‘Donkey Hodie’ on PBS: Go Behind The Scenes of Fred Rogers’ New Show
CHICAGO – On the WTTW soundstage is a portal to Someplace Else, which is home to a number of characters the older generation may remember, but the younger generation will enjoy with the new âDonkey Hodieâ.
Donkey Hodie is hard to miss, as he’s a little yellow donkey with a purple mane and an infectious laugh. As the main character, she goes on an adventure with her friends and neighbors, including her close friend Purple Panda (from planet Purple); Duck Duck, a quirky duck that’s there to lend a wing; and Bob Dog, who enjoys making a good scavenging game as well as bouncing off a bouncy ball.
Hodie is the granddaughter of the original Donkey Hodie character from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. Hodie lives in Someplace Else, a world born out of the work of the late Fred Rogers. It’s a place where anything is possible – from flapjacks that fly to singing clouds that wear bowler hats and offer advice. Elephants are pets.
“You know when you’re a kid and you make a lot of noise or a big mess and your parents say, ‘Do you want to take this somewhere else?’ It’s kind of where it is, âsaid David Rudman, the show’s co-creator and executive producer. “It’s a place where you can go to be who you are and make a lot of noise and make a big mess.” Who wouldn’t want to live in such a country?
La Tribune received a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the filming of Episode 22A the week before the show’s premiere. Browsing the scenery, one could find props like dancing cheese, Donkey Hodie’s windmill, and various-sized models of Purple Panda’s house and mode of transport – a purple rocket.
While the men were busy climbing ladders to adjust the lighting, Rudman’s brother Adam Rudman was working on a computer and working on scripts, and two puppeteers were painstakingly building a Carolina blue bird out of fuchsia feathers. Watching these men create this puppet that the Rudmans say will be used once is like watching a hairdresser transform a work of art.
David did a scene where Purple Panda and Donkey Hodie are playing ball. Several screens in space showed the scene up close by the previous storyboard. David looked at his brother to see what he thought of the final capture where Purple Panda accidentally hits the ball into a tree. Purple Panda puppeteer Frankie Cordero managed to make it look like he had kicked the ball when it fell. When this happens, Adam Rudman looks at me and says, “Pure luck!”
With a thumbs up, the Rudmans moved on to capture a scene where Harriett Elizabeth Cow helps Panda and Donkey get the ball out of the tree. At this point, the puppeteers focused on creating the blue bird to give Harriett an opposable thumb to hold a cane-colored stick to push the ball out of the tree.
Everything is scrutinized with which hand it should use up to the length of the pole. How can a cow with a magenta bob hold a perch? It’s puppet magic, or what Adam calls âlive animationâ.
It’s magic that the Rudmans have made their entire career. Both have years of experience working on “Sesame Street”: David was the puppeteer for Cookie Monster, Adam wrote for the show. As co-founders of Spiffy Pictures, the development and production company behind PBS’s “Nature Cat”, the Highland Park, Illinois siblings continue their family entertainment streak with “Donkey Hodie.”
Under their company, the two are co-creators and executive producers of “Donkey Hodie”. Adam also serves as the chief writer. David is the director and puppeteer of Grampy Hodie and Bob Dog; he also designed all the puppets.
Adam Rudman said Fred Rogers Productions contacted Spiffy to collaborate on the project.
âWhen we heard the name, we were. We thought, ‘that sounds so funny,’ and we started to develop the series with them,â he says. âThe more we learned about the Fred Rogers archive and the more we went and learned about his other characters and the places he created, we would get so excited and keep moving forward.
According to Ellen Doherty, Creative Director of Fred Rogers Productions, “Donkey Hodie” will fit into the production company’s children’s programming alongside “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and “Odd Squad.”
âAt the heart of all of our shows at Fred Rogers Productions are engaging stories that focus on simple, clear take-out for kids,â said Doherty, who is also executive producer of âDonkey Hodieâ. . âSay it clearly, make it relatable, and it will be memorable. This is one of the things I learned from watching the work of Fred Rogers.
Viewers will get 40 episodes of “Donkey Hodie” this first season, which means the Rudmans are shooting 80 11-minute episodes. The brothers are just starting the script for Season 4 of “Nature Cat” and will be going back and forth to complete both shows.
The brothers expect to have filming on “Donkey Hodie” completed by the end of the year. While âNature Catâ inspires kids to enjoy the outdoors, this new venture is all about teaching preschoolers perseverance.
âThe most important is resilience,â said Adam Rudman. “Any obstacles that might be thrown at you, you can overcome if you keep trying to show resilience and persistence – these are the main dominant themes of the series.”
The message coincides with the pandemic. âIt really is a great time for kids and parents to watch the show and learn a little bit and give hope and encouragement,â added Adam Rudman.
Each episode of “Donkey Hodie” features original music, as well as reimagined versions of original Fred Rogers songs performed by the puppeteers. Cordero says they are âsuper eye-catchingâ.
âThe education is there for the little kids with the lessons and the curriculum, but we’re always trying to put some fun stuff in there for the parents. And the music is really importantâ¦ so we play with different styles and different types of music, âsaid David Rudman.
Citing influences like Buster Keaton and Jack Benny, the Rudmans say the comedy is as important as the program. Cordero remembers watching Benny when he was younger and in radio plays, as well as reruns of “The Muppet Show”. His fascination with puppets led him to research the Rudmans as a student to begin his career as a puppeteer.
âThere are so many talented people in Chicago, and that’s where we’re based, and we love finding talent and local people to work with here,â said Adam Rudman.
The Rudmans agree that Cordero brought Purple Panda to life. The West Side native admits to identifying with the character.
âA lot of the character description matched myself,â he said. âHe’s been described as a calm guy, wears his emotions on his sleeve. What I feel I have always been like this. And now, especially after having children, I hope that a lot of models will help the children too.