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Saturday, June 09, 2012

Dennis the Menace


I’m sure that we all have horror stories about the grouchy people in our neighbourhoods growing up.  I certainly have my pick of past neighbours that I thought were mean.  When I was a kid, there was a neighbour that lived across the street from me who HATED kids.  At the time, I lived in a neighbourhood where there were a lot of neighbours that were over the age of sixty-five.  Her husband was a very nice man, but she always glared at me as if the demonic seed of Satan was growing inside my body.  It got to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable playing on the front porch of my house anymore...of which once I stopped, she then wondered why I never went outside.  As if it were any of her business what a nine-year-old boy did in his free time anyway.

In my case, I don’t think she liked me very much.  And, upon retrospect, I didn’t really have much love for the meddling old bat either (said with only the most sincere intentions, by the way). 

In today’s blog entry, I thought we’d take a look at a cartoon that I used to love growing up.  It was a cartoon that was based from a comic strip character that was created in 1951.  In many of the comic strips and cartoon shorts, the storyline kind of mirrored my own experiences with my childhood neighbours, but with a twist.  In both cases, there was a grouchy neighbour that was visibly annoyed by the presence of a little boy and dreaded each time he came around because it usually meant trouble.  But, unlike my situation, the title character of this comic/cartoon wanted desperately to seek his approval.  He would try to do chores for him, bring him presents, be his friend...only to be met with yelling and screaming every time.  In rare occasions, the neighbour would let down his guard and be nice to the boy...but it wasn’t often.

Oh, sure, the boy didn’t intend to cause so much trouble.  He had only the most honourable intentions in regards to his neighbour.  But, when you consider all the bad luck that befell George Wilson, you might be under the impression that the boy was a real...menace.



Yes, today’s blog subject is about Dennis the Menace, the comic strip character that has appeared in television, newspapers, and on Dairy Queen Blizzard cups for years.  In this blog entry, I’ll be focusing mostly on the cartoon series that ran for two seasons from 1986 to 1988, but before we do that, I think that it’s necessary to talk about how Dennis the Menace was created.



We have to go back sixty-two years to the year 1950 to see the moment in which Dennis the Menace was created.  At that time, a man by the name of Hank Ketcham was working as a freelance cartoonist after working as an animator for Walter Lantz and Walt Disney.  He was in his studio trying to brainstorm ideas for a new cartoon when his wife burst into the room in a huff.  When Ketcham asked what the matter was, his wife stated that their then four-year-old son was a menace because he had wrecked his bedroom instead of having a nap.

The son’s name was Dennis.  (And, ironically enough, if you read the name backwards, it would read the word SINNED.)

This inspired Hank Ketcham to create a character based on that remark.  And, with that, the blonde-haired, red overalls wearing Dennis “The Menace” Mitchell was born.



When the first Dennis the Menace comic strip was drawn in 1951, it was initially published in a handful of newspapers.  By the spring of 1953, that number grew to 193 newspapers in the United States, and an additional 52 abroad.  It was estimated that thirty million readers read Dennis the Menace in the newspaper at any given time.

Below are a couple of examples of some of these Dennis the Menace cartoons.



Ketcham continued to do the comic strip for Dennis the Menace for at least the next four decades before retiring to Carmel, California.  He passed away in June 2001.  At the time of Ketcham’s death, the comic was distributed in no less than one thousand different newspapers worldwide.  Since Ketcham’s passing, the comic strip has now been taken over by his former assistants, Ron Ferdinand and Marcus Hamilton, and can still be read in newspapers today.

However, the namesake of the iconic “Dennis the Menace” didn’t end up having as charmed of a life as the character.  The real Dennis Ketcham had a rough upbringing.  He struggled with learning disabilities, and was often neglected by his parents.  His father was too preoccupied with work to give much notice, and his mother was addicted to alcohol.  Dennis’ mother, Alice, died of a drug overdose when Dennis was twelve, and shortly after that, he was sent to a series of boarding schools in Switzerland and the United States.  When Dennis was eighteen, he joined the Marine Corps where he was stationed in Vietnam.  He returned with post-traumatic stress disorder, and eventually ended up estranged from his father as a result.  A far cry from the cartoon character if ever there was one.


TRIVIA:  Have a look at this photo of Hank and Dennis Ketcham, and compare it to the cartoon depictions of Dennis Mitchell and his father.  Notice the similarity?

Oh, and Dennis’ mother was named Alice after the real life mother of Dennis Ketcham.

Certainly a lot of people’s first impressions of Dennis the Menace came from the comic strips and books.  And, some even watched the classic live-action television show that aired in the late 1950s, starring Jay North as Dennis.  And, there was also the live-action 1993 film which starred Mason Gamble, Walter Matthau, and Christopher Lloyd that entertained a new generation of children.


However, my first introduction to Dennis the Menace was the television cartoon.  If you click HERE, you can watch a partial episode of the show, just to see what it was like.  Go ahead and watch it.  I can wait.  While you watch, I’ll offer you some trivia about the voice cast.  The voice of Mr. Wilson and Dennis’ father was performed by two actors.  One was the late Phil Hartman, and the other one was Maurice LaMarche, who would later go on to work on Pinky and the Brain.  As for Dennis, he was voiced by then eleven-year-old Brennan Thicke.  And if that last name sounds familiar, it’s because he happens to be the son of Growing Pains star Alan Thicke, and brother of singer Robin Thicke.

The cartoon debuted on September 22, 1986 in syndication, and it incorporated every single character that appeared in the comic strip into the cartoon show.  There was Dennis, of course, as well as his parents Alice and Henry, and his beloved white dog, Ruff.  We also got to meet Dennis’ friends from school.  Most episodes usually featured Dennis’ best friend, Joey McDonald, or Dennis’ nemesis, Margaret Wade.  But, sometimes you’d have appearances from some of Dennis’ other friends, such as Gina, PeeBee, Tommy, or Jay.  It was very rare that all of these kids appeared in the same episode, but whenever they did, it was guaranteed that Dennis would naturally cause the most trouble.  It didn’t matter whether it was intentional or not.  If Dennis Mitchell was there, you knew that something bad was going to go down.

And, there were lots of situations that Dennis and his friends got caught up in.  Whether it was rescuing a frog from a French restaurant, trying to find the fabled Loch Ness Monster, or even going up into outer space, Dennis often found himself in every situation possible.

But most of Dennis’ mischief ended up targeting one person the most.  And that person was the Mitchell’s neighbour, Mr. George Wilson.  Poor Mr. Wilson was always at the losing end of Dennis’ mischievous nature.  During the course of the cartoon, Mr. Wilson ended up having his house sink into the ground, having his house uprooted and towed away by a moving company, ended up getting attacked by a gorilla, and other crazy situations.  But, of course, this was nothing new, as the comic strip also depicted Dennis always causing trouble for Mr. Wilson.


The thing was that Dennis’ actions were never meant to be malicious or mean.  Dennis truly believed that he was helping Mr. Wilson by offering to do things for him.  Granted, the way that Dennis ended up “helping” Mr. Wilson ended up being counter-productive, but he was a little kid.  How could he have known?  If Mr. Wilson could have seen that all Dennis wanted to do was be his friend, then maybe Mr. Wilson could have showed more patience with the little guy.

And, here’s something else.  Remember how in my situation with my own nasty neighbour, I said that her husband was a great guy?  In Dennis’ case, Dennis could do no right with Mr. Wilson.  But Martha Wilson, George’s wife, absolutely loved Dennis very much, and would often offer a kind word for Dennis or a special treat.  In fact, in many cases, it was MARTHA who convinced Mr. Wilson to be nicer to Dennis for everybody’s sake.  After all, I think Mrs. Wilson could see that Dennis wasn’t the evil little urchin that Mr. Wilson believed Dennis was.  Mrs. Wilson could see that beneath it all beat the heart of a little boy who was very good.

Of course, the cartoon would be very boring to watch if Dennis and Mr. Wilson got along.  But, hey, you can’t blame Dennis for trying, can you?

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