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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Green Bay-based children’s entertainer keeps on keepin’ on, Part 1

Critic At Large

Randy Peterson

Children’s entertainer Randy Peterson poses in his home studio in Green Bay. (Janet Peterson)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

Randy Peterson says he’s been busier than ever. Well, was until the coronavirus COVID-19. But he’ll be back.

Kids and families will see him perform at a school or a library or a fair or a show someplace around Wisconsin, or beyond.

There is no way of knowing how many people have seen or heard the Green Bay-based children’s entertainer over three-plus decades.

This article is part one of two – today and tomorrow – about Randy Peterson’s career, which is laced with surprises, like this:

“I’ll tell you the neatest thing as far as my music about reading,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s what has happened with one of my songs, ‘I’m Going to Read a Book Today.’

“I did the song for years. I wrote it in 1997.

“A teacher from Denmark Elementary School called me once and asked if I would be willing to do that song as a video at the Denmark Elementary School. He arranged a setup – and it was a one-shot thing involving the entire school – where I walk or kind of dance through the halls lip synching to this song of mine. As we go through the hall, all the kids in the school are in the hallways. There’s a path for me that wound up the steps through the hallway, through the library, through different classrooms, and it ended up in the gym. As I pass every kid and go around the next corner, that last group would high tail it to the gym. And so when I got to the gym, the entire school is there waiting, and we ended up the video with all the kids being a group. Well, it was shot in one take, so what we did was what we got. It was a big undertaking, but he didn’t want to disturb the whole school to the extent of spending hours and hours…

“(A)nd he put it on the Internet. It got a few views, not a lot, mostly parents at the school.

“But about a year later, I got an email from the library board in Singapore, and they had seen it.”

Singapore is a big city that is also a small country on the other side of the world, near the Equator.

“They asked if I would be willing to send the background music track. I sent it to them, and they had the winner of ‘Singapore Idol’ – which is also a TV show there – to do my part. He sang his vocal over backup tracks that I made right here in the room I’m in, and they recorded a much more polished version of that song. They used it as their big theme for the Singapore Library. That was about five years ago.

“But schools all over the world have seen that video. I’ve been contacted by a school in Jerusalem that did it. In the middle of the night, we did like a facetime live, and I got to watch them do that song in a school in Jerusalem. They did it in a different way, but they still performed it for their parents.

“In Spain, England, all over the United States, there are schools using that song in different ways because they saw it on the Internet.

“One of the neatest things was just a few months ago, a motivational teaching speaker contacted me from China, and he used the song in a huge rally of teachers. Something like 1,500 teachers from China were in a big gymnasium all doing that song. It’s really cool to see that. Of anything I’ve written, that’s the one that’s made the biggest splash.”

You can see how infectious the videos are by looking them up on the Internet.

Scene from video of Singapore version of Randy Peterson’s song.

Randy Peterson found his children’s entertainer career by accident. Things started with an electric guitar he received as a Christmas gift from his parents when he was age 11

“I was about a fifth or sixth grader, and the Beatles were popular,” he said. “A lot of my friends were into them. I really wasn’t that much. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them, it just didn’t make me want to get a guitar. But it was when ‘The Monkees’ TV show was on, I got hooked on that show. That one appealed to me. I was 11 years old, and it just made me want to get a guitar.

“We got a brochure in the mail from Henri’s Music (a store in Green Bay) before Christmas, and I kept harping on it. And don’t you know it, I got an electric guitar that year.

“The coupon was for two free lessons. I figured that would be easily enough. (Laughs). After those two lessons I realized I (sighs) needed more, so I ended up taking lessons for the next seven years.

“It was a big, big commitment on my parents’ part. Everything is because of my parents. We lived on a farm north of Oconto Falls, so that was 40 miles at least to get there once a week. On a farmer’s schedule, that was not easy. And to take me all the way to Green Bay once a week – and this was in the ’60s and ’70s – so it was a lot farther then. And I just kept on and showed a real interest in it.

“About six years later when I graduated from high school, they gave me my first acoustic guitar. And that’s the guitar I still use today. I’ve used that graduation gift for every show I’ve ever done. It’s got its age, it’s got the Willie Nelson hole from strumming it too hard, and I’ve had it repaired and fixed and patched together, and I’m still using that guitar all the time. I have more guitars, but that’s my main guitar.

With acoustic guitar in 1975.

“It’s just full of character. It just shows its age. It’s got cracks all over. Once, a kid sat down on it on stage. I had kids on stage with me, and I was dumb enough to have the guitar sitting on the floor, and a little toddler backed up and sat right down on the front of it. Caved the top end in. Still plays, though. Still plays. I got it fixed.”

Randy Peterson kidded about looking at old photos: “I recognize that guitar, but I don’t know that person playing it.

“I treasure it more and more. I never thought that guitar would last through my whole life, especially playing it as much as I do. The hours. When I go to a school, I’m using that guitar from 8 o’clock ’til 3 o’clock – all day long, and for five days at a stretch. And all these residencies.

The gift guitar today.

“That guitar gets played so hard, and it just keeps going. I wish my parents knew at this point what an investment that was for them.”

Did they appreciate his playing?

“They did. My father passed away in 1981 in an accident, and I was playing out at that time. I had been playing through high school in various things – garage rock band and the pep band – and played a lot with it.

“When I got married, my wife (Janet) and I played as a duo through the ’80s. So he saw when we were playing out, doing that kind of thing. And my mom was around until just about 10 years ago, so I was well into my career then. She got to see what I actually ended up doing, and so I’m glad about that.”

Randy and Janet Peterson.

How does Randy Peterson get gigs?

“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “Since I’ve become slightly more savvy with the computer age, every wintertime I send out to all the libraries in Wisconsin a synopsis of the show that I’m putting together. This year, I recorded a little video of what I would be doing, and I sent that out. That will usually create work or interest.

“Many libraries have had me many times over the years. In a lot of the cases it’s just, ‘Well, we didn’t have you last summer, let’s have him back this year’ if it’s a show that really fits…

“A big part of my summer is creating those shows, which translates into more work because I’m able to say, ‘Hey, I have a show that will fit your theme like a glove, plus it promotes reading.

“For school shows, it’s more or less the same. I create shows that have a content that is, through my experience, things that schools want and need. If they’re going to have an assembly, it’s rarely a musical fun thing. Usually, it will have that content.

“So I’ve created not only my reading shows which would work for schools, but also I create a show that’s about being respectful, responsible and being safe. In that case, I send flyers via email to schools, or sometimes through regular mail. So I drum up work that way myself. A lot of the other stuff comes from having been around so long and so many people know of me. So I get a lot of work just from return business.”

Performing at Little Chute Library.

The formula has worked.

“I have been performing more than ever,” Randy Peterson said. “Last summer was just a tremendous summer. I just had an incredible amount of work.

“It kind of goes through phases. Schools were real big for a long time, but then when the budgets started getting cut back, that kind of hurt as far as my workload in schools went. But it’s kind of been swinging back again now where I’m doing more residencies and being more busy at schools.

“A few of my competitors have retired. That may have something to do with it… I’m still going strong. I have no plans on stopping anytime soon. …

“I think I’m performing better in certain situations and then just end up with more work, whether it be a county fair or just different situations. I think I’m getting better as I do this over the years and get more experience and just finding better ways to do it. For me, it just transferred into at least as busy or busier than I’ve ever been.”

The coronavirus COVID-19 is messing up his schedule, though.

“It has pretty much wiped it clean,” Randy Peterson said. “It began with April and now runs through May, though I still am waiting on May… I have two artist-in-residencies in May that I’m hoping that if school would somehow get back in session that I’d still be able to do those, but it doesn’t look good. So I’m crossing my fingers for June at this point. I haven’t had any cancellations yet for summer. I’m hoping that things get back to normal.

“My spring is not good right now, but it’s giving me a chance to work on my music and some preparation for recording that I usually never get around to. So it has opened that up for me.”

Like with many performers, the coronavirus experience has spurred Randy Peterson to think of alternatives.

“If these residencies don’t happen where I’m usually at a school for a whole week writing songs with kids, I’m playing around with an idea of approaching the principal if there would be any way to do a version of my residency online. That way, we would write songs about what we’re doing and how we’re spending our time and using this experience to actually write songs about it… That’s something I really haven’t tried before – the whole facetime kind of thing…

“My daughter is a music teacher in Syracuse (New York), and she has started to do this where you can see like 15 different students all at one time on your screen and you can interact with small groups like that… I’m playing around with that. I don’t know if it will happen, but that might be a way to actually use it firsthand.”

Performing in Sister Bay.

Change seems to be in the wind. Speaking of change, Randy Peterson was asked whether kids are kids or have they changed?

“When kids are in a situation where there aren’t distractions, I feel they’re pretty much the same,” he said. “When I’m in a school classroom, if I’m sitting with a group of kids, they are every bit as into it as they ever were. They’re a little more sophisticated. Their tastes are a little bit more sophisticated. By that I mean they’re more into the grownup music than they used to be. Parents are allowing their kids to listen to everything. So from the very young on, it’s just more and more where they’re into the regular, grown-up music. So that’s a big change.

“I have kind of changed. Anything that I write now is very different from when I started writing. Earlier on, my kid’s music was much more sing-songy and young sounding. I still write songs like that, but it doesn’t carry across the years as much. So I’m writing more music where if I were writing for grownups I would be writing the same kind of tunes, same kind of melodies or whatever – more sophisticated earlier.

“When I’m in a situation where the kids are focused and there aren’t distractions, they’re pretty much the same. They act the same. But if find anything where there are distractions, like fairs and any kind of festivals, I do find that it’s harder to keep them than it used to be. They’re just ready to move on. Their attention span isn’t as long as it used to be… Their tastes are older younger and their attention span is not what it used to be. I think that’s a direct correlation of looking at screens all day.

“And they just have a lot more entertainment for the kids. There’s so much more now than when I started. Thirty years ago, there was so little children’s music. And now, there’s just endless YouTubes and endless Disney music or shows or whatever for them. For a performer like me, that translates into I don’t sell as much music as I used to because there’s so much out there they don’t have to.

“Parents used to come up, ‘Wow! Something for kids! Let’s grab it! We’ll play this in the car!’ Well, that’s not a problem anymore for them. So it’s changed in that way. That may be part of why I’m working a little bit more, too, because it’s almost a need.

“It’s the same with even your big-time national performers. They have to tour a lot more these days because the sales of physical product is – for anybody – such a small percentage of what it was. So everybody’s touring more than they used to have to.”

Monday: You can find out about the shaping of Randy Peterson’s career and his memorable moments as this column continues.

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