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'Donkey Hodie' on PBS: Go behind the scenes of new Fred Rogers show

Darcel Rockett, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

CHICAGO – On the soundstage of WTTW 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 this week's premiere of “Donkey Hodie.”

Donkey Hodie is hard to miss, as she’s a petite, yellow donkey with a purple mane and an infectious laugh. As the title character, she goes on adventures with her friends and neighbors, who include her close friend Purple Panda (from the Planet Purple); Duck Duck, a quirky duck who is there to lend a wing; and Bob Dog, who loves a good game of fetch as well as bouncing on 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 from the work of the late Fred Rogers. It’s a place where anything is possible — from flapjacks that fly to singing clouds who wear bowler hats and offer advice. Elephants are pets.

“You know when you’re a kid and you’re making a lot of noise or a big mess and your parents say: ‘Will you take that someplace else?' That’s kind of where this is,” said David Rudman, co-creator and executive producer of the show. “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 dwell in such a land?

The Tribune got a behind-the-scenes look behind the filming of episode 22A, the week before the show’s premiere. Walking through the set, one could find props like dancing cheese, Donkey Hodie’s windmill abode, and different sized models of Purple Panda’s house and mode of transportation — a purple rocket ship.

 

While men were busy scaling ladders to adjust the lighting, Rudman’s brother, Adam Rudman, was at a computer working on upcoming scripts, and two puppeteers were painstakingly building a Carolina blue bird with fuchsia feathers. Watching these men create this puppet that the Rudmans say will be used once, is like watching a hairdresser style a work of art.

David directed a scene where Purple Panda and Donkey Hodie are playing ball. Several screens in the space showed the scene up close, per earlier storyboarding. David looked over to his brother to see what he thought about the final capture where Purple Panda accidentally kicks the ball into a tree. Frankie Cordero, the puppeteer of Purple Panda, managed to make it look like he kicked the ball when he fell down. When that happens, Adam Rudman looks over to me and said: “Pure luck!”

With a thumbs-up, the Rudmans moved on to capturing a scene where Harriett Elizabeth Cow helps Panda and Donkey get the ball from the tree. At this point, the puppeteers switched their focus from the creation of the blue bird to giving Harriett an opposable thumb to hold a candy-cane-colored pole to push the ball out of the tree. Everything is scrutinized from which hand she should use to the length of the pole. How can a cow with a magenta bob hold a pole, you ask? It’s all the magic of puppetry, or what Adam calls “live-action animation.”

It’s magic that the Rudmans have been doing their entire careers. Both have years of experience working on “Sesame Street”: David has been the puppeteer of Cookie Monster, Adam has written for the show. As co-founders of Spiffy Pictures, the development and production company behind PBS’s “Nature Cat,” the Highland Park-based siblings are continuing their family entertainment streak with “Donkey Hodie.”

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