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Saturday, March 24, 2001

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Happy Birthday, Dennis


LALITHA SRIDHAR

Dennis, that most lovable, perennially five-and-a-half-year-old "Menace" has just turned 50. He has spent every single day in the last half a century ensuring that millions of readers can "look at it and get out in 10 seconds and not be confused" - across 1,200 newspapers, in 48 countries and 19 languages.

He has also brought additional acclaim to his artist through his hugely popular black-and-white TV series, commemorative books and live-action movie. Created by cartoonist Henry "Hank" Ketcham in October 1950, Dennis soon came to be syndicated to 14 newspapers by the following March. Since then there has been no lookin' back, as Dennis himself might lisp.

It all started when Hank Ketcham was about seven and a family friend, who also happened to be the local art director, doodled to keep him company. Fascinated, Hank sketched every minute he was able to spare from school. Opting to major in arts, he was drawn by the lure of Hollywood a year into his degree. He joined the Walter Lantz and then subsequently, the Walt Disney studios where he contributed as an animator to several projects such as Pinnochio and Fantasia.

And then the Japanese Pearl Harbour bombing drew the U.S. into the Second World War. Hank Ketcham joined the Navy as a photography specialist who, oddly enough, spent the next four years creating ads for the sale of war bonds.

After the War and his first wife's death, Ketcham spent 18 years in Switzerland, making sure Dennis stayed five and funny, working from his home overlooking the Lake Geneva. He named Dennis after his own son and "the Menace" was how his wife had described their offspring after one particularly difficult day. Dennis is too old for kindergarten but too small for regular school. And so he lives at 627, Elm Street, Hillsdale with his parents Alice (who spends much of her life tidying up her son and after him) and Henry Mitchell (the 32 year old aeronautical engineer who responds to occasional "Mayday" calls from home and reads out bedtime stories to his incorrigible son). And then there is Ruff, Dennis' dog of uncertain origins, plus Hotdog, the cat who got named so because of his mustard colour.

Living next door is the curmudgeonly, childless "surrogate grandfather" George Wilson who is retired from the postal service and is looking for peace - except he lives next to Dennis. He has all the answers but no time for Dennis' questions - he is, however, apt to feel jealous when Dennis' real Grandpa Johnson turns up (who is debonair and enthusiastic but never stays for long, probably because he has to share the room with Dennis).

Mr Wilson's wife is the kindly Martha who has patience and cookies in equal measure - "the sort of person every neighbourhood should have".

Keeping Dennis company are Joey MacDonald (wide-eyed fan who is afraid of ghosts and goblins and everything else he can't see), Margaret Wade ("Girls are made of sugar and spice but Margaret has some vinegar mixed in") and Gina Gillotti ("who was brought up in Italy but born in America" and doesn't mind spiders, bugs or lizards prompting Dennis to wonder, "You're lots of fun! Are you sure you're a girl?").

Hank Ketcham turned 81 on the March 14 but has retired since 1995. So how has Dennis continued to bring a smile to our mornings non-stop? That's because (the almost equally famous and talented) Marcus Hamilton has been doing the daily Dennis while Ron Ferdinand works on the Sunday colour panels. Hamilton got the job by offering to do it - he called Ketcham when he heard him speak about his retirement on TV. Ghost-cartooning is quite the norm with very busy and famous artists. Normally, we don't hear about their nameless substitutes. But, although it's his signature which still appears on the strip, Ketcham has chosen to promote his protege. He put Ferdinand through an "excruciating" training and even today exercises absolute control over the final product, communicating over phone and fax. He is known to be a perfectionist and a taskmaster who is "from the Walt Disney school and doesn't care how long it takes". Original panels drawn by him still appear rarely and can be identified by his trademark "notch" on the upper right hand corner of the cartoon's border. Now a white-haired grandpa, Hank Ketcham is a serious painter, particularly of portraits, and spends all his time with his paints and easels at his home in Pebble Beach, California. Here's wishing the adorable Menace, a happy 50th birthday... and may he stay five forever.

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