`DENNIS THE MENACE' creator Hank Ketcham dies at 81; strip to continue

Saturday, June 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Marcus Hamilton was waiting for workers to repair the fax machine so he could send his latest sketches to Hank Ketcham for his approval when the call came: The creator of America's favorite 5-year-old towheaded tornado had died.

``He's really been like a second father to me. He's directed my life for the last eight years,'' said Hamilton, of Charlotte, N.C., who began drawing ``Dennis the Menace'' for Ketcham in 1994.

Ketcham, 81, died Friday at his home in Pebble Beach after suffering from heart disease and cancer. He had stopped drawing Sunday panels in the mid-1980s and retired from weekday sketches in 1994. Though his assistants handled the bulk of the work after that, Ketcham still oversaw the feature daily by fax.

``He was kind of like God, you know he's there but you didn't see him,'' said Ron Ferdinand, who also works on the strip with Hamilton. ''Right up until the end he was still editing.''

In March, Ketcham's panels celebrated 50 years of publication _ running in 1,000 newspapers, 48 countries and 19 languages.

Unlike the late ``Peanuts'' creator Charles Schulz, who insisted on drawing every panel himself and had a clause in his contract dictating that original drawings would end with his death, Ketcham's panels will continue.

The antics of his 4-year-old son inspired Ketcham to create the freckle-faced cartoon character named Dennis, who has tormented cranky Mr. Wilson and amused readers for 50 years. The comic strip debuted in 16 newspapers, and was an instant hit.

The strip inspired several books of cartoons, a television show, a musical, a 1993 movie and a playground in Monterey, where Ketcham had his studio. The TV show, starring Jay North as Dennis and Joseph Kearns as Mr. Wilson, ran on CBS from 1959 to 1963.

``It's a joyful pursuit realizing that you're trying to ease the pain of front-page news or television,'' Ketcham told The Associated Press in March. ``There's some little bright spot in your day that reminds you that it's fun to smile.''

Ketcham was born March 14, 1920, in Seattle and grew up there. He recalled he was no more than 6 when he knew he wanted to be a cartoonist. One day he watched a family friend sketch Barney Google and other then-popular cartoon figures.

In 1938, he dropped out of the University of Washington after his freshman year and went to Southern California to work as an animator, first for Walter Lantz, creator of ``Woody Woodpecker,'' and then for Walt Disney. Ketcham worked on ``Pinocchio,'' ``Bambi,'' ``Fantasia'' and Donald Duck shorts.

When the United States entered World War II, he enlisted in the Navy, where he was put to work drawing cartoons for Navy posters, training material and war bond sales.

A free-lance cartoonist after the war, Ketcham was living in Carmel when he got the idea for ``Dennis the Menace'' in October 1950. His wife, Alice, burst into his home studio, exasperated that their 4-year-old son, Dennis, had dismantled his room instead of taking a nap.

``Your son is a menace!'' she said.

Despite the strip's real-life inspiration, Ketcham didn't depend on family life for ideas. He used comedy writers and credited the team approach for the strip's longevity.

Ketcham and his first wife had been separated when she died in 1959 of a drug overdose. He and son Dennis drifted apart, and they spoke infrequently in later life.

He made his first trip abroad in 1959, to swap Dennis drawings for Soviet-sketched cartoons. The CIA heard of the trip and asked him to take snapshots with a spy camera.

On a flight from Moscow to Kiev, he saw ``big circles and long rectangular shapes,'' he said. ``I had my sketch book and I would put them down, and the flight attendant would walk by and I would put a big nose and some eyes and make the whole thing into a funny face. So I had a whole book full of funny-face cartoons at the end that I didn't know how to read.''

Sometime later, Ketcham met a CIA official and mentioned his days behind the Iron Curtain.

Ketcham said, ``I'm sorry I didn't have anything to report. He said, 'Yeah, I know, Hank, we haven't sent any more cartoonists on any more missions.'''

Ketcham stayed in Europe, drawing Dennis from Geneva for 17 years.

A second marriage ended in divorce. He moved back to California in 1977 with his third wife, Rolande and their two children, Scott and Dania.