For many years, artist Hank Ketcham brought Dennis the Menace to life on the drawing board at his Pebble Beach studio. One of the world’s most beloved comic characters, Dennis was born in October 1950—his name inspired by Ketcham’s rambunctious, real-life son, whose mother one day declared, “Your son is a menace!”
Ketcham drew the daily comic for 44 years until he retired, chronicling his last Dennis shenanigan at the age of 74. Dennis, however, was five-and-a-half. He still is.
Henry King Ketcham grew up in Seattle and was bitten by the art bug at a tender age. He decamped for Los Angeles after high school, intent upon his dream of going to work at the Holy Grail of animation, Walt Disney Studios. After sharpening his pencils and skills at Walter Lantz Productions (creator of “Woody the Woodpeck-er”) he achieved his goal of working in the “Mouse Factory” contributing to Disney classics “Pinocchio,” “Bambi,” “Fantasia” and dozens of Donald Duck shorts.
Ketcham worked in Hollywood for many years before Dennis sprang to life at the tip of his pen and became a world-wide sensation. After retirement, Ketcham turned his formidable skills to painting, and for subjects he chose the practitioners of his favorite music: jazz. His son Scott recalls that music was a part of everyday life in the Ketcham household.
“I grew up with jazz playing in the house constantly,” he says. “It was the sound of my childhood.” In fact, the younger Ketcham believes that if his father hadn’t been an artist, he would have pursued a music career.
“My dad wanted more than anything to be a piano player. He was interested culturally in where jazz music came from and he liked the lifestyle; they were sort of underworld, not mainstream. He was transported by that music.”
The studio on the grounds of the Pebble Beach residence Ketcham called home has been left mostly the way it was when the artist passed away in 2001. This is most definitely the house that Dennis built, and it contains the memorabilia accumulated during a lifetime spent developing the character.
Center stage now, however, belongs to the colorful, exquisitely rendered portraits the artist created during the later phase of his life. In watercolor, oil and pastels, these paintings depict the musicians Ketcham loved. There are world-famous names: Harry James, Oscar Peterson, Glen Miller, Django Reinhart, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix is there too, along with fantasy groupings like George and Ira Gershwin working at the piano with conductor and Disney “Fantasia” collaborator Leopold Stokowski and an incongruous piano-bar scene that includes Hendrix, Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe, Nat “King” Cole, Willie Nelson, Billie Holiday, Clint Eastwood and “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird.
“It was hard for him to be ‘painterly,’” Scott Ketcham says. “He was accustomed to delineating his characters through line drawing, and painting is more about depicting light.”
The elder Ketcham was serious about his work. “I took a summer semester at Rhode Island School of Design,” Scott says. “Dad went with me and took classes. He was 73 and we studied together all summer.”
Today, Scott oversees the Dennis the Menace franchise, drawn by longtime collaborators Ron Ferdinand and Marcus Hamilton. The panel appears daily in around 1,000 newspapers in 48 countries and 19 languages.
More about Dennis, Hank and Scott Ketcham can be found at www.dennisthemenace.com.