Recreating the Neighborhood
MFA student Deborah Hertzberg brings Mr. Rogers’ puppets to life in blockbuster film
Fred Rogers was an inspiration to many, starring on PBS’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for 33 years. In November 2019, a new biographical drama, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” opened in theaters nationwide, and while the trailer noted that “It only takes one person to inspire a world of kindness,” it took a much larger team to recreate the classic TV set and the beloved “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.”
Deborah Hertzberg was a member of that team.
“I was hired as the puppet costumer to replicate the costumes, as closely as possible, to the puppet costumes from the original 1990s version of the puppets for the film,” she said.
Hertzberg, who is the costume shop supervisor at Brooklyn College, is a second-year student completing her Master of Fine Arts in theatre through University of Idaho’s online program.
She worked on the movie for two months during the summer of 2018. To make the characters as authentic as possible, Hertzberg and the other puppet team members spent six hours at the archives of the Fred Rogers Center in Pennsylvania studying the puppets used on the show.
“We had just a short time with the archivist and puppets to gather as much information as possible from the original puppets – measuring and photographing everything, color matching and taking pattern notations,” Hertzberg said. “It really wasn't until after we left the archive that we recognized how special it was that we had that opportunity.”
Hertzberg then returned to New York to source materials, create prototypes and ultimately recreate outfits in fine detail for the production.
“Sourcing some of the fabrics that matched the original puppets was very, very challenging,” she said. “Queen Sara's dress fabric was treated with fabric paint to add a touch more color after purchasing it for $200 per yard. King Friday's blue fabric had to be custom embroidered. Everything needed to be tea dipped to look a bit more aged. The patterns and the scale of the patterns had to be matched.
“It required a lot of footwork through NYC's garment district, online shopping and smaller retailers in the outer boroughs. And then lots of discussions back and forth to determine which fabrics will look and move correctly.”
The characters of the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” are not Hertzberg’s first puppets. She has crafted costumes and puppets for Broadway’s “Avenue Q”, the Broadway production and first national tour of “Little Shop of Horrors,” Disney’s “Finding Nemo on Ice” and other projects. As a puppet artist, she has created and performed original works including the award-winning “Nosferatu” and her family show “Animals in Winter.”
“Puppetry is an art form that encompasses all of the arts,” Hertzberg said. “It's imaginative and transporting and, in many ways, freer than strictly human theater.”
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” grossed $67.8 million worldwide and received accolades from industry and fans alike, including a nomination for Excellence in Production Design in a Contemporary Film from the Art Directors Guild.
For Hertzberg, even the tiniest details brought a sense of realism to the film, from hand-painted buttons and tassels to sewing small pinafores by hand.
“Henrietta Pussycat took the most time,” she said. “Her dress even had a teeny tiny pocket, and even though you never see the pocket, I recreated it anyway just in case.”
But it was all these details that made these beloved characters – King Friday, Queen Sara, Lady Elaine Fairchild and Henrietta Pussycat – come to life.
“If you, the audience, believed that the puppets you saw on that screen were the real puppets from the TV show, then it was a job well done,” Hertzberg said.
Update: Deborah Hertzberg has since graduated from the University of Idaho Department of Theatre Arts with her MFA.
Article by Kathy Foss, College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences
Published in May 2020