Publicity photo of Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers with the Daniel Tiger puppet, which was recreated by Spencer Lott and Grace Townley-Lott for the film, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” (©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. photo by Lacey Terrell)
It was an expectant moment when Spencer Lott first slid his hand into an old puppet once used by Fred Rogers on the beloved children’s TV series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” A moment later, he was filled with an all-encompassing sense of wonder.
The accomplished “Sesame Street” puppeteer and former Kansas City area resident had been tasked by filmmakers to carefully research and faithfully recreate Rogers’ familiar cast of puppet pals for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the new Tom Hanks movie inspired by Rogers’ friendly legacy.
“It was incredible,” Lott said of his hands-on visit with vintage versions of King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Daniel Tiger and other historic “Neighborhood” puppets at the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
“Of course, there was the fan in me, who grew up watching and loving Mister Rogers on TV,” Lott said. “But I also had this personal connection to him through my family.” (Lott’s wife, Grace Townley-Lott, was Rogers’ goddaughter.) “It was one of those moments when it’s like, ‘Wow, how did I get here?’ It was so exciting.”
And challenging, too.
“There was very, very little reference material,” Lott said. “So no patterns, no lists of what the original puppets were made of or the supplies or where they were bought. So everything was just measurements and basically done by sight, and what we could tell from pictures and videos.
“One company that bid for the job said that they could do 3D scans of all the puppets’ heads and print them exactly, which is super cool. But I said, ‘I can’t do that; that’s not my game. If you want the puppets to feel like they were made by a little guy in his little puppet shop, like the originals, that’s what I can give you.’”
Lott’s wife and fellow puppeteer, Grace Townley-Lott, sculpted and painted the heads of the puppets in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Perhaps it was fate. Townley-Lotts’ parents, writer Roderick Townley (who got to know Rogers while writing a story about him) and Wyatt Townley (former Poet Laureate of Kansas) were longtime friends of Rogers, who spoke at their wedding.
Lott met his future wife while both were at the University of Kansas. Ready for another dose of fate?
“A mutual friend introduced us and said, ‘Spencer is the puppet guy and Grace’s godfather is Fred Rogers,” Lott recalled. “That was the first thing that I actually knew about her. I just remember being so relieved, because she was beautiful and I thought, ‘Oh, at least I know what to talk about right off the bat — Fred Rogers.”
Lott didn’t need to tell Hanks very much about relating to puppets in a believable way.
“As we all know, Tom’s a very smart actor,” Lott said. “So he came into the room and we picked up a couple puppets and started talking about some of the techniques and styles that Fred would use to puppeteer. And Tom got it right away. He was very quick.
“Sometimes actors have trouble sharing focus with the puppet. They don’t necessarily want to make the puppet the star. But Tom had no ego about that, especially when he was using Daniel Tiger, who’s such an endearing and cute and charming character. And I think Tom loved that and loved playing that.”