By: Michael Machosky
I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ calm, reassuring, caring presence on public television. My son grew up watching “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” which sprang from Fred Rogers’ characters, themes and gentle touch.
Now, the other giant of public television that we both watched, “Sesame Street,” will finally cross over into the Fred Rogers universe (the Rogers-verse?), at least behind the scenes.
Headed to screens this fall is “Alma’s Way,” a show for children ages 4-6 starring a curious 6-year-old Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx. It was created by Carnegie Mellon University alum Sonia Manzano, known by millions of fans as Maria on “Sesame Street,” a role she played from 1971-2015. The new show is being produced by Pittsburgh-based Fred Rogers Productions.
Ellen Doherty, Fred Rogers Productions’ chief creative officer, says Manzano had a definite vision for “Alma” when they first discussed the show five years ago.
“She said, ‘I want kids to know they have a mind and can use it,’” says Doherty.
“So it’s really about helping kids develop that inner voice — how you puzzle things out, when you face a quandary, you’re stuck in a dilemma … The question from Sonia was, ‘How do we help kids manage what’s happening in their heads?’” adds Doherty.
We’ve all got that little voice in our heads that we (sometimes) listen to. It just happens to be quite literal for preschoolers, who often let it go out loud.
“In each episode of ‘Alma’s Way,’ there’s a moment we call a ‘think through,’ where Alma thinks through a problem that has been going on,” says Doherty. “It can be why is her little brother mad at her? Or, sometimes it’s something she wants to do — she and her friend are playing, but they can’t agree on the game. How can we figure out how to do something together?”
The segment animates what’s going on in your head when you are trying to problem-solve. The show is produced in Pittsburgh, but the animation is created in the Toronto area.
“There isn’t the scale of animation production in Pittsburgh that it takes to do a series like this,” says Doherty.
The collaboration comes as Fred Rogers Productions, which Rogers began as Family Communications, is moving to a larger space at SouthSide Works. The 28-time Emmy award-winning company is taking about 13,000 square feet of office space at the mixed-use complex. The company has 33 employees and has doubled its production staff in the last year.
“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is simply huge with the ages 2-8 demographic, on TV and streaming. For over a year now, the show has averaged 60 million streams per month. New episodes of “Daniel Tiger” and the preschool-focused puppet series “Donkey Hodie” (which debuted in May and is based on another character from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”) are airing this month.
The team at Fred Rogers Productions is comfortable with reaching out to new partners. The organization works with freelance writers and childhood development advisers. And “Donkey Hodie” (a play on the literary classic “Don Quixote”) is a live-action puppet series also produced by Spiffy Pictures in Chicago, starring a character that’s also from the Mister Rogers universe.
“As somebody who moved to Pittsburgh five and a half years ago, I think there’s something interesting about being outside the New York and L.A. bubble,” says Doherty, who moved here from New York. “Our child development advisers here in Pittsburgh really have a point of view, that’s not just as a media consultant. Hedda Sharapan, for example, works on ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ and started with Fred as a grad student in the ‘60s. They bring such passion and understanding of young children to the work.”
Sometimes, you can spot the threads connecting a show like “Daniel Tiger” or “Donkey Hodie” back to the original “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” or Pittsburgh itself.
Stephanie D’Abruzzo, a puppeteer alum from “Sesame Street” who performs Harriet Elizabeth Cow in “Donkey Hodie,” is from Pittsburgh. She based her voice for the character on a Pittsburgh accent, “which was very well received,” says Doherty.
Pittsburgh is regularly featured on “Daniel Tiger,” too. There have been more than 100 live-action pieces shot all around Pittsburgh that “really show off just the very best of the city,” notes Doherty.
One of them features two kids who send each other a care package that is delivered by the son of David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on “Mister Rogers,” famous for his “Speedy Delivery!” catchphrase. Well, Newell’s son Alex is actually a postal carrier.
Fred Rogers Productions is still based in Pittsburgh not just because its founder loved it here, but because of the legacy he left.
“We have a lot of really talented people who make their lives here, making television for children,” says Doherty. “And there’s a bunch of people at this company who have chosen this kind of work because they believe in making meaningful valuable, fun and engaging, sometimes silly, sometimes goofy, sometimes heartfelt TV and games and websites for kids — and there’s a story in each one of those people, in what we do and how we do it.”