The middle child of five, Fred Penner was 12 when his youngest sister, Susie, was born with Down Syndrome and a severe heart murmur. Growing up with Susie—and losing her in his early 20s—had a lifelong impact on the beloved children’s entertainer, who shot to fame with his debut album The Cat Came Back in the ‘70s and hosted beloved children’s TV show Fred Penner’s Place throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. At 70 years old, Penner is entertaining a new generation of fans with his latest album, Hear the Music, and still actively involved in the Down Syndrome community. Here he talks about his childhood memories of Susie, her influence on his life, and his special connection with kids with special needs.
Tell us about your sister, Susie. Susie was born in the 1950s, with a severe heart murmur—she was what they called then the “blue baby.” Fetal operations at that time were not particularly successful, so they said to my parents: ‘You have a Down Syndrome child… we could operate, but the odds are 50-50 that she would survive.” My parents didn’t like those odds. They said ‘If we do not go for the operation, what’s the alternative? They were told she would probably live until puberty. And that’s exactly what happened. She passed in the early ‘70s.
My sister was mostly nonverbal, but we used whole language when we spoke to her, and she knew clearly what was going on and made her feelings clear. It was really wonderful having the opportunity to communicate through other elements too: through facial expressions, grunts and sounds. The beauty of language is that you can make a couple of good sounds that will quickly pinpoint what you need.
What was your relationship like?I was a teen when Susie was a child. We would play. We would dance. We had a piano at home that Susie and I would plunk on together. And we had a record player. One of my strongest memories is of her playing West Side Story. She would put it on, and she would sit there and listen to it with every pore of her being, and when it was over, she would sort of flop down and sob for a while, then get up and be happy afterwards. It had a huge impact on me to see that kind of emotional connection to music.
You’ve said before that your sister and father’s deaths, in close succession, prompted you to go into music. Tell us about that decision. I’d just got my BA in Economics, really to fulfill my father’s dream, but I was a C-student at best—and I think they only squeaked me up to a C, because they were tired of seeing my mush. I was primed to be a civil servant, then Susie passed away from her heart condition. And then Dad died about a year later. My world was rocked. Mortality is very sobering, and I went into some pretty careful soul-searching and acknowledged that the only thing I’d ever done that gave me any bliss was performing.
Why did you choose to perform for children? That was actually an organic transition. I started out playing in lounges, bars and coffee houses at the time—covering Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot and the Beatles. But I also volunteered, and then worked, in residential treatment centres with physically and mentally challenged kids through university, in Winnipeg. Some of the kids had conditions like schizophrenia and had very deep challenges. Music was a part of my link with them. We had singalongs. They gravitated to me. I had no training to do that but I was attempting to have a positive interaction with these children who were often rejected and told they were less than human. It just gets inside of you when you see that happening.
A short while later I was in a band, and through friends I the young woman who became my wife for 30 years, Odette. We started a children’s dance theatre company called Sundance. I’d write music and she would choreograph. That led to an offer to do a kids’ record. A doctor in Winnipeg gave me about $8,000 and carte blanche. The record The Cat Came Back evolved from that.
As your musical career progressed, how did you stay involved with the Down Syndrome community? I’d be a featured entertainer for Manitoba Down Syndrome Society’s Buddy Walk in Winnipeg: a 3km fundraiser walk and a big fun Sunday afternoon event. And I attended the national conference for Down Syndrome in Ottawa a number of years ago. The central theme was “Celebrate Being,” and that spawned a song of the same name on my new album.
What’s the song about?I wrote that song to try and capture the joy of the Down Syndrome world. The kids are so bright and so on top of everything and they run up for hugs and they just draw you into the purity of their existence.
Celebrate being a dreamer
Celebrate being real
Celebrate being good, good friends, telling each other how you feel.
Celebrate being happy
Celebrate being proud
Celebrate being effervescent, and shouting your name out loud.
Over the years, how have you seen your music touch kids with special needs? I’ve had so many expressions from parents about how my music was special to their children, particularly children with autism. Often they saying “My autistic child… I don’t know why, but your music talks to him or her and just gets right inside them.” I’ve met kids who’ve memorized every word and every nuance of every song on their favourite album.
And at one of the first concerts I did after The Cat Came Back was released,
I was signing records, and a woman was waiting at the back of the theatre to speak with me. When it was just the two of us, she said “Hi, I have to tell you something.”
Then she went on to tell me she had three children. The youngest was four years old when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and ended up in the hospital. “We had a little record player,” she told me. “We brought it into the hospital and played The Cat Came Back over and over, and our family bonded at this most difficult time with your music. Our child eventually passed away, but I wanted you to know how important your music was to us.”
All of a sudden, the deepest human connection in the most difficult of parenting times was put on my platter, and it was such a gift. This is what you can do with music. And that has never gone away from me. To be able to do that for 45 years of my life—and to bring music into children’s lives—I’m a happy man.