The world of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is far more associated with cozy cardigans and navy blue tennis shoes than with a spiky shock of magenta hair. But even Mister Rogers had a funny and funkier side, now re-emerging in a little yellow dynamo called Donkey Hodie.
Star of a new half-hour PBS Kids series that bears her name, Donkey Hodie may be the first punk-style puppet to hit public television.
“She’s like a preschool character with a mohawk,” said Adam Rudman, who created the show with his brother David Rudman. “And she’s a firecracker.”
This indefatigable donkey, who was inspired by an early “Mister Rogers” character, will make her debut Monday morning in an hourlong special in which she creatively takes on challenges. These include walking a family pet — it turns out to be a green elephant — and helping her bestie, the extraterrestrial Purple Panda, recover a favorite pickle that he imagines as a pet penguin.
While each episode seeks to teach its young audience useful strategies — like asking for help, following directions and slowing down — it always includes wacky elements. During a recent virtual visit to the show’s Chicago studios, Donkey and her friends were learning about the importance of observation while trying to sail a pirate ship made from a giant potato. The puppeteers, all protectively masked, were stretching, scrambling and perching on a dolly as they worked beneath the set.
“We like the quirky side of stories, and we keep trying to build on that,” said David Rudman, who, with Adam Rudman, is co-founder of Spiffy Pictures, a production company with a long history in children’s television.
“Everyone else would do a show about making pancakes,” he continued, referring to one of the four 11-minute tales in the premiere. “We did a show about making flying flapjacks.” In a later episode, instead of hummingbirds, there are “yodel birds.”
While it may not be immediately apparent, such high-energy silliness has plenty of Mister Rogers DNA. Fred Rogers, who died in 2003 at 74, enjoyed wordplay, jokes and flights of imagination that were far more eccentric than the soothing advice and tender stories usually identified with “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“It was really fun to do a lot of research and discover all these second- and third-tier characters that were quirky and strange,” David Rudman said.
Unearthing that colorful past began in 2016 when Ellen Doherty, then the new chief creative officer of Fred Rogers Productions, was seeking a fresh way to honor Rogers’s legacy. Poring over the Neighborhood Archive, a comprehensive record of the more than 30 seasons (1968-2001) that he hosted “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (reruns still air on more than 70 percent of PBS stations), she eventually stumbled on a male character Rogers called Donkey Hodie. A potato farmer whose name playfully refers to Don Quixote, he didn’t tilt at windmills but lived in one.
“The idea emerged of a little donkey with big dreams,” Doherty recalled. But the donkey’s approach to realizing those dreams would involve core “Mister Rogers” themes: empathy, cooperation and overcoming obstacles.
“The way Fred approached things was always: ‘What do children need? What are they thinking about?’” Doherty said.
In each episode of the new series, Donkey Hodie has a project or objective, like making a nest for those yodel birds. But her plans always go comically awry.
The show is “modeling for children how to approach tough moments” and “how to have a dream and have a goal,” Doherty added, even when — or particularly when — “it’s hard.”
Fred Rogers Productions also viewed “Donkey Hodie” as an opportunity to develop a preschool show that focused on perseverance. “This was not something we saw anyone else tackling,” Doherty said.
In 2018 her company took the idea to Spiffy Pictures, which had previously worked with PBS Kids on the animated show “Nature Cat,” and together they envisioned the new series’s heroine as the vivacious little granddaughter of the original male Donkey Hodie. He has a role in the new show, too. His current incarnation, as Grampy Hodie, is a bespectacled voice of wisdom who looks far cuddlier than his flop-eared, toothy 1960s self. Grampy joins puppets like Bob Dog, an enthusiastic friend from the old “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” who, like Purple Panda, was played in that series by a costumed actor.
“We reimagined them, we warmed them up a bit, we updated them,” David Rudman said of the characters. The Rudmans (Adam is the head writer, and David writes for the series, too) created new pals as well, including Duck Duck, who provides a thoughtful contrast to Donkey Hodie’s impulsivity, and Clyde the Cloud, whose perspective is sweetly serene.
The cheerfully offbeat “Donkey” contrasts with PBS Kids’ more straightforward and slower-paced “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” a 2012 “Mister Rogers” spinoff whose creation did not involve the Rudmans. An Emmy Award-winning animated series that also stars a descendant of an original Fred Rogers character, “Daniel Tiger” is geared toward 2- to 4-year-olds; “Donkey Hodie” aims at children just a little bit older.
“‘Daniel’ is really teaching kids about everyday routines,” said Linda Simensky, the head of content for PBS Kids. “Donkey Hodie,” she said, takes a more sophisticated approach.
“It’s about getting something wrong, and then getting it wrong again, and then thinking about it and figuring out what you need to do,” Simensky said. Don’t be surprised, for instance, to hear the characters use adult words like “compromise” and “frustrated.” (Clyde the Cloud’s advice for frustration? “Take a deep breath and blow your troubles away.”)
Such lessons are often delivered partly through music, a favorite “Mister Rogers” vehicle. While the series features many new songs by its music director, Bill Sherman, it also incorporates rearranged or updated versions of some of Rogers’s original compositions, like “I Like to Take My Time” and “Today Is New.” In one episode, the series presents singing itself as a means to feel calmer.
“Donkey Hodie” also stands out as the first puppet-focused children’s show to premiere on PBS Kids since “It’s a Big Big World” (2006-10). The creators said they had seized on puppetry as the best way to reflect the “big feelings” that small viewers often have. It also worked better than animation in conveying a universe that is, in every sense, warm and fuzzy. “I keep coming back to the word ‘huggable,’” Doherty said.
David Rudman, who is a puppeteer on this series and on “Sesame Street” — he plays Cookie Monster — wanted the creatures’ faces to be as expressive as possible. He designed multiple pairs of eyes for each of the characters, who are far more complicated than the simple glove puppets of vintage “Mister Rogers.” If Donkey Hodie must appear astonished, her normal eyes can be replaced with more surprised-looking versions.
Her environment feels different, too. While Daniel Tiger’s stories unfold in the more familiar parts of Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Donkey Hodie lives Someplace Else. Literally.
“Fred talked about how grown-ups tell kids to go play ‘someplace else,’” Doherty said. “‘Take that noise, take that mess, just go someplace else.’” Inspired by that exasperated directive, he invented the whimsical Someplace Else, which lies just north of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
The fantastical Someplace Else is now the entire setting of “Donkey Hodie.” Justin Vandenberg, the production designer, created it as “perfectly imperfect and a little wonky,” he said. Amid its rolling hills and vibrant flowers, fans will spy Easter eggs referring to the original “Mister Rogers” house, including a porch swing and a fish tank. Donkey Hodie’s home — she occupies the ancestral windmill — is there, too.
Adam Rudman described the overall effect as “live-action animation.”
“In traditional puppet shows,” he said, “you see only the lower third of the screen, and you don’t really ever see the characters’ legs. You don’t see that much action. The way we shoot this and the way we script it, we look at it as if we were doing animation.” If Donkey Hodie wants to dance, for example, you can watch her hoof it.
Although the series was conceived before the pandemic, its creators think it will especially resonate now, after more than a year of hardship that has affected children as much as adults.
“Donkey Hodie always looks at the bright side of things, and she’s always trying to be very helpful,” Adam Rudman said. With her indomitable spirit, he added, “she’s a great example for our viewers, just like Mister Rogers.”