Dennis the Menace, the beloved comic strip, debuted on March 12, 1951. The comic strip was written and illustrated by Hank Ketcham, who found inspiration from his own son. Eventually, it became so explosively successful that it was adapted into a weekly television series that aired on CBS in 1959.
The series was produced by Dariell Productions and Screen Gems. It starred Jay North as Dennis, Joseph Kearns as George Wilson, Herbert Anderson as Dennis’ father, and Gloria Henry as his mother. The actors portraying the characters were, at that time, household names. Let’s take a look back at the journey of Dennis the Menace, from its birth as a comic strip to the iconic TV series.
Jay North is 'Dennis the Menace'
Jay North will always be remembered for making the mischievous blond, Dennis Mitchell, come to life on television. He started acting at the age of six but became a household name when he played the lead role of Dennis the Menace. When the show ended, he appeared in a few films such as Zebra in the Kitchen and Maya.
North then lent his voice to a number of animated television series. He voiced the roles of Bamm-Bamm Rubble for the ‘70s cartoon series, The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show. He also voiced Prince Turhan in Arabian Knights. After a long acting career, he worked with the organization, A Minor Consideration, to help counsel children working in the entertainment industry.
Dennis the Menace was the brainchild of the cartoonist, Hank Ketcham. Ketcham used to work as an animator for Walter Lantz and Walt Disney. He worked on Fantasia, Bambi, Pinocchio, and several Donald Duck shorts. The comic strip was mainly inspired by his own son, also named Dennis.
The story behind the comic strip happened when Ketcham was apparently in his studio in 1950 and his first wife, Alice Mahar, was trying to get Dennis to take a nap. But the four-year-old wrecked his bedroom instead, prompting Alice to shout, “Your son is a menace!” Thus, the blond boy in the red overalls and the striped shirt was born.
Dennis in Real Life
Dennis Ketcham did not have a life like his cartoon alter ego. It was complicated and tragic. He was reported to have learning disabilities as a boy. His father was busy with work. His mother filed for divorce in 1959, but by the time Dennis was 12, his mom had tragically died of a drug overdose.
Dennis’ father, Hank Ketcham, got married to Jo Anne Stevens and moved his family to Switzerland. The young man had a difficult time adjusting to the Swiss boarding school he was sent to. So he was shipped back to attend a boarding school in the United States. After graduating, Dennis joined the military and fought in Vietnam.
Dennis Ketcham was a Vietnam War Veteran
After fighting in Vietnam, Ketcham returned with PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). He moved from one menial job to another. His father, Hank Ketcham, told The New York Times in an interview that Dennis was staying in the East and doing his own thing. He also told People magazine in 1993 that he barely hears from his son and when he does, it is when the kid needs money.
While he may have had a rough start, Dennis is now said to be a multi-millionaire. He married and then divorced Rolande Praepost. They had two children, Dania and Scott. Meanwhile, Hank retired in 1994 and enjoyed passing time with oil painting and watercolor. The successful cartoonist died from prostate cancer in 2001.
Herbert Anderson: Dennis' Father
Herbert Anderson is best remembered for his role in Dennis the Menace as Dennis’ father, Henry Mitchell. But long before that, the tall, bespectacled character actor worked in a few minor roles and got his break in 1941’s Navy Blues, which starred Ann Sheridan and Martha Rye. He also appeared in The Male Animal with Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.
Anderson was from Oakland, California, the son of Norwegian immigrants, Herbert Julius Anderson and Gertrude Anderson. His father was the Oakland City Treasurer in the 1920s. Anderson went to Oakland High School and, later, attended the University of California, Berkeley.
Life Beyond the Show
Aside from playing Henry, and after his time there as well, Anderson had many leading and guest star roles on television including shows like: The Real McCoys, Crossroads, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Batman, Family Affair, The Bing Crosby Show, My Three Sons, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Sea Hunt, and so much more.
Anderson also acted in Broadway shows including The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which had a film version for which he was a cast member. Anderson underwent heart surgery in 1982 and decided to retire from acting. He passed away in 1994 due to complications from a stroke.
Gloria Henry: Dennis' Mother
Gloria Henry gained recognition when she portrayed Alice Mitchell, the mother of Dennis, from 1959 to 1963. Born Gloria Eileen McEniry, she lived on the edge of the Garden District of New Orleans. She attended Worcester Art Museum School and later moved to Los Angeles to work on commercials and radio shows as well as in theater groups.
She used the stage name Gloria Henry and, eventually, she moved on to film work. Her first film appearance was on Sport of Kings in 1947. She was on a few more films, which were considered to be mostly “B grade” productions. In the 50s, she went on doing more of the “B” films, along with TV guest parts, until she won the role of Alice Mitchell, the character that would finally give her a big name in the entertainment industry.
What Happened to Gloria?
When the series ended in 1963, Henry’s TV and film appearances dwindled. TV shows in which she took on small roles included Sisters, Silver Spoons, Rita Hayworth The Love Goddess, and Doogie Howser, M.D. She was also in Dallas, Falcon Crest, The Snoop Sisters, Hazel, The Brady Brides, and Doin’ Time on Planet Earth.
Henry often played the matron roles but her return to the big screen came in the form of a small part in a romantic comedy, Her Minor Thing, in 2005. She is often seen in film festivals and nostalgic events. She has three children—Adam, Jeffrey, and Erin Ellwood—from her ex-husband, architect Craig Ellwood.
Joseph Kearns Plays Mr. Wilson
Joseph Kearns brought the sullen and prickly Mr. Wilson to life. Mr. Wilson is Dennis’ neighbor and always the unintentional victim of the blond boy’s mischief. Kearns first started his acting career in radio in the 1930s and had his film debut in Hard, Fast, and Beautiful in 1951. It was also this year that he gave voice to Doorknob in the animated film, Alice in Wonderland. Kearns starred in other movies as well.
On television, he brought his radio role as Jack Benny’s security guard on The Jack Benny Program, and that began his string of roles on a number of television shows. Mr. George Wilson was his final role before he passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1962. He was 55 years old.
A New Mr. Wilson?
It was the third season of Dennis the Menace when Joseph Kearns succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. Although he was brought to the hospital, he never regained consciousness. The show still needed a Mr. Wilson to continue with the season. It was Gale Gordon who replaced him. Gordon was an accomplished radio actor and is known for being Lucille Ball’s television foil: Theodore J. Mooney, the bank executive on The Lucy Show.
Gordon also appeared in Ball’s other television series and continued to act, both in film and TV, until 1991. Aside from acting, the talented man wrote two books and two one-act plays. Gordon died of lung cancer in 1995.
Two Halls of Fame for Gale Gordon
Gale Gordon, christened Charles Thomas Aldrich, Jr., was born to a family of actors. His father was a vaudevillian and his mom was an English actress. Gordon was the first one to portray Flash Gordon in the 1935 radio series The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon.
In Dennis the Menace, he played the characters of John Wilson, Mr. Wilson’s brother, and then later, Mr. Wilson himself. He also appeared in Our Miss Brooks, The Real McCoys, The ‘Burbs, The New Lassie, Visit to a Small Planet, and Pete and Gladys. People also know Gordon for his “slow-burn” anger acting with his roles.
The Versatility of Gale Gordon
Gordon is not only an adored radio, TV, and film actor but he was also an author. In the 1940s, he wrote Nursery Rhymes for Hollywood Babies and Leaves from the Story Trees. He also penned two one-act plays. Gordon and his wife moved to San Diego County and purchased 150 acres in Borrego Springs. He constructed much of the house and even the art studio himself.
Gordon also restored his own furniture and even became a rancher. He became a commercial carob grower, so you can say that he certainly made much use of their land. Gordon died from lung cancer on June 30, 1995, at the age of 89. He and his wife, Virginia Curley, who had passed away one month earlier, had no children.
Ratings Dropped When Kearns Died
The unexpected loss of Kearns in season three had a major impact on the ratings of the show. The fourth season was not even included in the Top 30 and it was hard to get back on track. Jay North, who played Dennis and had great chemistry with Kearns, was extremely affected and began to withdraw from the people.
Gale Gordon was an excellent actor and he played the grumpy Mr. Wilson well, but viewers were used to the familiar face of Kearns. It simply had a different feeling and was never the same again. The show lasted only one more season before the cast and crew bid their final farewells as they had, sadly, been canceled.
Sylvia Field Plays Martha Wilson
Sylvia Field, who was born Harriet Louisa Johnson, had an acting career that embodied all three medium—stage, screen, and TV. But her most noted role was Martha Wilson, Mr. Wilson’s understanding wife. She began her acting career on a Broadway stage in The Betrothal when she was just 17 years old. Her film debut, meanwhile, was in 1928 with the drama The Home Girl.
In the late 1940s, she started having guest roles on television and even starred in a sitcom about her life, The Truex Family. She also had a role on Mister Peepers, which also starred her real-life husband, Ernest Truex. Her other guest roles were on Star Tonight, Producers’ Showcase, The Ann Sothern Show, General Electric Theater and more. In 1959, she bagged the role of Martha Wilson.
What Became of Mrs. Wilson?
After Joseph Kearns’ untimely death, Field’s character was written out of the show. But she continued with guest spots on television in the 1960s, which included Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Hazel, Our Man Higgins, Harry O, Occasional Wife, and Petticoat Junction, where she (again) played opposite her real-life spouse, Ernest Truex. Her last on-screen appearances were in The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy.
Field got married three times. Her first marriage was to Robert J. Froehlich in 1924 and then to Harold Moffat in 1930. She got married to Ernest Truex in 1941 and the pair remained strong until his death in 1973. The actress was 97 years old when she died in a nursing home.
Billy Booth Passed Away Too Young
Billy Booth, whose complete name is William Allen Booth, was a child actor whose most recognized role was that of Dennis’ best friend, Tommy Anderson. He also had guest roles on several television shows, such as My Three Sons, The Twilight Zone, Lawman, The Donna Reed Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Andy Griffith Show. In one episode of Merrie Melodies, Honey’s Money, he lent his voice for Wentworth.
Booth attended Crescenta Valley High School in 1967 and graduated from USC in 1971. In 1974, he attended the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. After graduating, Booth became a practicing lawyer. In 1977, he went to Los Osos, California and taught business and real estate in Cuesta College and Cal Poly. At the young age of 57, he died from liver complications.
Booth’s Sudden Acting Career
Billy Booth’s sister, Bonnie, gave an interview after his death where she revealed that Booth’s acting career happened accidentally. She said, “Billy got involved in television purely by accident.” She narrated that at a Little League game, someone came up to their mother and asked if she would be okay with an agent contacting her. Apparently, the person saw that Billy would be right for commercials, which is exactly what happened.
Bonnie explained: “We lived in Southern California and were not far from Hollywood. He went on some interviews and started getting these jobs. But, Billy never was seeking out the entertainment business.” Young Billy certainly made a name on the screen and it’s even more amazing considering it all started unintentionally. What pure luck.
Sara Seegar Plays Eloise Wilson
Sara Seegar was a multifaceted entertainer as she performed on stage, radio, television, and film. She portrayed the role of Eloise Wilson, the wife of John Wilson. Seegar attended school in London and Paris, but it was from Hollywood High School that she eventually graduated. She was part of dramatic and musical productions in her school and eventually had a degree in drama from Los Angeles Junior College.
In 1940, she started performing on radio and television and in films, aside from Broadway plays. She appeared on Room for One More and was a regular on The Red Buttons Shows. She also had roles on Perry Mason, Suspense, and The Donna Reed Show. Seegar is also known to have played ten different characters on Bewitched. In 1962 to 1963, she played Eloise Wilson and later replaced Sylvia Field as Mrs. Wilson.
After 'Dennis the Menace'
When Dennis the Menace was canceled, Seegar bagged recurring roles on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Bewitched, and The Brady Bunch. She also had film appearances that included Smash and Grab, Mr. Reeder in Room 13, Dead Men Tell No Tales, The Last Curtain, and The Music Man, which co-starred Robert Preston and Shirley Jones.
Seegar was married to Ezra Stone, whom she met during the Horse Fever play on Broadway in 1940. They had two children, a son named Josef and a daughter named Francine. Stone and Seegar remained married until her death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1990.
Jeannie Russell was in Love With Dennis
A show would not be complete without a female nemesis and in Dennis the Menace,. That was Margaret Wade, played by Jeannie Russell. Margaret was Dennis’ nemesis playmate but she had a crush on him at the same time. Russell was in 31 of the 146 episodes of the series’ four-year run. It was actually Jay North, the actor portraying Dennis, who suggested that Russell would be a good fit for the character.
Russell showed off her singing skills in the 1961 Disney film, Babes in Toyland, and had a small role in Alfred Hitchcock’s, The Birds. In the 1993 film adaptation of Dennis the Menace, she made a cameo appearance as One of The Mitchell’s neighbors. In 1978, she started practicing chiropractic medicine.
Irene Tedrow is Mrs. Lucky Elakins
Irene Tedrow played Mrs. Lucy Elkins, a recurring character in the sitcom and One of The Mitchell’s neighbors. She appeared in 26 episodes of the CBS sitcom. She also studied with Bed Iden Payne, the director of the Memorial Theater at Stratford-on-Avon. Tedrow was a successful stage actress before she made the leap to television. She toured nationally with Maurice Evans’ troupe in New York City.
Tedrow was also a member of the Chautauqua Repertory Theater and a founding member of San Diego’s Old Globe Theater. She even played eighteen characters in adaptations of Shakespearean plays and joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater. Even throughout her eighties, she appeared on Broadway. One of her notable roles, aside from Mrs. Elkins, was Janet Archer in the radio series, Meet Corliss Archer, and in a play as Mrs. Webb in Our Town at Plumstead Playhouse.
The Incredibly Successful Irene Tedrow
After her stint on Dennis the Menace, Tedrow appeared on several other television shows, including Emmy-nominated roles in Eleanor and Franklin and James at 15. Other television appearances included Perry Mason, Jefferson Drum, Lux Video Theatre, Rawhide, The Real McCoys, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Jack Benny Program.
Tedrow was married to William Kent, a man who was a refugee from Nazi Germany. They had two children together, Roger and Enid. Tedrow passed away on March 10, 1995, from stroke complications. She was 87 years old and a widow at the time of her death.
George Cisar Plays The Sergeant
Another beloved character in the sitcom was Sergeant Harold Mooney who was played by George Cisar. He appeared on 31 episodes of the series. Cisar is known to have performed in more than one hundred roles in two decades in both film and television. He often played background parts such as bartenders or policemen. He got his start in the police drama, Stand By for Crime.
After Dennis the Menace ended, Cisar portrayed Donald Hollinger’s father in That Girl and Cyrus Tankersley on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. Other TV show appearances included Gunsmoke, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Untouchables, The Lieutenant, Leave It to Beaver, and Surfside 6. He was also in the films My Favorite Martian and Batman in 1966. His final role was Joe the barber in …tick…tick…tick… Cisar died in Los Angeles at the age of 66.
Willard Waterman Plays The Grocer
Willard Lewis Waterman portrayed Otis Quigley, the lovable grocer on the series. He was a character actor on radio, TV, and films and is best remembered for his role as Harold Peary on The Great Gildersleeve. In his early years, he acted in student plays where he found his passion for theater. He began his radio career at WIBA by singing in a quartet that performed music between programs.
Waterman has appeared in the films Auntie Mame, Three Coins in the Fountain, Riding High, It Happens Every Thursday, Get Yourself a College Girl, and The Apartment. He also appeared in several plays and had a variety of film and TV supporting roles. Waterman died of bone marrow disease at the age of 80. He has a star in the Radio section of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Ron Howard as a Kid
A very young and adorable Ron Howard played the character of Stewart, Dennis’ friend, during the first season. This was after his first acting role in The Journey in 1959. Howard is the eldest son of Rance Howard, an actor, director, and writer, and Jean Speegle Howard, an actress. After playing Stewart, he left the series and joined The Andy Griffith Show where he played the young Opie Taylor.
Howard rose to fame when he played the teenager, Richie Cunningham, in the sitcom, Happy Days. But he left Happy Days in 1980 and focused on directing. He has since carved out a solid and successful career and followed his father’s path, as he became a well-respected director. Howard is now one of the most popular directors and producers in the Hollywood scene.
An Actor Becomes a Director
Ron Howard’s success as an actor has long since been eclipsed by his success as a director. Howard has been nominated for four Oscar awards and he won two for the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind. Some of the films he has directed included Splash, Willow, Parenthood, Apollo 13, Backdraft, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and In the Heart of the Sea.
Howard has been married to his wife, writer Cheryl Alley, since 1975. They have four children: daughters Bryce Dallas Howard, twins Jocelyn Carlyle and Paige Howard, and son Reed Cross. Bryce and Paige are both actresses.
Charles Lane: The Actor That Appeared in More Than 250 Films
The character Lawrence Finch, the drugstore owner, was played by Charles Lane in the series. Lane’s career spanned more than 64 years and the man has appeared in over 250 films. Lane was also one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild. He has appeared in several Frank Capra films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Riding High.
Lane was also an adored supporting actor of Lucille Ball. His final performance was in the 1995 TV film, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. He was 90 years old and in 2007, he died a natural death at the impressive age of 102.
Edward Everett Horton was a Funny Guy
Edward Everett Horton Jr. portrayed John Wilson’s comedic uncle, Ned Matthews. He had a long career in theater, radio, television, film, and voice work. Horton was born in Brooklyn to a father that had English and German ancestry and a mother from Cuba. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio but transferred to Brooklyn Polytechnic and later, settled in Columbia University.
Horton started his acting career in vaudeville and Broadway productions. He first appeared in the comedy, Too Much Business, and then played the lead role in Beggar on Horseback in 1925. He also starred in two-reel silent comedies. Horton found movie work easily because of his performing experience on the stage.
The Comedy Goes On
Horton starred in many comedy features, but he is better known as a character actor in supporting roles including Trouble in Paradise, Alice in Wonderland, The Gay Divorcee, The Front Page, Top Hat, Pocketful of Miracles, and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He also hosted radio’s Kraft Music Hall and had a part in the play Sham, which was shown at The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre.
Horton’s last appearance was in the film, Cold Turkey, in 1971. However, he still appeared in stage productions. At the age of 84, he died from cancer in Encino, California. Horton has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in the motion picture industry.
A Bad Influence for Kids
Dennis is not called menace for nothing. He is an innocent, well-meaning little boy but he has such youthful energy and curiosity that it often leads him to mischief and troubles… usually at Mr. Wilson’s expense. His wild antics caught the attention of the viewers so magnetically that CBS told producers, James Fonda and Harry Ackerman, to play down his antics.
This request came after concerns were relayed that the children watching the show would imitate him and cause trouble for their parents (and neighbors). So, in the next seasons, one could clearly see that the character was a bit more subdued than he had been in earlier episodes.
The Most Famous Houses
The houses that the Mitchells and the Wilsons lived in were located on the Warner Ranch in Burbank. The Mitchell house was built back in 1935 for a movie called Party Wire before it became the house of the Stone family from The Donna Reed Show. Its front porch has been lengthened over the years since the show.
Meanwhile, the Wilson house, which was next to the Mitchell house, was originally built for the series, Blondie. But it’s no longer the original one that was built in 1941 because it was burned down twice and had to be rebuilt. The house was also used for other shows, such as I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and Father Knows Best.
A Multi-purpose Set
Mrs. Lucy Elkins was also a neighbor on the series and her house was right next to the Wilson house. The house was later used for The Partridge Family musical sitcom. Back then, the TV shows and the set designers really got their money’s worth out of those TV houses. The designers who built the famous and iconic houses are probably beaming with pride over their creation.
Nowadays, the houses are mainly used for storage space and production offices. Sometimes an occasional sitcom or drama is filmed in one. However, they have, in most respects, become little more than relics of television’s past.
The U.K. Name Change
While Dennis the Menace was being shown in the United States, the UK just so happened to be running their own comic strip; one that bore the same title as Dennis the Menace. So, to avoid confusion when it was aired overseas, they simply removed “the Menace” and went with only the name, Dennis.
Both were based on the same comic strip but there were minor differences. The two were technically the same but featured different characters. The American Dennis is blond, wears red overalls with a blue and white striped T-shirt, and has a sheepdog called Ruff. Meanwhile, the British Dennis has spiky black hair, wears a red and black striped jumper, and has a dog named Gnasher. The UK Dennis definitely sounds way more punk!
Guest Stars Bonanza
The wildly successful sitcom featured a long list of guest stars, including some pretty big names, throughout its four seasons (a total number of 146 episodes). Some guest stars even included legends such as Mel Blanc. Blanc is a voice absolute icon in the entertainment industry and has voiced some of the most famous characters namely: Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Gideon the Cat from Pinocchio, and Porky Pig.
Original Mickey Mouse Club member, Cheryl Holdridge, also guest-starred in Dennis the Menace. She was part of the first ever Mickey Mouse Club in 1956. Other actors who brought their star power include MLB Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, Oscar-nominated actress Spring Byington, and U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel John A. Powers.
Dennis and the Baseball Legend
While it’s common for guest stars to play themselves in TV shows, most guest stars in Dennis the Menace portrayed new characters. However, Los Angeles Dodger alumni, Sandy Koufax, was one of the few who got to play himself. It was season three of the series in an episode entitled, Dennis and the Dodger. Of course, the story centered around baseball.
Mr. Quigley was the pee wee baseball coach who needed to have new uniforms for his team. He soon finds out that the mayor will give them uniforms on one condition—Sandy Koufax has to play a game in town together with the Dodgers. Koufax did play a game and Mr. Quigley got jealous because the spotlight was no longer on him.
Bob Hastings: The Guest Star With Most Appearances
It was actor, Bob Hastings, who had the most guest appearances on the television series. He had a total of five cameos, though he appeared as a different character every time. The most notable character was that of Coach Gilmore in the episode The Big Basketball Game in season four. Hastings started his career in radio with Coast-to-Coast on a Bus (NBC) and eventually made it to TV.
Most of his career was in television as he starred in many TV shows such as Hennessy, Green Acres, Window on Main Street, Room for One More, Hogan’s Heroes, and Car 54, Where Are You? He was best remembered for playing Lt. Elroy Carpenter on McHale’s Navy. He was married to Joan Hastings for 66 years and, together, they had a huge family. Hastings died from prostate cancer in 2014 at the age of 89.
Dennis the Menace Guest Stars?
Crossover guest appearances became a thing back then, and Dennis the Menace was no exception. As it had received many guest stars, the show also lent their star to other shows. Jay North was a household name during the prime of the series, and this popularity set him off on many guest appearances in other shows.
These appearances included The Donna Reed Show and The Red Skelton Hour. North was also featured in the film Pépé. It has been reported that these guest appearances and his work outside the show were the few times that North experienced childhood freedom, because his parents and other family members were too strict, and even restricted his free time and fun.
A Poster Face
Jay North was so adored as an actor that he became a brand, which turned out to be a huge commercial success. The show’s sponsors, Skippy peanut butter and Kellogg’s cereals made him the star of their commercials. He also did ads for Bosco chocolate and Best Food mayonnaise.
North also got to travel around the country while promoting his show. His Dennis character, lovable but naughty, greatly helped North sell things. He was so successful and had to work twice as hard, which took a toll on the boy. He was only less than ten years old when everything happened too fast and it got him exhausted.
The Record Deal
As Jay North became a big brand, the music industry started to take a great interest in him; so much so that there was interest in him releasing vinyl record albums in 1960. North recorded two LPs: The Misadventures of Dennis the Menace and Jay North – Looks Who’s Singing! The former was an album that contained soundtrack stories while the latter was full of boyish songs.
One song in the album was entitled “When I Become A Man,” where North sang about the things he would do when he was finally older, which were mainly about breaking rules he was restricted to as a kid. Other songs were about a kid asking innocent questions such as “What is a Mom?” and “What is a Good Girl?”
The Most Adored Troublemaker
Lovable Dennis Mitchell was known for his penchant for causing troubles that are both amusing and frustrating. In fact, TV Guide ranked the character at number eight on the list of “TV’s 10 Biggest Brats.” The child actor, Jay North, played the character so well and, knowing the struggles he had as a young actor, it’s not hard to think that those hardships contributed to how he portrayed himself to the world.
Everything happened so fast for the little one that maybe he just didn’t know how to behave. Apparently, with North, it got to the point where he would also act up. Life imitating art, so to speak.
A Great Mother and Son Duo
Many of us have read and heard of child star parents misusing their kid’s fame and income. But Dorothy North was different. She was a single mother who was able to support her family. She gave her approval, after some reservations, to have Jay be represented by a prominent Hollywood talent manager. This eventually introduced Jay to a career that would take care of him for the rest of his life.
Unlike other parents, Dorothy continued to have her own career. In an interview in 1993, Jay made it clear that he did not support his mother with his earnings. She kept her job with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). She hired business managers to invest and manage his earnings.
A Child's Salary
Young North made $500 per episode but by the fourth season, he earned $3,500 for each episode. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was a huge amount of money, especially for a child. It is admirable and amazing to hear that a parent did not take advantage of her child’s wages. But even that did not compensate for the difficulties North was having.
His mother was oblivious to how North was treated while working on the set, which tremendously affected North. Her mother had no clue as to what was happening on the set or what his aunt had been doing to him since North himself hid his pain.
Behind the Scenes
It was revealed recently that Jay North was a victim of abuse at the hands of a family member—his aunt. North’s mother worked during the day and so sought out her sister, Mary Hopper, and her brother-in-law, to look after North and be his on-set guardians. Aunt Mary was actually quite strict, insisting that he was not allowed to play or socialize with the other kids.
His world off-set was limited to his dressing room, even during lunch, and nowhere else. Reportedly, Aunt Mary physically and verbally abused him when he would make mistakes during the filming. She demanded perfection. It was sad that North’s mother was unaware of these events.
However, it was not only North’s mother who was not aware that such terrible things were happening. Apparently, no one seemed to notice and North did not tell anyone until many years later. The actor has said that he did not want to say anything because he was scared that his aunt would do something to him. As a child, you would always think that is a possibility.
Jeannie Russell, another child actor who played North’s nemesis playmate and who had a crush on Dennis, disclosed during an interview that, “the show comes first. This was the ethic that we were raised in. Had I seen any abuse or any horrible upset on Jay’s part, I would have noticed. It would have impacted me. It would have upset me terribly.”
A Difficult Comeback
When the show ended after the fourth season due to its low rating from Joseph Kearns’ untimely death, the young lead star was relieved as he had been struggling with Kearns passing as well as his complicated relationship with his aunt. North struggled to find other acting jobs because he has and once told E! network that he had to “fight the ghost of Dennis the Menace” because the casting directors and producers still saw Dennis in him.
He did land a lead role in the comedy film Zebra in the Kitchen, but after this, he found himself appearing in small TV roles and eventually worked as a voice actor for a few animated TV series. In 1977, he enlisted in the US Navy. While he was commended for his good work, he was given a hard time by his shipmates and superiors just because he was a former child star. In 1979, he left on an honorable discharge.
Life After Stardom
Being famous usually has more than its fair share of advantages. One would have the influence and favor from people—a better treatment overall—but this was not the case with North. He seemed to have lived a life that was full of hardships. North carried the burden of being a former child star and it pained him both within and without the entertainment industry.
It is a sad story but the entertainment industry has seen far too many child actors with this problem. They often end up living lives that are dark or the exact opposite of their childhood glory days. The transition might have been too much.
The Death Hoax
On December 8, 1988, Jay North was a victim of a widely reported death hoax. His mother Dorothy got news that her son had died in a doctor’s office that morning. United Press International reported that his body had been found at 12:35 in the morning. It even mentioned a doctor named Robert Tobias, whom North never met.
In an interview with The Orlando Sentinel, he said that his ex-father-in-law heard about it on the radio and so did his old friend Jon Provost. They all called, upset, only to discover (to their relief) that North was very much alive and well. North also had to deal with impostors who were pretending to be him, which to him was ridiculous because he is not a “hot item, so they don’t know what I look like.”
A Small Kindness
North’s childhood friends and co-stars, Jeannie Russell and Paul Petersen, who were on The Donna Reed Show, reached out to him after they found out about Rusty Hamer, a former child star from The Danny Thomas Show. Hamer’s suicide made Russell and Petersen who committed suicide. They both worried that North would head down the same road and They encouraged him to go through reach out to therapist who specializes in helping troubled child actors.
North soon joined Petersen’s organization, A Minor Consideration. The organization helps child actors deal with the difficult situations that come with the kind of work they do at such a young age.
The Kindness Went a Long Way
North has acknowledged how instrumental Russell and Petersen were in helping him deal with his childhood torment. If they did not step in, he would have had a more troubling and a rougher path ahead of him. Child stars can be quite exploited and they often have unfair rules placed on them. This is why organizations like A Minor Consideration need to exist.
Child stars like Jay North, who went through a lot of challenges after growing up famous, can find help, understanding, and a sense of community in the organization. North is now using his voice and his experiences to counsel child stars who are now experiencing the same things he did back then.
Every show, even the best of them, will experience production mistakes along the way. For Dennis the Menace, inconsistencies can be noticed by anyone with a discerning eye. One such blunder can be seen in how the house was structured. The front house of the Mitchell residence on Elm Street displayed windows on both sides of the front door but when there are scenes inside the house, one can see that there are no windows on either side of the door.
Aside from that obvious incongruity, when the camera displays shots of the house from the outside, it looks like the driveway is right outside the living room. However, in some episodes shown in season two, a door in the living room leads to the outside where there is a fence and not a driveway.
Were these production blunders simply an oversight on the creators’ parts? Or did it come down to the fact that the show used multiple sets? While the houses were built and located on the Warner Ranch were used for the front exteriors of the homes, the interior scenes were filmed on an entirely different location. They were filmed particularly on Soundstage 7 at the Columbia Studios in Hollywood, which is now Sunset Gower.
The backyards of the two houses were also shot on the sound stages, except for a few episodes. These days, the houses, including Mrs. Elkins house, are primarily being used as storage space and production offices.
Good Old Mr. Wilson
The grumpy Mr. George Wilson was originally a retired postman in the comic strip, but the television series changed that. In the TV version of Dennis the Menace, Mr. Wilson was not a postman but was instead retired from retail. He was previously a store manager in Pittsburgh for the Women’s Wear department.
In one episode entitled “Out of Retirement,” he was asked to come back to work because his management skills were needed for the Cramer Business Machines Company. The reason for this shift in Mr. Wilson’s character is unknown but the show creators probably thought it was more interesting and more ideas could be worked with if he was a retail worker.
Ketcham Becomes Very Successful
The brain behind the Dennis the Menace comic, Hank Ketcham, was from Wichita, Kansas. The comic strip was so successful that it spawned a cartoon series, the television series, and even a film. The country loved it so much that it put Wichita on the map. In fact, having set the comic in Wichita, and having all of Dennis’ wildly popular adventures take place there, Ketcham was made the honorary mayor of the town!
Not only did Ketcham gain national recognition, but he was also making more than enough money and was living a comfortable life. This is all because of this comic that was inspired by his son.
Where is North Today?
After finding popularity as a child star and a teen idol of the era, resulting from his feature film, Maya, and the subsequent TV series, North discovered that he had something special as a voice actor. He was known as the voices of Prince Turhan in the Arabian Knights segment of The Banana Splits Adventure Hour and the teenaged Bamm-Bamm Rubble on The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show.
North has had quite an extensive film career that spanned from 1957 to 2003. His last film in 2003 was Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. He became involved with the organization, A Minor Consideration, to help child stars handle the struggles that he himself faced while growing up. North is now working as a correctional officer at the Florida Department of Corrections. What a journey his life has been!
Comics Become Cartoons
The television series, Dennis the Menace, was so wildly successful that it generated many other spin-offs in the later years. In 1986, DIC Entertainment made an animated series based on the original comic strip. It was illustrated in an extremely similar way to the original comic strip.
Unlike the television show that centered on Dennis, his family, and their neighbors, particularly Mr. Wilson; the animated series highlighted Dennis, his dog, and his adventures with friends. But Mr. Wilson still has a role in the cartoon show. It was aired in several countries including the USA, Australia, Canada, Turkey, the UK, Russia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic.
Years after the television series, Dennis still made such a mark on people that Warner Bros. Pictures released a live-action film. Wanting to stir nostalgia for viewers, the 1993 film was made with the same premise as the series—a young, well-meaning Dennis finds himself constantly running into trouble at the expense of Mr. Wilson. But the film was done with a modern ‘90s style.
The cast was made up of Christopher Lloyd, Robert Stanton, Lea Thompson, Walter Matthau, and Mason Gamble as Dennis. It also featured a cameo appearance by Jeannie Russell, who played Margaret Wade in the series. The movie was a box-office success.
Even though the film enjoyed box-office success, it received negative reviews from film critics. Rotten Tomatoes even gave it a rating of 23%. The general criticism was that it hit too close to the Home Alone formula. Robert Ebert also gave the film two and a half stars.
Mason Gamble, who won the role out of 20,000 children who auditioned, even had a Razzie Award nomination for Worst New Star. But despite the negative reviews, it brought in a lot of money. The movie had a $35 million budget but it grossed at $51.3 million in the US alone and $66 million overseas.
The Video Game
After the success of the movie, Dennis the Menace was also turned into a video game in a time when at-home video games were all the rage. Ocean Software released the much-anticipated Dennis the Menace video game for Super Nintendo and Gameboy.
You can now act out for yourself any scenario you want in the TV show or film and come up with the best outcome you desire. The player can even team up with old Mr. Wilson and create pandemonium and then save the day. But yes, even in the game, Dennis still drives Mr. Wilson crazy with his antics.
Dennis is Still Alive!
Dennis the Menace has not completely disappeared from the boob tube. You can still watch all kinds of Dennis fun, in many ways. When the show was canceled, it got into an outfit with various channels throughout the years. If you find yourself reminiscing about this adorable but naughty boy’s antics, or you are simply curious, you can stream the series on Hulu.
The show had a total of four seasons and 146 episodes, which aired from 1959 to 1963, so you can go binge watching or have a marathon as you will certainly have a lot of catching up to do. It’s nice to know how easy it is to have your fix of brilliant vintage shows like Dennis the Menace now.