How ‘Donkey Hodie’ is bringing Mister Rogers’ magical trolley to life

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Jay Godwin/LBJ Library

When the production team behind Donkey Hodie decided it was time to introduce a new character for the show’s second season, they opted for a twist on a Fred Rogers favorite: A large-scale Trolley puppet will jingle-jangle its way into Someplace Else next spring.

Though the friendly and upbeat show is no slouch when it comes to nods to its legacy, incorporating original Make-Believe residents like Harriet Elizabeth Cow, King Friday and Grampy Hodie into its cast of characters, bringing Trolley to town has taken a little behind-the-scenes finesse.

Donkey Hodie’s creators had kicked around bringing the chiming friend to town during the show’s first season. But they ultimately decided they wanted to give viewers a chance to fall in love with the newer residents of Someplace Else before adding more old favorites, said Ellen Doherty, Donkey Hodie’s EP.

The show has already featured a common cobblestone path that ties its world to the neighborhoods of Daniel Tiger and Mister Rogers. So having Trolley rumble down that path in season two made a lot of sense. “It just seemed like the perfect character to bridge those worlds,” Doherty said.

Supervising Producer Kristin DiQuollo said it’s been interesting for the Donkey team to think about how Trolley can fit into Someplace Else. “Trolley is a helper just like all of our neighbors,” she said. “It’s a pal, and somebody who’s there when you need them.”

In the episode where Trolley is introduced, Donkey is throwing what DiQuollo calls “the biggest-ever party” in the Someplace Else park. She’s pulled together big decorations, a big music player, and big snacks, even promising best friend Purple Panda “a big special guest.”

Of course, there’s a wrinkle in Donkey’s big plan, and she comes to realize that the comically big bowl of fruit she got for the party is too heavy to carry to the park. Trolley comes to the rescue, carrying Donkey, Panda and the snacks to the park, giving them all a grand entrance to the whole affair. 

“Trolley is a helper just like all of our neighbors.”

Kristin DiQuollo, supervising producer

In order for Donkey, Panda and the fruit to interact with Trolley, the show had to make two versions of the legendary transport: a larger, puppet-sized prop complete with a wheeled undercarriage for puppeteers to ride on, and a miniature, almost toy-sized version of Trolley the show could use for long shots. Both versions are made of carved, resin-covered foam, which Production Designer Justin Vandenberg says makes them “like a surfboard.” They’re also slightly more rounded and cartoonish than Rogers’ original, mostly because the world of Donkey Hodie is a bit squishier.

While the smaller Trolley can hold only finger-puppet versions of the show’s characters, the bigger prop has removable sides for better camera angles, an interior lighting rig, and even a set of foam suspension blocks it sits on to make the ride seem more realistic. The larger Trolley also has an entirely custom-built and remote-controlled headlight, which Vandenberg says helps convey Trolley’s personality and emotions. 

Taking things even further in the persona department, Donkey Hodie’s production team hired a team of recording engineers to visit the Fred Rogers Institute at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn. That’s where Mister Rogers’ original bell-piano is housed, which the show’s team used to score Trolley’s chimes and dings live during shoots. Donkey’s team of engineers have been tasked with recording the instrument, which the show can then use to add voice to any future Trolley visits.

“Because [Donkey Hodie’s] trolley is a real moving thing, being able to add that dimension and depth to the character in Someplace Else is an amazing opportunity,” DiQuollo said. 

Doherty agreed. “Fans of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood always really enjoy” when Donkey Hodie and Daniel Tiger go deep with in-episode Easter eggs, she said, teasing even more to come as the world of Someplace Else grows and expands in future episodes.

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