WINNIPEGGERS can come to Fred Penner's place this week, but don't expect to enter his house through his magical hollow log.
As many a Canadian kid knows, the ever-friendly children's performer used to crawl through a log to begin each episode of CBC-TV's Fred Penner Place during its 1985-1997 run. Fred Penner's real place in River Heights is hosting a touring cabaret show called the The Picture of Happiness for three nights beginning Thursday.
Penner, famous for leading sing-alongs to signature tunes like The Cat Came Back and Sandwiches, is not the star of this salon show -- he is opening up his River Heights house as a cosy venue for 30-35 people per evening. His place won't be crashed by grown-up Fredheads, as only ticket buyers (available at www.brownpapertickets.com) will be given the secret address to gain access to Penner's inner sanctum, which, according to urban legend, features his famous wooden prop.
"I don't have a log in my living room," says Penner, setting the record straight once and for all about his home decor. "I'm sure there will be some Fred's Place curiosity.
"My motivation for hosting the show at my house was simply to bring this impressive, intimate production to a Winnipeg audience. I saw it three times in Toronto. I really love the show."
The prairie home tour of The Picture of Happiness stops in here between runs in Edmonton and Calgary.
The picture referred to in the title is a vintage 1941 photograph discovered by Toronto actor Brad Hampton in the basement of his grandmother's home 25 years ago. It depicted two men sitting on a picnic blanket, arms around each other in what appeared to be a picture of happiness. One was his grandfather, but Hampton's mother refused to identify the other man and abruptly ended the conversation.
"I asked my grandmother and she didn't say anything either," says actor/singer Hampton, who is performing here with pianist Patti Loach. "There was complete silence around this photo."
That continued for 20 years until Hampton pried the information out of his mother. The story no one wanted to talk about became the story that Hampton and director Rae Ellen Bodie wanted to hear and develop into a contemporary cabaret.
"Secrets are pandemic," says Hampton, 47, during a telephone interview. "I think the show speaks to everyone because of their family secrets."
The idea to stage The Picture of Happiness in private homes for a small group grew out of its setting in a family home. The hour-long evening of story and song is typically presented in living rooms and other unconventional spots.
"It's like an old-time party in a kitchen," he says. "We tell the story and sing some songs. There is no fourth wall. All that stuff has been stripped away. This is like unplugged theatre."
Hampton and Bodie are transplanted Albertans living in Toronto but they were keen to return to the Prairies, where they still feel the most at home. They joke that all the people they hang out with in Toronto are Prairie expats. Since the show is about Prairie people, they wanted to take their show back to big sky country.
"When we were in Edmonton, we all took pictures of the sky," he says. "We were like people who hold up their cellphones to get better reception, we were holding up our cameras to get good pictures of the sky. Then we put them on our laptops because we don't see that here."
Penner is proud to be making The Picture of Happiness happen for Winnipeggers -- and maybe one of them just might come to own Fred Penner's place.
"I expect to be selling the house before too long," says Penner. "So on the positive side, the show might attract a buyer."