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Dennis is 50, but he's still the Menace

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — He's forever frozen as "five-ana-half" in the minds of generations of readers, but the towheaded, freckle-faced Dennis the Menace is preparing to turn 50.

The comic's creator, Henry "Hank" Ketcham, has come up with a series of classic panels to commemorate Dennis' journey through American culture. They will run in 1,000 newspapers worldwide from March 5-12, each illustrating the different generations — from the 1950s to the 1990s — Dennis and the cast of neighborhood characters have entertained.

"I want Dennis to be looked at: boom! Right like that," Ketcham said Friday from his Pebble Beach home studio along scenic 17 Mile Drive. "I want him to stand out on the page as being different and concise and funny. And so, I guess we're doing it right because we keep adding papers."

Ketcham, who turns 81 on March 14, first sketched the comic in October 1950. The impish boy and his crabby neighbor, Mr. Wilson, were born after Ketcham's wife burst into his home studio in Carmel in a tizzy over their real 5-year-old son, Dennis.

"Your son is a menace!" she announced after finding the boy had destroyed his room instead of taking a nap.

Just five months later, on March 12, 1951, Dennis Mitchell made his debut in 16 newspapers.

By the time Ketcham stopped drawing the weekday panels in 1994, the comic ran in 1,800 newspapers. Today it's published in 68 countries and 19 languages.

The panels also inspired several books of cartoons, a musical, a television series running from 1959 to 1963 and a playground in Monterey where Ketcham had his first studio.

The Seattle native dropped out of the University of Washington after his freshman year in 1938 to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a cartoonist. His family tried to talk him into working on air conditioners for a living, but Ketcham was determined to draw.

He got his first job as an animator for Walter Lantz, the creator of "Woody Woodpecker," and then for Walt Disney, where he worked on "Pinocchio," "Bambi," "Fantasia" and others.

And while he no longer draws Dennis, Margaret, Joey, Ruff and the gang, Ketcham remains very involved in Dennis' life, overseeing the day-to-day creations of artists Marcus Hamilton and Ronald Ferdinand.

"I'm working with my assistants by fax, and every morning we have a fax roundup," he said. "I'm right on top of them, so I have my footprint on the feature."

After he stopped sketching the Sunday comic in the mid-1980s, Ketcham discovered a more serious art. He began passionately painting oil and watercolor portraits, recreating his loves and pastimes for a decade before his failing health forced him to stop.

"I thought, 'What am I going to paint?"' he said sitting among a room filled with vibrant paintings of women's faces and Dennis comics. "I'm going to paint things that I enjoy. So I painted a lot of golf stuff and a lot of jazz-oriented things that I love."

Ketcham also created numerous portraits of famous artists and cartoonists. His work gained acclaim from critics and was showcased at several shows nationwide with collectors paying $1,000 to $10,000 for various pieces.

Still, Ketcham knows he'll always be remembered as the father of "Dennis the Menace," a title he's proud to hold.

"Nothing changes with kids four and five years old all over the world. They're still in that protective area of being too big for the playpen and too young for school and too little to hit, and you can't put them in jail," he said, smiling.

"He's untouchable and he's lively and creative and curious and every rock he turns over it's a new experience."

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