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Dennis, Anyone? The Ketcham Menace at 35

Times Staff Writer

Hank Ketcham. A real man’s name, all angles and edges. The name of a boxing manager, maybe; a hockey coach; a bounty hunter.

Henry Ketcham. A lot softer, somehow. Easily the name of the patient, devoted father of, say, a 5-year-old boy. Probably even goes to church.

Hank Ketcham, progenitor of “Dennis the Menace,” used to be Henry. Still is, sometimes. In between, he’s Hank, the millionaire golfer/cartoonist of Pebble Beach by way of the Golf Course of Geneva. A Henry waffles over a 20-foot putt. A Hank knocks it straight in, no fooling around, and heads for the next tee with a glint in his eye.

Dennis, forever 5, turned 35 this month, celebrating his magical 6th/5th birthday just before his daddy celebrated his. Hank/Henry turned 66, gracefully and unequivocally.

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Dennis remains ingenuous, mischievous, curious, fun-loving, disarmingly frank. Hank is businesslike, iconoclastic, sharp, driven, complex, a little waspish; a consummate professional; a perfectionist. (Henry? Oh, Henry is still ingenuous, mischievous, curious, fun-loving, disarmingly frank. . . .)

“Every birthday Dennis is 6,” says Ketcham over chili and Bloody Marys at the Pebble Beach Lodge. “He blows out the candles on his cake, and then he’s 5 again. Try that in your living room.”

Why a perpetual 5? “Well, it’s a preschool age, so he goes to kindergarten only a couple of hours a day.

“He’s in a vacuum of protection. He’s too old to put back in the playpen and too young for school. Too little to hit and too small to put in jail.

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A High Energy Level

“If he grew any older he’d know better, but now he has an honesty, a curiosity, a high energy level and all the time in the world.

“So it works out better that way--for him and for me.”

No Siblings for Dennis

Why has the Mitchell family never expanded, a la “Blondie”? Wouldn’t it provide more ideas, make Ketcham’s life a little easier?

“Well, Dennis has always wanted a brother--an older brother--but a sibling would dilute the whole family situation. He has girlfriends, of course, in the neighborhood, but a baby sister would destroy the balance I want to illustrate.

“As for making it easier, that’s one thing--unfortunately--I’ve never tried to do. Actually, I make it harder and harder. I take more time with the drawing; I do more research; I demand more accuracy. . . .”

Nevertheless, there is always the perspective of a little boy. Is there a part of Ketcham--tycoon, world traveler, manor lord, boss--that is forever 5?

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“I guess so, I guess there are little kids in all of us. And there’s a lot of macho man in little boys. . . .”

Earlier in the day, in Monterey’s Jaycee-funded, Ketcham-designed Dennis the Menace Park, a little boy, not quite 5, eyes a rain puddle the size of the Caspian Sea, at least to him.

He hesitates for fully two seconds, gauging the puddle’s depth, then sets out on the dead run, a blur of shorts and sneakers in a rooster tail of muddy water. Never breaking stride, the kid scoots across a suspension bridge, slides down a concealed chute and scrambles up a non-negotiable concrete cliff.

At the summit, he thrusts out his jaw and hitches his soggy pants with his wrists, Cagney-style. Then he grins down at his father, a grin no less dazzling for want of four or five teeth.

“Never could control that kid,” says Bill Pennycook of little Will. “Quite a boy, isn’t he?”

Pennycook, along with some 700 other parents and kids, has lined up at the park in the lee of El Estero Lake for the pleasure of having Ketcham himself sign ecological posters featuring Dennis, two for $5, proceeds to benefit the park.

The turnout is extraordinary in light (or gloom) of a vicious gale battering the peninsula--and spawning the mud puddles that kids seem to prefer to the sterility of heated pools.

Inside the clubhouse, Hank Ketcham, in the guise of Henry, sits at the end of a long table, in red plaid shirt, black pants, black boots, a windbreaker slung over a chair back; a slim, fit body thumbs its nose at an incongruous thatch of white hair.

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Like a Macy’s Santa, Ketcham greets his young constituency with infinite patience, shaking hands, chatting, taking pains to spell each name right.

From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., an hour beyond cut-off time, he smiles and signs, signs and smiles, and when it’s all over, he signs some more posters for the stragglers, all the way across the park and out into his ’59 Mercedes, shipped back from Europe and stunningly maintained.

“He’s got to be the best-natured man in the world,” marvels one harried mother as Ketcham stoops to conquer one last time, with an autograph and a pat on a tousled head.

“Good-natured?” says Ketcham back at the lodge. “Well, on demand. I was just doing my shtick out there. They advertised pretty heavily, and if I’m gonna be there, I’d better do it graciously. No reason to be owly about it.

“At home, maybe it’s a little different. Sure, I shout at the kids a little bit (Dania, 13, and Scott, 9, by his second marriage to Austrian-born Rolande). In truth, I’m more like Mr. Wilson (the menace’s crotchety next-door neighbor) than Mr. Mitchell. . . .”

Indeed. Ketcham (Hank, not Henry) is nobody’s stereotype. Some men march to a different drummer. Ketcham plays his own drum:

--Having enrolled at the University of Washington as an art major and drama minor, Ketcham quit after a year: “I quit because I didn’t want to watch the parade, I wanted to march in it.”

--Having established a lucrative sideline in comic books and paperback collections, Ketcham abruptly took both off the market: “I stopped doing comic books when the price went up to 60 cents and they sold them mostly in airports and liquor stores. My little readers can’t afford the price, and they don’t frequent those places.

“I backed out of the paperback business because the paper was so cheesy and the reproduction was so bad and the space allotted was ill-suited. I spend too much time on my graphics not to have them

treated a little better.”

--Having been approached by his fellow cartoonists to join them in the crusade against hunger in Africa, Ketcham declined: “I think we have other priorities right here. I prefer to do everything I can for my neighbors, then the Peninsula, then the state, then the country. My priorities are not overseas, for God’s sake. We’ve got plenty of problems right here. . . .”

--Having been described, with little hyperbole, as “an artist of exceptional integrity,” Ketcham’s opinion of the bulk of today’s cartoonists is less than complimentary: “I like Lynn Johnson (“For Better or for Worse”), Jim Unger (“Herman"--"the funniest damn thing”) and Johnny Hart (“B.C.”), but basically, you don’t have any artists any more.

“One reason is that you don’t have the space. The publishers are missing the boat. Newspapers are run now by lawyers and accountants who look only at the bottom line. It’s stupid, because features are something TV cannot offer, something that attracts newspaper readers. But they flay them, bury them, shrink them.

“As a result, no self-respecting artist is going to get involved, because he doesn’t have the elbow room. Eventually, it’ll all be a bunch of talking heads.”

In Dennis the Menace Park--one of nine in the West; plans furnished gratis--the towheads are still buzzing over the appearance of “Dennis’ daddy.” So are the daddies.

“I’m an avid reader,” confesses Pennycook. “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t read the comics to the kids, and Dennis is a favorite.”

“But this Ketcham,” he continues, “now there’s a real artist. What’s he worth, millions? TV shows, lunch boxes . . . lives in Pebble Beach, does he? Well, he’s worth every penny. Glad he lives out this way.”

The Ketcham spread, off 17-Mile Drive ($5 a head just to cruise through) is spectacular in a comfortable way. Ketcham gestures at the landscaping, not without pride: “It all came out of an inkwell.”

Outside his studio, which is separate from the house, is a Ketcham-designed tree house, all forms and spaces and swings and roller slides and passageways.

It was not always thus.

Seattle-born, Ketcham was 12 when he started to draw more or less seriously. “I guess I wanted to communicate somehow. Oh, the drawings were terrible! Even when I started with Dennis they were just wretched! How any editor ever bought that junk. . . .”

Ketcham matriculated at Washington, “but after seeing ‘The Three Little Pigs’ I had one thing on my mind: Walt Disney. I hitchhiked to Hollywood and got a job in an ad agency, changing the water

for the artists for $12 a week. Which was OK because I lived at a rooming house on Magnolia--three meals a day and a bike to ride to work--for $6 a week.

“Then I got a job with Walt Lantz at Universal, assisting the animators, for $18. It was the tail end of the glory days of Hollywood and I loved it! I was on the back of the lot, where W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, Crosby, Edgar Bergen were all parading around. My neck was on a swivel! Marvelous!”

Finally, Mecca. “Disney needed some artists to finish up ‘Pinocchio'--$25. I helped out with Jiminy Cricket. That was Ward Kimball’s unit--a real character. The Firehouse Five came out of that unit. . . .”

Then, Pearl Harbor, a four-year-hitch in the Navy and marriage to “a little Boston-Irish girl” who became the model for Alice Mitchell and the mother of Dennis.

War’s end. Free-lancing in New York, commuting from Westport, Conn. “Ice storms and droughts. I remembered a place called California, moved to Carmel and (in 1951) galvanized all my ideas into one character: Dennis (who’d been born in Westport).” Gangbusters.

A 1959 trip to Russia led to 18 years overseas. “I went to do a cartoon-exchange program. . . . The State Department was very excited over getting Dennis distributed in the U.S.S.R. because, just as a matter of course, the Mitchells have an automobile, a dishwasher, a TV set, running water, a yard. We’re talking subtle propaganda here. It might have gone, too, but then Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2. . . .

“When I came out of Russia and got to Paris I thought I was in Disneyland--the lights; the people dressed so well. I ran into Art Buchwald, who said, ‘You’re one of the few people who can live anywhere in the world. Why don’t you stay here?’ I thought, ‘Why not? I’ll spend a few months.’ ”

Eighteen years, a second wife and two more children later, Ketcham left his penthouse overlooking Lake Geneva and headed home in 1977.

Why? (1) “I wanted the children to have the benefit of a U.S. education,” (2) “ ‘Dennis’ was getting a little out of touch with America: hula hoops, skateboards, computers,” and (3) the dollar-franc exchange rate went to hell: “Peanut butter was $6 a jar. That was my breaking point.”

On El Estero Lake, a duck sleeps with one eye open, a waterfowl barks at a frog, making a noise like prying open a sticky old door, and a little girl hunkers down by a free-form castle, munching a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

Lunch over, the girl wanders over to a drinking fountain set in the yawning jaws of a yellow plaster lion.

An even smaller boy has leaned over the fountain, with three others in line.

“I wouldn’t drink that ,” says the girl, edging for position, “it’s all saliva .”

Ketcham does not write all of Dennis’ lines, not by a long shot. In the main, he buys the gags from a giggle of a dozen writers, and makes no apology.

“You can’t live without gag writers,” he says. “That would be ridiculous. Where would Johnny Carson be? Gleason? Hope? It’s a great institution. Of course, it’s my interpretation of the gags.”

With jokes supplied, and with two artists having taken over the Sunday strip, why does Ketcham, at 66, still put in an eight-hour day, five days a week?

In his studio, Ketcham, ever the perfectionist (“It’s my undoing”) demonstrates the painstaking care lavished on each panel.

” This is not a Punch-and-Judy layout, east and west,” he says, still tinkering with a perspective problem. “It goes into depth.

“This is from inside a store, and the reader has to know instantly where he is. I ask the reader’s attention for only 10 seconds, so I’d better not have the panel confusing. I’d better have the line just right, the graphics just right.

“I don’t want to make a sign saying ‘Lawyer’s Office’ or ‘Hardware Store'--or ‘Two-Way Wrist Radio.’ People have to know .

“Then there’s the research. If I have to do a microscope, or a bicycle, I want it drawn so well that people won’t look at it, won’t notice it. Once they start noticing a funny bike you’ve drawn, you’ve lost ‘em; they’re not concentrating on the idea.

“I look at that panel as if it’s the ground glass of a view camera, something I can move around as a director to see how to stage it.

“Once I’ve staged it, I have to figure out the lighting, the decor, the costuming.

“Now I’ve got to place the actors in certain areas, their heads tilted, their body actions just so.

“And then I have to be the actor.

“The whole thing is like show business, only you don’t hear the applause for three months.”

Ketcham breaks off to conduct a short tour of the studio, and pauses at the photo of a little boy with the devil in his eye.

The original Dennis? “No. He’s 40 now, and doing his own thing. We don’t communicate that much, I’m sorry to say.”

Who’s the 5-year old in the picture, then?

“That’s me ! Now does he look like a menace? Nice chunky little fella. Future Republican fella. Future grumpy old man.” Future Hank.

Back at the lodge, Henry Ketcham looks out over his favorite golf course, where he’d be if it weren’t for that darn reporter. (Even when he lived in Geneva, Ketcham would return every year to play in the Clambake of old friend Bing.)

“It gets frustrating sometimes,” he confesses, “year after year, doing the same thing. I want to bust out in other directions, do some writing, some painting. I want to play more golf. But I’m in jail. Babies need shoes.”

Of a sudden, his mood brightens, a Henry sort of metamorphosis.

“I didn’t go into this with any sort of premeditation, except to please myself. To enjoy it to the hilt. I did, and I still do. I love it.”

Out on the fairway, a golfer has caught a 2-iron right on the sweet spot. Ketcham sighs.

“There is one thing I’d like to do before I’m finished. What I want to do is maintain a high handicap and shoot my age.”


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