recess radio program

Dennis the Menace
    by John Cech

It's the birthday this week of Henry King Ketcham, better known to his many regular readers as Hank Ketcham, the creator of one of America's favorite cartoon characters, Dennis the Menace, whose 55th birthday we can also celebrate this month. Ketcham was scraping together a living as a freelance cartoonist when one day in 1950, as he explained in his autobiography, The Merchant of Dennis the Menace, his wife was so upset over the shennigans of their real, then four-year-old son, Dennis, that she broke into the silence of Mr. Ketcham's studio and cried out, "Your son is a menace!"

Such are the Big Bangs of creation, because within six months, Mr. Ketcham had developed the idea of a comic strip built around a wise-cracking, trouble-making little trickster, very much like their own son, and sold it to over a dozen newspapers. By the time another year had passed, nearly 200 papers were running the single-panel cartoons of the tow-headed kid, dressed in overalls, who perplexes and often shocks the serious adults around him by being both seen and heard. In one of the early cartoons, Dennis, in a little suit for a change, is entering church with his parents when he comments, "Why do I have to dress up to come here? Who am I tryin' to kid?" Or later, we see Dennis, back in his overalls, bringing an armload of seed packets, all carefully skewered on sticks, into the kitchen, proudly telling his mother, "Look at all the pretty things Mr. Wilson planted in his garden." Poor Mr. Wilson. One day the cartoon is about him. He's in the park and he's telling a buddy, "I've been through two wars, depression, auto accident, flood, marriage, everything, see? But a few years ago we moved next door to a little kid...."

Ketcham's own life wasn't free of it's misfortunes, either. He first wife, Alice, died suddenly when Dennis was twelve, and later, after Dennis had grown up and served in combat in Viet Nam, father and son remained estranged right up till Ketcham's death at the age of 81. But the cartoon Dennis hasn't aged a bit -- even though he's been through a string of incarnations, as comic books, a t.v. show, and several kinds of movies, and speaks 19 languages in 48 different countries. How can he grow old ? He's that precocious, cheeky little prankster whose very essence is to be forever, full of life and always young -- just like Mason Gamble, who plays Dennis in the 1993 John Hughes film, arriving in a cloud of singed brake linings on his bike, dragging a wagon load of tricks to give his grumpy neighbor, everyone's favorite curmudgeon, played by Walter Matthau, his morning wake-up call:

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Copyright 2005 John Cech

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Wednesday, 23-Feb-2005 11:18:29 EST

"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."