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Dennis, Anyone? The Ketcham Menace at 35

March 26, 1986|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

PEBBLE BEACH — 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.

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.

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?

"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.

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.

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