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Penner's Corny Humor Has Kernels of Truth

July 11, 1991|LYNNE HEFFLEY | Lynne Heffley is a staff writer for The Times.

Who is that tall, bearded gent with the guitar and the warm voice, singing about "Otto the hippo-o-potto" and the glory of sandwiches--"jam or ham or cucumber, any kind will do"?

Fred Penner may look like the dad next door, but don't be fooled. This children's recording artist and TV performer has attained superstar status in Canada and the United States. In concerts, preschoolers clap and scream for him in boisterous acclaim--the kind usually reserved for rock stars.

Penner and his Cat's Meow Band will make a concert tour stop at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park on Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m.

Fans can count on singing along--Penner plans to do tunes "from every album I've done, except the Christmas album," including "Happy Feet," "You Can Do It If You Try" and "Collections," an evocative reminiscence of "rocks and shells and bottle caps" and "pictures in your heart."

Helping kids get their feelings out is what Fred Penner is all about. "Communication has always been the foundation of my performing skills, I think," Penner said from Vancouver, B.C., during a break in the taping of his Nickelodeon TV show, "Fred Penner's Place."

"One of the things that needs to be nurtured in a child and in every individual is how to communicate feelings; to feel that strength that allows you to tell someone else what your needs are."

There's no sappiness in the way Penner accomplishes his aim. He and his band play music that is polished, professional and eclectic, with styles ranging from folk and rock 'n' roll to tropical and "semi-classical."

His humor is delightfully kid-corny--check out that bath towel he folds into a dancing plucked chicken right before your eyes.

Underlying it all is Penner's reassuring manner that tells tiny fans it's OK to enjoy themselves.

A parent--Penner's four children are ages 3 months to 9 years--he makes sure his concerts are adult-friendly, too. Along with the musical sophistication, he provides humorous asides just for them and encourages interaction between parent and child during the concert.

Penner is well aware of the difficulty of engaging a preschool audience for any length of time. "I never sit down," he said. "There's always some motion happening, my body is moving, there's a little dancing happening. The children in the audience need to have a constant stimulation, visual or audio; they need to know that something is happening.

"It's important to keep that focus channeled to the front, so energy isn't dispersed in the wrong direction. So this process of communication and dialogue continues."

Last year, Penner was the first children's singer to play the Universal Amphitheatre, a venue usually reserved for big-name pop music acts; he's working on an eighth album, a second concert video, "Circle of Songs," will be released this summer and his daily Nickelodeon show has been renewed through 1993. "Things couldn't be better," he said.

"Family entertainment is my absolute goal and accomplishment," Penner added. "Ten years ago I didn't say, 'There's where I want to be in 10 years'--or even five. It's been very organic. I do things in response or in relation to what people are feeding me, and I'm overwhelmed sometimes by the strength of the energy. It's been so constantly positive.

"If I just try to keep my own center, and my own priority of family clear, it grows from there."

Who: Fred Penner.

When: Saturday, July 13, and Sunday, July 14, at 2 and 4 p.m.

Where: Knott's Berry Farm, 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park.

Whereabouts: Take the Beach Boulevard exit from the San Diego (405) Freeway and go north, or from the Riverside (91) Freeway and go south.

Wherewithal: Shows are included with admission to the park: $21.95 for adults and $9.95 for children ages 3 to 11.

Where to Call: (714) 827-1776.

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