Fred Penner has a positive and powerful message which should resonate with the supporters of Saskatchewan Kinsmen Telemiracle 43.
“Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child,” said Penner. “I carry that challenge within me through music.”
Penner is making a first appearance at Telemiracle, bringing credentials from a long career as a children’s performer which began with the release of an album called The Cat Came Back. The career extended into a long run on television and has carried through to headlining major festivals in North America.
He comes to Telemiracle at a unique time in its history. In March 2018, its fans donated $7,151,256 to arguably Saskatchewan’s best-known charity, an all-time single-season record.
Part of the success for the record total was attributed to Philip Thatcher, professor emeritus in animal and poultry sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, who died on Feb. 27, 2017, and left a legacy of $1.5 million to Telemiracle. Aside from his educational roles in life, Thatcher was a member and past-president of the POW City Kinsmen Club in Saskatoon.
Telemiracle will be staged at TCU Place in Saskatoon from March 2 at 9 p.m. until March 3 at 5 p.m., and will be broadcast live on a network of Saskatchewan CTV affiliates.
No one, not even Saskatoon’s Adam Logue, the present Telemiracle chair, dares to predict how Saskatchewan will respond financially to this year’s show. All he can promise is that the revenue will be spent wisely in supporting mobility equipment to those with special needs, community vans and equipment in hospitals and health centres, and travel costs for families to accompany their children to medical facilities. The needs are ongoing, said Logue.
The loss of a 12-year-old sister, Susan, in 1971 and the loss of his father a year later led Penner into a life “where I did some deep soul-searching and made some life-changing decisions.
“My sister was born with Down Syndrome and we knew she had a serious heart murmur. She was growing into teenage life, using a heavy duty blood compound. And then we lost her.
“I could always tell how much she appreciated music. For me, that love of music by her gave a huge emotional lift to my spirit. The power of the music was so clear.”
Penner has recorded more than a dozen albums. He was on Canadian TV with a show called Fred Penner’s Place at a time when Sharon, Lois and Bram, and Raffi were also opening up the children’s music market. He was the first children’s entertainer to play the Los Angeles Amphitheatre. The Los Angeles Parent magazine called him “the Canadian Minister of Positivity.” He’s worked with UNICEF, UNESCO, World Vision and appears at national conferences about Down Syndrome.
His enthusiasm and purpose have never flagged.
In partnership with World Vision, Penner has just produced and released a single, Somebody Believes, and he’s hoping that Telemiracle will allow the song to be his signature on the television marathon.
“My life is dedicated to the children we must support. For more than four decades, I have believed in what I do. My work is relevant at every level. My audiences now range from four to 84, many of whom will recognize me from The Cat Came Back days. Many of them come up and tell me their beautiful family stories. It’s a pretty amazing trip that I’ve been on.”
There’s diversity in his presentations, too. Later in March, he will be appearing with the Regina Symphony Orchestra and then the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. In July, he will be at the Mariposa Folk Festival, a visit he makes every three to four years. And there is the usual round of children’s festivals.
Penner joins the national Telemiracle cast which is blessed with experienced hands like Beverley Mahood, Brad Johner and the Johner brothers, Andrea Menard, Jess Moskaluke, Chris Henderson, and Jeffery Straker and his sister, Jill.
Menard, who used Saskatoon as a home base for much of her entertainment life but now lives in Vancouver, is “happy to accept an invitation again because part of my work is to be of service. My gift is my talent. It’s like coming back to a family.”
She hadn’t been available the last two years because of other commitments.
She is still acting, having performed in two plays over a five-month period at the Charlottetown Festival last summer, and will soon be opening in The Orchard, a play for The Arts Club in Vancouver.
She is co-writing a musical with Leslie Arden, based somewhat on the Starlight tours near Saskatoon, and she doesn’t want to reveal too much until she’s talked with some of the First Nations families in Saskatoon.
“I’m speaking and advocating more and more. I support the leadership in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement. I’ve lectured in the reconciliation journey that many have gone through. I co-wrote a song, Silent No More, with Robert Walsh and sang it and led a conference at Stanley Park in Vancouver during the summer.
“My life is more about promoting balance, reconciliation and unity among all nations. I want to create a healing process that helps more people escaping from off-balance situations and going back into their more sacred selves. I hope I can be a powerful voice for social justice.”
Menard comes back to Telemiracle with a versatile collection of successes. She starred in the one-woman play, The Velvet Devil, in 1996 and it later became a TV movie. She was featured in TV series like Moccasin Flats, Rabbit Fall and Blackstone, and was a voice in the animated Wapos Bay. She has written and sung award-winning albums.
Pulling the 20-hour spectacle together is the job of Norm Shuttleworth and his wife, Charlene, who are in co-producing roles.
Shuttleworth is no stranger to the job. He grew up in Brandon, studied electronics repair and soon got a position with CKX-TV in the Manitoba city.
“After a year and half learning the trade with CKX, I saw an advertisement for a position at CKBI, Prince Albert. I was offered a job. For some reason, I told myself I should stop in at CFQC Saskatoon on the way back to Brandon and I was interviewed by Gerry MacLeod. I was hired in 1981.
“Three years later, I was right in the thick of things at Telemiracle, working in the mobile which came from Edmonton. I watched Fred Vos, then the co-director, calling all the camera shots. I learned so much in that first year. Ever since 1984, I have been involved in Telemiracle in one way or another. I was co-producer with Ian Roach for last 10 years.”
In March 2017, Shuttleworth stepped down from his job at CTV Saskatoon but retained his position with Telemiracle.
He takes part in the November auditions for the Saskatchewan cast, challenged to pick the 70 out of a field of 170. He is responsible for building the national cast. On Telemiracle weekend, he’s in charge of just over 100 in the technical system.
He seldom sleeps from 7 a.m. on Saturday until 10 p.m. on Sunday, acknowledging “if I find a cot in a room, I may sleep for an hour and a half during the middle of the night.
“The Kin and their volunteers do an extraordinary job. And so do the folks from SaskTel and the TV network. In essence, we have a well-oiled machine that has learned to cope with hundreds of details.”
The stage is set and the call, Ring Those Phones, will soon be the weekend cry for Telemiracle success.