Puppeteering during a pandemic takes practice – and patience.
Just ask the folks behind “Donkey Hodie,” a new PBS series based on a Fred Rogers character.
“The challenge is the audio,” says David Rudman, one of the show’s producers and the man behind Bob Dog. “Some masks work for me and I don’t sound too muffled.” Others might not click for other puppeteers. “We have been doing a lot of looping on the show because some of the audio is unusable.”
Rudman tried a heavier mask – often called a “singer’s mask” – and he almost lost consciousness. “Bob Dog is very energetic,” he explains. “He pants a lot and there’s a lot of running around. I had to run out of the studio, take the mask off and get some air into my system. That mask didn’t work for me.”
Frankie Cordero, who works Purple Panda, needed a thinner mask because the character is so big and difficult to lift. “We might have tried about a mask a week," he says. "And then what ended up working out was just the regular paper surgeon’s mask because it was so thin. Our audio engineer asked if I could bring a razor to work to shave my stubble because the moment that five o’clock hit, you would hears some rustling inside Panda’s voice.”
Luckily, Haley Jenkins – who operates Donkey Hodie – could wear the singer’s mask and didn’t have to re-record her vocal work. “Now we’re all doing the surgeon’s paper masks because they’re better for sound and our own breathing.”
When Fred Rogers introduced the characters on his “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” they were hardly as complex as they are now.
“The original Fred Rogers puppets were mostly glove puppets,” Rudman says. “Your two fingers worked the puppet’s hands and your middle finger worked the head. Their mouths really didn’t move and they were very tiny. We wanted to update the puppets and make them a little brighter.”
The new show’s creators started with original sketches from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and moved on from there. Executives at the Fred Rogers company provided input until, Rudman says, “we felt we had a new look and a new take on the character that worked for everybody.” Donkey Hodie, originally was a male character. In the new edition, she’s his granddaughter and the old Donkey is now referred to as “Grampy Hodie.” (The name -- a Rogers inside joke -- is also a play on the character, Don Quixote.)
Aimed at 3-to-5-year-olds, “Donkey Hodie” is designed to help toddlers deal with challenges they might face. Simple stories played out by funny characters show how perseverance and resilience are timeless, according to Ellen Doherty, executive producer and developer of the show and chief creative officer at Fred Rogers Productions.
While animation was considered, the folks behind “Donkey Hodie” felt puppets would work best because “the character actually exists,” Jenkins says. “It’s not an animated character that you can’t hug in real life. Somebody could meet, potentially, Purple Panda or Donkey or Bob Dog. That’s a big reason why puppetry is important to children’s television.”
Adds Doherty: With puppets, “you can flail. You can’t flail in animation the same way. It’s just not the same.”
Jenkins never planned a career in puppetry. It sprang from her desire to be an actress. She went to Point Park University for musical theater and one of her teachers was Mary Rawson, who played Cousin Mary Owl on the original “Neighborhood.”
“Having her as my teacher was really surreal,” Jenkins says. “She was a huge influence.” When Jenkins did an internship at Walt Disney World, she discovered puppetry was still a big part of performing and decided to focus her efforts.
For the Tom Hanks film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Jenkins puppeteered “X” the Owl and, for a deleted scene, Daniel Tiger, bringing her experience full circle.
On the day she met Rawson, Jenkins asked what it was liked to work with Rogers. “She immediately got tears in her eyes and she said, ‘He was the most wonderful man I ever met,’” Jenkins says. “And that was it. That’s all that needed to be said.”
Poring through the Rogers archives, producers found plenty of storylines and characters that were “quirky and strange and weird,” Executive Producer Adam Rudman says. “That was his show.” In “Donkey Hodie,” they pay homage to those elements in references on the set, in the scripts and in the characters.
“Once we did a deep dive into the obscure lands and characters of ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ we just said, ‘That’s what we want to embrace, these characters,’” says David Rudman, Adam’s brother and co-founder of Spiffy Pictures. Now, it's just a matter of making it all work.
"Donkey Hodie" airs on PBS.