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Dennis, Anyone? The Ketcham Menace at 35

March 26, 1986|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

"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.

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