Hank Ketcham and Animation

Suspended Animation #414

When the name of cartoonist Hank Ketcham is mentioned, most people immediately think of his creation of the daily newspaper panel Dennis the Menace or the massive merchandising empire he built off of the character.

I assume that most people do not recall that he got his start in professional cartooning and training working at Walter Lantz and later at Disney before he entered the Navy in January 1942 during World War II.

Growing up in Seattle, Washington, Ketcham had no formal training in cartooning although he contributed a series of cartoons to his high school newspaper. He was appointed in 1930, the official cheerleader for the Saturday matinee Mickey Mouse Club at the local Cheerio Theater and proudly wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with a big picture of Mickey Mouse.

At the age of nine years old, his dad took him to a movie matinee that featured one of Max Flesicher’s Out of the Inkwell cartoons. It was the first animation he ever saw but it was enticing enough to convince him to devote his life to becoming a cartoonist. When he saw Three Little Pigs (1933), he knew that he wanted to work at Disney.

In April 1938, he saw one of the ads that the Disney Studio had placed in newspapers around the country “to seek out young cartoonists”. Ketcham was in his first year at the University of Washington.

Ketcham eventually lands at Disney – just in time for the strike.

As Ketcham recalled, “In addition to my vital statistics, they wanted to see samples of my work and outlined three situations involving Mickey, Goofy and Donald Duck that I was to develop as rough pencil sketches. As I had been drawing cartoons since the first grade and had gained a reputation in the neighborhood as an ‘exceptionally gifted cartoonist’, I knew the Disney test would be a piece of cake. A mere formality.”

In May, he received a form letter of rejection for his application but with the enthusiasm of youth, he drove with his friend to Los Angeles assuming that once he was there in person, he could convince the studio it had made a mistake.

He stayed with his uncle and family in Westwood while he looked for work. One of his first stops was going to Disney’s Hyperion Studio and went to the Personnel Office that was in a small wooden shack across the street from the main cluster of buildings. He was bluntly told that there were no openings. He looked for other work as the days turned into weeks.

Finally he found a job at a small advertising agency called Art Service, Inc. that provided work for businesses in downtown Los Angeles. However, he was not doing artwork but performing janitorial duties, making deliveries and organizing the stockroom.

He recalled that a fellow graduate of his high school, Vernon Witt, was working at the Walter Lantz Studio and cold called him to plead his case. Witt worked in inbetweening and asked Ketcham to drop by the next day with samples (that Ketcham hastily drew that night). He was hired at a salary of sixteen dollars a week.

Ketcham (standing) observing an inbetweener at Lantz in the 1930s

Ketcham recalled, “In the Black Hole at Lantz there were eight of us paper flippers making all kinds of raucous noises and telling outrageous jokes – anything to fend off boredom.” Among those inbetweeners was Dick Kinney, brother of Disney director Jack Kinney.

The Hollywood Art Center School on Highland featured a course in “Cartooning and Pre-Animation”. The instructors were artists moonlighting from Lantz including Vern Witt, Tolly Kerchonoff, Dick Kinney, and Ben Duer. A Day Class (two three-hour periods a week) for five months cost ninety-five dollars with no refunds.

Witt got Ketcham a job as an instructor even though he had only been working at Lantz for only four months. Ketcham was paid three bucks for each session.

After fourteen months at Lantz and a recent promotion to “assistant animator”, Ketcham was emboldened to once again apply at Disney. He felt that what he had learned working with Gerry Geronimi and Laverne Harding made him better qualified. Once again, he was turned down after his portfolio of samples was examined.

To make matters worse, he was informed that George Drake who was in charge of hiring new animators and reviewed portfolios felt that he should not waste his time trying to get into animation but should find some other type of job.

However, in late fall of 1939, Johnny Bond at the Disney Studio phoned Ketcham and asked if he was interested in a temporary job at twenty-five dollars a week to come in and help with finishing up Pinocchio. Ketcham did not hesitate and remained to work on Bambi and Fantasia as well as dozens of Donald Duck shorts.

Ketcham became part of the animation unit with Ward Kimball and Fred Moore. He did in-betweens and pencil clean-ups for Bernie Wolf, David Swift and Walt Kelly.

Ketcham never interacted with Walt himself. Ketcham was introduced to him briefly at the Penthouse Club as a guest of animator Don Towsley and once on a quick elevator ride where the overwhelmed Ketcham said nothing.

At the studio, Ketcham developed friendships with Virgil Partch and Dick Shaw. They would on weekends sit around and brainstorm gags for the magazine market. Ketcham always felt that Partch was wasted doing the Big George character and that Publishers Syndicate should have just let Partch run wild when they gave him a newspaper strip.

Ketcham was not a supporter of the strike at the Disney Studio but admitted that since he was young and single he wasn’t worried about supporting a family or paying a mortgage. Because of his friendships, he did briefly become one of the sign carrying marchers for a few days.

Ketcham stated, “As serious as the issues were, it all struck me as infantile behavior on both sides. It was a shattering experience for many; as in any civil war, the house was divided and close friendships evaporated. Years later the stigma remained and all concerned were still labeled.”

At Disney, Ketcham became a serious student of animation. He asked questions, listened attentively, and studied how drapery and articles of clothing moved among other things.

Ketcham wrote, “I work with a certain speed and confidence that must be traced to my salad days at the Mouse Factory. When I am asked where I attended school, I invariably reply ‘The University of Walt Disney’.”

When World War II broke out, Ketcham wanted to join the Navy but his eyesight was poor. His former geometry teacher pulled some strings with a doctor and Henry King Ketcham was sworn in to the United States Naval Reserve as a photographer’s mate third class.

He created a character called Seaman Hook and developed a six minute animated cartoon with the character called Take Heed, Mr. Tojo. He connected with Walter Lantz to produce the film and spent six weeks in Hollywood during the making of the short. He later sold a pantomime panel comic with a sailor called “Half Hitch” to the Saturday Evening Post.

During his time in the Navy, Ketcham received a personal note from Walt Disney congratulating him on the work he was doing for the Navy and his cartoons that were starting to appear in magazines. Walt wished him luck.

Dennis the Menace was released in March 1951 but it all started with Walter Lantz and Walt Disney.