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.”
Under their company, the two serve as co-creators and executive producers of “Donkey Hodie.” Adam also serves as the head writer. David serves as the director and a puppeteer of Grampy Hodie and Bob Dog; he also designed all of the puppets.
Adam Rudman said Fred Rogers Productions reached out to Spiffy to collaborate on the project.
“When we heard the name, we were in. We were like, ‘this sounds so funny,’ and we started developing the show with them,” he said. “The more we learned about Fred Rogers’s archives and the farther we went in and learned about his other characters and the places he created, we just got so excited and kept going and going.”
According to Ellen Doherty, Chief Creative Officer of Fred Rogers Productions, “Donkey Hodie” will fit into the production company’s unique children’s programming alongside “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and “Odd Squad.”
“At the heart of all our shows at Fred Rogers Productions are engaging stories that focus on simple, clear take-aways for children,” said Doherty, who’s also executive producer of “Donkey Hodie.” “Say it clearly, make it relatable and it will be memorable. That’s one of the things I’ve learned from watching the work of Fred Rogers.”
Viewers will be treated to 40 episodes of “Donkey Hodie” this first season, which means the Rudmans are filming 80, 11-minute episodes. The brothers are just starting the scripting for Season 4 of “Nature Cat,” and will go back and forth to get both shows done. The brothers expect to be done shooting “Donkey Hodie” by the end of the year. While “Nature Cat” inspires youth to enjoy the outdoors, this new endeavor is all about teaching preschoolers perseverance.
“The big one is resiliency,” Adam Rudman said. “Obstacles that might be thrown at you, you can overcome them if you just keep on trying and be resilient and persevere — those are the main overarching themes for the series.”
The message is one that coincides with the pandemic.
“It really is perfect timing for kids and parents alike to watch the show and learn a little and give hope and encouragement,” Adam Rudman added.
Each “Donkey Hodie” episode features original music, as well as re-imagined versions of Fred Rogers’ original songs, performed by the puppeteers. Cordero calls them “super catchy.”
“The education is there for the little kids with the lessons and the curriculum, but we always try to put some funny things in there for the parents. And the music is really important ..., so we play around with different styles and different types of music,” David Rudman said.
Citing influences like Buster Keaton and Jack Benny, the Rudmans say comedy is as important as the curriculum. Cordero remembers watching Jack Benny when he was younger and into radio plays, as well as reruns of “The Muppet Show.” His fascination with puppets led him to seek out the Rudmans as a college student to start his puppetry career.
“There are so many talented people in Chicago and this is where we’re based out of and we love finding homegrown talent and people to work with here,” Adam Rudman said.
The Rudmans agree that Cordero brought Purple Panda to life. The West Side native admits that he identified with the character.
“A lot of the character description did line up with myself, though,” he said. “He was described as being a calm guy, wears his emotions on his sleeve. Which I feel I’ve always been like that. And now, especially after having kids, I’m hoping that a lot of modeling will help children as well.”