When Fred Rogers Prods. execs decided to revisit the classic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” character Donkey Hodie in a modern puppet show for preschoolers, they knew just the team with the storytelling and puppeteering chops to bring the project to life: brothers Adam and David Rudman, the team behind Chicago-based Spiffy Pictures.
David Rudman is a Muppeteer who has played Cookie Monster on “Sesame Street” and Scooter, Janice and Beaker on “The Muppet Show,” and Adam Rudman is an Emmy-winning writer, whose credits include “Sesame Street,” “Tom & Jerry” and “Scooby-Doo.” They are co-creators and executive producers of “Donkey Hodie,” which premiered on PBS stations May 3.
The new show centers on the precocious namesake granddaughter of the original character, who appears in the new series as Grampy Hodie. Other reimagined “Mister Rogers” characters also inhabit the magical land of Someplace Else (Purple Panda, Bob Dog and Harriet Elizabeth Cow) as do new ones (Duck Duck, Clyde the Cloud and Stanley, a giant dragon). Together, they help young viewers solve problems and navigate the challenges of childhood.
The Rudmans, who also created the animated series “Nature Cat,” are taking an animated approach to filming the puppet show.
“We look at it as though it’s live-action animation,” Adam Rudman, the show’s head writer, explains.
Adds David Rudman, who directs and is the puppeteer for Grampy Hodie and other characters: “We kind of blur the line between puppetry and stop-motion animation in some ways. We play around with the scale of the characters and the scale of the world. We use different sizes of characters, and we write it as if it’s a cartoon. We don’t want to limit ourselves because it’s puppets.”
To do that, the team relies on storyboards. “We have to think ahead and figure out how we can get the best shot of Donkey running on top of a lemon or something that feels very cartoony that you can’t imagine how you could do it with a puppet,” says David Rudman.
The method allows the writers to try things they might not otherwise. Adam Rudman acknowledges there have been a couple of times the writers challenged the production crew, including the lemon bit. “Donkey had a lemonade stand and accidentally got this enormous lemon she was trying to get juice from,” he recalls. “She was jumping up and down on it, and it started to roll. That was a tough one.”
“With puppets, you don’t see their legs a lot; it’s just really half body,” David Rudman notes. “For our show, we like to see their legs on the ground at times. It helps sell that they are full-body characters. If we think like it’s animation and really push the physical comedy, it also sets [the show] apart a bit from some of the other puppet shows out there.”
“Donkey Hodie” uses a lot of physical comedy, and most of the effects are filmed in camera. “There is a little bit of blue screen, green screen, a tiny bit of digital effects,” David Rudman says. In one episode, Donkey is attempting to move her Grampy’s pet elephant and tries jumping off a seesaw, ending up in a bird’s nest. “We shot her in green landing, but going off the seesaw was all her in camera.”
It’s a lot of work, and handling the puppets can be physically demanding, so the Rudmans turned to veteran puppeteers to bring them to life. Donkey Hodie is performed by Haley Jenkins (X the Owl in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”); Stephanie D’Abruzzo (“Sesame Street,” “Avenue Q”) plays Duck Duck and Harriet Elizabeth Cow; Frankie Cordero (“Sesame Street”) is Purple Panda.
The show is filmed on a huge soundstage at PBS station WTTW Chicago, and “as you can see, we filled this space up to the brim,” says supervising producer Caroline Bandolik. Pretty much everything related to the production is housed in the space: puppets, costumes, props and sets.
Manning the puppet nerve center are puppet wrangler, costume designer and special effect supervisor Michael Schwabe and puppet wrangler/costume designer Larry Basgall, who prep the puppets before each shot.
“We repair the puppets, set them up for trick shots, rig them, make costumes,” Schwabe explains. “A lot of this is very spontaneous work, depending on what’s needed at the moment.” They also build puppets there, whenever new puppets are called for.
There are many different kinds of puppets.
“Donkey is known as a mouth and rod puppet, or hand and rod puppet,” says Schwabe. A mouth puppet is one that works with the hand controlling the mouth movements, while a rod puppet is operated by sticks and sometimes strings.
The puppets come in all shapes and sizes, from a huge dragon that’s operated by a puppeteer that actually gets inside it to small birds. “From design to finished pieces, it probably takes a couple of months” to create most of the puppets made in addition to the series regulars, says Schwabe. Right now, there are two Donkey Hodie and two Duck Duck puppets, but for the rest of the regular puppets, there’s only one version.
“So we have to take care of them,” Schwabe explains. “There’s a lot of maintenance because they are very, very busy working puppets, and they get little holes and rips and tears.”
Not only are the puppets housed in the soundstage, all sets and props stored there as well, though there is another off-site location where they are designed. It’s a very delicate process, creating things to different scales for the puppets.
“We’ll make sure that things work with the puppets,” says production designer Justin Vandenberg. “Everything when you’re working with a puppet is so specific. We’re really proud of the entire look of the show, from the foliage, individual species of flowers and plants. We’ve created our own place to be.”
Many sets are built at different scales depending on the kinds of shots that are needed.
“We have a miniature landscape that accommodates small homes and then we have homes that are built full scale for our puppets to actually enter,” Vandenberg says. They’ve even built in some Easter eggs for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fans.
“We’re very fond of some of the Easter eggs that land in our show and our connection to Fred Rogers and ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ Grampy’s porch, for example, has the little blue chair, as well as a nod to Fred’s front porch with the yellow swing. The clock from the Land of Make Believe makes an appearance,” Vandenberg shares. “We try to drop those in anywhere we can.”
It’s obviously a labor of love for the people behind “Donkey Hodie.” Why do people, especially kids, love puppets so much? According to Adam Rudman, “They’re real. You can grab them and hug them.”
“And they’re made by hand. They weren’t made in the computer,” David Rudman says. “They’re works of art.”