‘Donkey Hodie’ Adds a Fresh Face to Fred Rogers’s World. And a Mohawk.


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.

“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.

“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.

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.”



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