythm, a beat to the daily routine, which was a wonderful thing.”
As he grew into adolescence, he found himself singing more and more.
“At Kelvin High School, I did Gilbert and Sullivan, parts like Old Adam Goodheart in Ruddigore. Then at Rainbow Stage, I played all the waiter roles, Rudolph in Hello, Dolly!, Mordcha the Innkeeper in Fiddler onthe Roof. I was the hospitality guy. Come on in, it’s Fred Penner’s Place!
“But nobody ever said this was an option as my life path.”
So he went to the University of Winnipeg, studying economics and psychology. “My father had never gone to college and he wanted me to do what he hadn’t done. And so I did. I was almost ready to become a civil servant.
“But then my sister Suzie passed away and my dad died a year later. Mortality checks. Big time. I decided I had to sing and for a few years I played the bar and lounge circuit across the country. I played the Midwich Cuckoo Tavern on Church St. Oh, it’s long gone now.”
Then he moved back to Winnipeg with a dancer he had married, Odette Heyn, and they started a children’s dance company. That led to him being asked to make a record. It was “The Cat Came Back” and it was an instant success.
“Such a strange song for people to embrace,” says Penner, shaking his head. “It was written in 1892 to be sung on the Chautauqua circuit and some of the original verses were very violent, about guns and dynamite.”
Penner’s version had a gentler pull, but a powerful one.
“I sang it once at a concert and there was a woman waiting to see me at the back of the hall. She had bought the record and brought it to the hospital, where her son, who was only 4, had a brain tumour. They played the record as a bonding thing for the whole family and she wanted me to know how valuable it had been.”
His voice quakes a bit. “I realized then that this was not a little throwaway. This was not just getting up onstage and going, ‘Wackawackawacka.’ There is this undercurrent to my music that will always be there and I must be responsible to it, and that has never changed.”
Penner’s eyes glow with the sincerity that has marked his onstage persona. “I value so deeply what I have been allowed to do. I love my life. I love what I am doing. I have never condescended. What you see is what you get. I’m not playing any games.”
The singer’s sincerity is obvious, but what’s the power of the song?
“It’s engaging to listen to with that enjoyable pause before each chorus, which gets longer and longer as the song goes on,” says Penner.
“But the major thing is the fact that the cat is still invincible. All these terrible things can happen, but the cat comes back! If you can still come out the other side with positivity, that’s the victory of each individual.”
Penner had to struggle to find that positive side of himself after his show was suddenly cancelled in 1997.
“One day I was doing it, the next day it was over. That’s how sudden it was. Some new executive wanted to make their mark.
“I floundered without showing it much, but the angst was still inside me. My agency kept finding dates for me to perform, but it just didn’t feel the same.”
Then in 2008, the answer to his problem appeared.
“I got an email from a McGill student who used to listen to me when he was a kid. He told me a bunch of his friends were all reminiscing about my show and wondered how I was doing. I told him that he could get his student union to invite me out and they could see for themselves.
“They asked me to come by late on a Friday afternoon to Gerts Bar and I did. The room only holds 100 people, but there were over 200 jammed in. They went nuts. I spent 2-1/2 hours there and sang all kinds of songs. Hugs happened and love and laughter and tears. It was a love-in. And I said to myself, ‘Yes, this is it, here we go again.’”
Since then, Penner has become a huge attraction on the college circuit, and audiences of all ages are flocking to hear this gentle troubadour once again.
“It only proves one thing,” he says with a grin. “You’re never too old for Fred Penner.”
FIVE FAVE ENTERTAINERS
Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam)
“I’m not surprised he shifted into the Islamic world because he was always about peace and love.”
“I always had an affinity to performers like him. He was my generation.”
“‘Big Yellow Taxi,’ what a song! Albums like Court and Spark and Blue. They have to be on everybody’s play list.”
“He was a man who made gentle magic with his voice and his guitar. I cherished that.”
“He knew the power of an important song with a strong lyric and a melody that stayed in your brain.”