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'Bunnytown' puppets tuned for preschool giggles

BOREHAMWOOD, England - Dressed in his red cape and carrot-logo T-shirt, "Bunnytown's" Super Bunny soars skyward above his brightly colored homeland.

BOREHAMWOOD, England - Dressed in his red cape and carrot-logo T-shirt, "Bunnytown's" Super Bunny soars skyward above his brightly colored homeland.

"Li'l Bad Bunny's fast, but he's forgotten one thing: I can fly faster!" he exclaims.

Yet Super Bunny's rapid ascent didn't quite coordinate with a camera movement, so his flying feat needed to be performed again and again, until everyone on the set at Elstree Studios in this London suburb was satisfied.

Super Bunny and his nemesis Li'l Bad Bunny are puppet stars of Playhouse Disney's new preschool series "Bunnytown," airing Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. on the Disney Channel.

The 8-inch-tall rabbits are constructed of foam rubber, covered with fake fur, and have bendy ears, noses resembling blue pingpong balls - and very few teeth. They come in a wide range of colors but are structured basically the same.

Their individuality is defined by clothes, hairdos, accessories and the skills of the American and British puppeteers who activate them and give them voice in an international range of accents.

Standing beneath the wooden platform that displays the elaborate Bunnytown metropolis and farmland, a puppeteer manipulates a bunny on the end of a long pole with a few simple controls that move the creature's mouth and head.

These rod puppets are the creation of David Rudman, who for more than 20 years worked for Jim Henson productions and was Emmy-nominated for his handling of Cookie Monster and Baby Bear on "Sesame Street."

"It just started with a design - it just was a funny drawing that just needed to become a puppet," said Rudman, who collaborated on the concept with his writer brother Adam, and musical director and composer Todd Hannert.

"It was just a little doodle: a bunny with a big overbite. I built one of them based on the drawing and then one was not enough, so we said, 'Let's make some more,' and we just made 12 of them," Rudman recalled. "We didn't know what we were going to do with them at the time, but we just felt something good will come of this."

Now the bunnies have multiplied to almost countless numbers to populate a premiere season of 26 episodes. Martin Baker and Pete Coogan (also alumni of numerous Jim Henson productions, including "The Muppet Christmas Carol") co-produce the series with Disney, which distributes the show internationally to 72 countries.

"It has a fun irreverence to it, and I guess we best describe the show as a little variety show for preschoolers. It is really driven by music and comedy," said Baker. "One hopes that the underlying theme is to educate, but it's not rubber-stamped in a way that a lot of shows are. I think the first job is to entertain."

Baker and the others acknowledged the impact the late Jim Henson - who gave the world Kermit the Frog - had on their imaginations and sensibilities.

"Jim loved silliness," chuckled Baker.

"Yes, silly was good. Silly is good," said Coogan, laughing.

"Collaboration, too," added Rudman. "He [Henson] was big on collaboration, and that's what we have on this show. Everyone is open to throw out ideas."

Each half-hour episode consists of 10 to 12 segments of giggly bunny adventures, linked by a running gag and crammed with all styles of music, including "The Bunnytown Hop."

Each episode also features a couple of live-action segments, including pratfalls by a Laurel and Hardy-style silent comedy duo (Andrew Buckley and Ed Gaughan) and a Silly Sports session, hosted by frenetic Pinky Pinkerton (Polly Frame).

However, unlike "The Muppet Show," puppets and real people don't mingle. That is why the bunnies don't have to be anywhere near people size.

"We could do pretty elaborate sets because everything is so tiny," said Rudman. "So we could have a big fishing lake. We could have a giant mountain they are climbing. They drive around in cars and airplanes."

The vividly hued "Bunnytown" set, created by production designer Ash Wilkinson, is inspired by the 1970s, said Rudman. "We wanted to have a flower-power feel, playing off . . . '70s variety-type shows like 'Laugh-In.' "

Teeny bits and pieces of fake fur, foam, felt and plastic are crafted into props and costumes, added and changed as plotlines dictate.

On a recent afternoon, in a work room behind the set, miniature items included a tuxedo for a Game Show Bunny, pink glasses and hippie hair for a Janis Joplin-style Bunny, a myriad of little music instruments for the Bunny Band, and a pink lab jacket and bow-tie for an Inventor Bunny.

"Laugh-In" never had costumes like that. *