By Glenn Alderson
VANCOUVER – We met Rudolf Penner on the sixth floor of the Bay, shopping for socks before an umbrella party that he was attending that evening at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The smell of holidays was in the air and he looked suspiciously similar to Santa so we couldn’t resist asking him for a chat about what his life was all about living south of the North Pole. Little did we know we’d be getting a glimpse in to the window of a wonderful man who’s an artist, activist and all around good soul. Penner’s business card reads artist, poet, musician and computer lessons but after our chat we learned he was so much more than all of those things combined. You never know, maybe he actually is Santa.
How long have you been living in Vancouver?
Rudolf Penner: Since 1960, with a brief hiatus in Clearbrook, BC where I played my harmonica for a bunch of cows a few times. Although they didn’t pay me, they honoured me with rapt attention, came running, but always kept chewing their cud.
Has anyone ever told you that you have an uncanny resemblance to Santa?
RP: This is a no brainer. Even the cops think I look like Santa! One pair of them got me last year and thought I was a thief. I’m glad they didn’t get out the cuffs. I’ve got my own cuffs and they’re on my boot tops. Luckily they have hardcore shockproof laptops, which they viewed to determine I was not the thief. They used voice recognition to identify me, I believe. Never asked for I.D. but just asked me to say my name. No, I didn’t say Santa. Apparently a lot of older guys with beards look exactly like me.
Have you ever seriously considered working part-time as a mall Santa over the holiday season?
RP: I was recruited by one local mall, with photos and everything taken, but upon reading the contract, I found it looked like it had been quickly copied and pasted together from the web, so I declined. Santa, in this mall, had to go waltzing thru the mall playing an instrument and singing Christmas carols. His other duties included sitting in a Santa chair and receiving visits from children. The contract, however, specified, that under no circumstance was Santa supposed to touch the kids. I imagined a scenario where a parent would place the young boy on my lap or knee and leave him there, and I would not be able to hold him up.
The other thing that disturbed me about the Santa role is what if I don’t know the toy the child or hipster is asking for? Well, there are Santa schools for that, you know? And they teach you all the ins and outs of being a mall Santa.
One woman at a park gig about eight years ago asked me to get her boyfriend out of jail. I obliged. Yes, I was dressed in a Santa Suit and played up the empathy card quite heavily. It worked!
You mentioned the harmonica. What other instruments do you play?
RP: I play the flute, organ, synthesizer, piano, guitar, and drums. I am surprised, because I can still play all of these items despite having to divide my time. If I have a gig with one instrument, I’ll focus on that for three to eight weeks and seem to be able to get on well. I recently played the UBC organic farm as a busker, joined by a pal named Daniel, on the washtub bass. We made hardly any cash but walked away with armloads of fresh produce and coupons for the farm market there.
Do you remember the first or one of the more memorable live music shows you saw in Vancouver?
RP: I saw April Wine at the Commodore, some time after 1987. It was incredible. I have often wondered why they never upgraded themselves to a modern stage set-up, but the music was awesome.
What are you listening to right now?
RP: I listen to old rock by accident when I’m surfing online. Other than that I’m just listening to Stripped, a fantastic album by the Rolling Stones. I really like some of the newer bands, but since I seldom listen to the radio, I find it hard to hear them. I went to see the Sheepdogs and Wintersleep at a New Year’s celebration at Canada Place. Thank you Canada for acknowledging Canadian talent. The Sheepdogs are coming to the Commodore on Feb. 16.
What is your favourite thing about the Christmas holidays?
RP: That you’re allowed to dress up your place in all the bells and whistles, baubles and ornaments hanging from wires in your home, visit Christmas tree farms in town, drink Black Russians, eat Halvah and occasionally someone is cheered up just by the fact that they’re in the Christmas spirit or they see me and think of Santy Claus.
What is something you see in Vancouver that makes you particularly excited to call this city home?
RP:I see the acceptance of people from myriad other countries. It is a relief to hear less racism, and we are basically forced to deal with a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and other-viewed populace. I find the young people in the city are particularly polite to me, and I don’t know why. I attribute it to TV. In the ’90s programs were dialoguing about so many different things that the youth picked up on and seem to have incorporated it into their way of thinking.
What’s one thing you would change about Vancouver?
RP:I would like to see all the developers and real estate sellers in jail. And more creative live music venues that cater to local musicians.
What do you think is one of Vancouver’s best-kept secrets?
RP: The China Cloud (524 Main St.) Wednesdays, 9 p.m. Be there or be oval. It feels like a private nightclub; there you can hear psychedelic rock, folk and jazz and get cheap Bulleit. One of the last underground jazz joints folks.hi how are you