Monday, July 16, 2012

Dennis the Menace

Premiering in 1959 just about the time I became aware of...well...anything...DENNIS THE MENACE has literally been a part of my entire life. We watched the show regularly although I'm sure I had little input in that decision at that stage. I continued to watch early evening reruns throughout te sixties and enjoyed the occasional cable revivals since. 

DENNIS THE MENACE was based on Hank Ketcham's classic comic panel that had debuted a decade earlier. The strip was about a 5 year old boy who was always getting into unintentional trouble as boys tend to do. In the TV version, as played by Jay North, he's a little older and slightly less menacing but otherwise things are pretty much the same. 

Gloria Henry made a wonderful mother for Dennis and if Herbert Anderson had NOT gotten the role of Dennis's father there would have been no justice in the world. Never has a human being looked so exactly like a comic strip character!

Dennis's younger friend from the newspapers, Joey, appears from time to time but his contemporary, Tommy, is his best friend here.

Jeannie Russell was cast as Dennis's girlfriend/antagonist Margaret. As a wee lad, I thought she was a particularly cute "older woman" and have sometimes wondered if she's the reason I still have a thing for  girls with glasses today!

The real conflict on the show--as in the papers--was our hero's relationship with Good Ol' Mr. Wilson! For years, DENNIS THE MENACE was all I knew actor Joe Kearns from but then I discovered he was one of the great voices of old time radio! Among other things, the actor played many roles--Mel Blanc-like--on THE JACK BENNY SHOW as well as announcing for many shows such as SUSPENSE.

Nobody could do vein-popping frustration like Kearns. He died suddenly during the shooting of the series, however. 

Willard Waterman, another radio vet (from THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE) had the occasional role of Mister Quigley who ran the local store. After Kearns' death, Waterman's role was beefed up and he even filled in for the Mr. wIlson character in one script. Many years later, I was privileged to perform with and have dinner with this distinguished performer. 

Eventually, the producers brought in yet another veteran radio performer, Gale Gordon (one-time neighbor to Waterman's Gildy), as Mr. Wilson's brother...another Mr. Wilson. 

The actress who played the original Mr. Wilson's wife stayed for awhile but eventually the new one was given his own spouse in actress Sara Seeger, the wife of actor/director Ezra Stone (radio's Henry Aldrich). I would get to know Stone before his death also, not long after Sara's passing. 

Although the DENNIS THE MENACE episodes were fun and funny and remain nostalgic today, young Jay North had some major behind the scenes issues, not with the show or anyone connected with it but with his "handlers" as Willard Waterman described them to me. "He was a good kid. A really GOOD kid, but his handlers..." He shook his head. After another attempt at a series a few years later, he left show business for good.

 Dennis has proven quite popular on DVD most recently and Jay has been persuaded to do a few of the autograph shows around the country, sometimes with his old friend, Margaret, Jeannie Russell.

Both Jay North and Jeannie Russell will be making one of these rare joint appearances at the 2012 THE MID-ATLANTIC NOSTALGIA CONVENTION coming next month!


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