Before he became rich and famous as the creator/cartoonist of the Dennis the Menace comic strip, Hank Ketcham was an eighteen-year-old kid freshly arrived in Hollywood. Growing up in Seattle, one of his only professional contacts was someone he knew from high school, Vernon Witt, who had gotten a job at the Walter Lantz studio.
Witt encouraged Ketcham to bring sample drawings to the Universal Pictures lot for a review. Apparently Ketcham didn’t have anything to submit, so he spent all night drawing and carefully inking two samples, one of his first lessons in what would be a lifetime of making deadlines for the Post-Hall Syndicate and then King Features. He even kept the two drawings he made, one of them posted here: his take on the famous Hollywood and Vine intersection.
The interview and review couldn’t have gone better. Witt hired Ketcham on the spot and apologized that because of the tight financial situation, Walter Lantz had only authorized a weekly salary of $16. To young Henry, known as Hank, this was a bonanza, not a setback, and he eagerly accepted. Besides, he was living cheap in a boarding house. Now he was spending his money out on the town, hitting the hotspots around that Hollywood and Vine “zoo” of hipsters and celebrities.
In Ketcham’s autobiography, The Merchant of Dennis, he writes glowingly of his time working at Lantz for fourteen months from 1938-39. He also provides a description of the Inbetween Dept, which is not discussed much by cartoon historians in favor of stronger contributions by directors like Alex Lovy, Rudy Zamora, Les Kline, and Burt Gillett, as well as key staff like Ed Kiechle, La Verne Harding and Milt Schaffer.
He refers to the room where he worked as “the Black Hole at Lantz” which had a staff of eight at that time, including Witt, “Jolly Tolly” Kerchenoff, “Wild Jimmy” Perch, Ben Duer, Dick Kinney, Fred Rice, and Spider Brown, whom he describes as “a stoop-shouldered string bean who shuffled through life wearing a long moth-eaten cloth coat that hung almost to the ground.” For Christmas, Lantz was either generous or despairing of this poor soul and gave Spider Brown a brand new overcoat.
Ketcham reflected on his work there as a “bottom rung job in the animation industry” and says the gang of inbetweeners passed their time working with lots of outrageous chatter, probably obscene, something he hints at when he wrote that the dark room was “understandably off limits to the girls in Ink and Paint” and that his years attending a First Methodist Church “hadn’t prepared me for these new sights and sounds.” Here is a passage from his book describing the job of inbetweening:
“It sounds more tedious and complicated than it really is. In order to guide a pencil between the lines of two other drawings, you slip the thumb and two fingers of your left hand between three sheets of paper in a sort of chopstick grip, enabling you to flip the pages of the action to see the action. Inbetweeners always labor in a darkened room, using a light beneath the glass drawing board to better delineate the sometimes delicate pencil lines they must draw between.”
This is a practice long used by animators, too, requiring the use of both hands. With a pencil in one’s right hand, the fingers of the left hand can be tucked within as many as four sheets of paper, fanning them up and down repeatedly to get a quick glimpse of individual drawings within a sequence. This often results in a sort of dog-eared marking that one finds on the bottom left corner of archival pages of classic animation.
The extreme darkening of this “Black Hole” room suggests that the inbetweeners were also somewhat reliant on the “onion skin” appearance of bottom-lighting that allows one to see down through several layers of paper. This allowed them to draw a number of drawings between the animators’ key poses even without always flipping pages. In contrast, the Animation dept. had regular room lighting.
To read these accounts from Ketcham offers an interesting view of the Lantz studio during a time of transition, when the studio had abandoned Oswald Rabbit, was experimenting with Andy Panda, and had not yet hit upon its greatest success with Woody Woodpecker. On any given day, Ketcham was handed unfinished sequences, marked for timing, from a number of Lantz’s best animators. Ketcham mentioned his opportunity to work for La Verne Harding, the first woman animator at a Hollywood studio.
I wrote about Harding in a recent post, with an emphasis on her own comic strip Cynicial Susie, and it is interesting to speculate what inspiration it may have served for the future creator of Dennis the Menace to work with Harding and perhaps to ask her questions about her own experiences having drawn a daily comic strip for a newspaper syndicate.
Also, as a treat, here’s an archival gag submission from Ketcham from 1938, when the Lantz studio was in the midst of producing five Nellie and Dauntless Dan cartoons. I don’t think this has been seen in over 75 years, and the cartoons themselves have largely slipped into obscurity. This is from a multi-panel strip signed by Ketcham with this description:
Panel 1: “Commentator says—“Here we find Baby Nell” as a big hand (as of commentator’s) reaches and—“ Panel 2: “lifts up the basket. Baby Nell is reading ‘Acrobatics in Three Easy Lessons’ or something similar to it, she looks around—smiles—TAKES—and jumps into the basket, which by now is on the ground.”