We didn’t have Sesame Street or Paw Patrol or Blues Clues when I was a kid. We had Aunt Olly. Olly Penner hosted a program on the radio station CFAM for kids called Children’s Party and I was a devoted fan in my childhood.
Like many families in the late 1950s and early 1960s we didn’t have a television and along with thousands of other children from all over western Canada and the central northern United States I sat near the radio every afternoon while Aunt Olly read stories like Tall Fireman Paul, Big Red or Johnny Appleseed and played funny songs like I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly and There’s a Hole in the Bucket. If your mother sent in a request, Aunt Olly would also wish you a Happy Birthday over the air and even tell you where your Mom had hidden your present.
I remember hurrying home from school and sitting down at the table with the snack Mom had ready for me and listening to Aunt Olly.
In 1989 I was on the staff of the magazine The Mennonite Mirror and was assigned to write a feature story about Olly Penner for the magazine. I was excited to have the chance to interview my childhood idol. I found out that not only had Olly done a children’s program for CFAM she had also hosted a variety of other shows like Ladies First, Hints for Homemakers, The Garden Show, and Social Calendar. She co-hosted the radio station’s morning show with anchor Jim McSweeny for 13 years.
Remember this was a time when most women did not work outside the home, something Olly Penner was criticized for by some radio listeners. She said the support of her husband Vic who was the editor of the Altona newspaper The Red River Valley Echo but was often referred to by the public as ‘Aunt Olly’s husband’, made it possible for her to keep up with all her radio station commitments which included many public appearances. She also found time to write a regular newspaper column, publish a cookbook, and be an active participant in several community organizations, all while raising two sons.
The day I interviewed her she showed me the thousands of fan letters she had received from children. Many had sent her photographs and drawings and I recognized some of the names. But Olly also had fan mail from adults; grandparents who enjoyed her show, farmers who listened to her while driving their tractors, recent immigrants who said they were learning English by listening to her, and parents who said they got their children to behave by threatening to take away the privilege of listening to Children’s Party. She even had a fan letter from a clergyman who said he’d ‘fallen in love with her voice’.
Olly retired in 1987 and when I interviewed her in 1989 she was already a grandmother and was enjoying traveling with her husband, and spending more time with her family. Olly Penner died in 2015 at the age of 86. She had a legion of fans in a time when media programming aimed specifically at children was a rarity.
The full original article I wrote for the Mennonite Mirror can be accessed on page 4 of the May/June 1989 issue here.