Dennis is Dead, Long Live Dennis

Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace isn’t really dead. That lovable imp’s mischievous adventures are immortalized in syndicated comic strips around the world.

There’s a Facebook paean to a Monterey, California playground that bears his name – I played at Dennis the Menace Park and lived! Nearly 7,000 members extoll the heart pounding excitement and traces of terror they associate with this unique and creative play space that opened in 1956. Through photos, discussion groups and the wall, they share their memories of fun, fear and folly.

Daniel Annereau created the Facebook group after some some childhood reminiscing at the playground during a visit home over Christmas 2008. He was in mourning at the passing of virtually all of the playground’s original, read ‘fun’ play structures. They had been removed and replaced with more anodyne fare.

After asking his mother and a quick Google failed to turn up much in the way of visual images of the playground’s heyday, he put the Facebook group together with a call to action:

Does your mother have a shoebox in the attic with pictures of those terrible contraptions that have been removed and are probably now in some Monterey City Official’s backyard?

Yes? Then this group is for you!

Find those photos! Scan them! Post them! Show the world how EXTREME your childhood was!

The playground has inspired a loyal and devoted fan base that spans three generations. For the kids of Monterey and envrions, this was the playground. It was synonymous with derring-do, high jinks and a dash of danger. “It was a scene,” recalls Daniel who grew up in nearby Pacific Grove . “It was kind of like a theme park. Right next to it there was a ball field and there was a snack shack with things like hot dogs, nachos and snow cones. It was the place to be all summer long.”

It was a playscape like no other. What set it apart was the customized equipment and Arch Garner’s design. Like its namesake it had a bit of an edge – let’s call it that Dennis je ne sais quoi factor. If someone were looking for a blueprint for an extreme playground, this one, in its original state, would have been a good model.

“My parents took me all the time,” remembers Daniel. “We’d have birthdays there. It was a treat, like a personal amusement park. There were quite a few places where you really could hurt yourself too. There was an element of danger. I kind of respect my parents just for taking me and letting me figure out the physics of it all.”


The adrenalin charged ‘helicopter’ ride gets frequent mentions on the Facebook page. From all accounts it was not for the faint of heart. The pulse quickening ride that fueled narrow brushes with bodily injury was a favourite for many of Dennis’ acolytes.

“…the one that spun around on an axis as fast as the big kids could make it go, & to catch a ride you had to be able to jump up way high & grab a metal bar of some kind while ducking the numerous arms, legs, heads, & various other body parts (mostly still attached) of successful riders holding on for dear life– that was sposed to be a helicopter ?? ….Whatever it was, god it was irresistible; I know I left more’n a drop or two of my own blood at its feet, & couldn’t wait to go back for more punishment….”

Marie Dubois

There were other pieces of equipment – like the roller slide – that might look more at home on a factory production line. Whether they were hair raising, or just a little tamer, this is the kind of stuff that most kids can only dream of playing on.

In addition to uncovering some photos of the playground with its original play structures, Daniel was interested in making some social commentary on the changing nature of play. “There’s an element of learning for kids to understand their limits and a responsibility for parents to make sure the kids are okay while still giving them that freedom to learn. It seems now that there is a lot of litigiousness in our society with parents suing over things that are just life,” says Daniel. “I’m sure that one of the driving forces for taking out all the equipment was for the city to feel protected, so they can’t be sued.”

Daniel, is one of tens of thousands who have fond and vibrant memories of the Dennis the Menace playground that was. He laments the fact that kids today don’t have the same kind of opportunities for play. “I learned so much about my limits from that park. I was just as scared of getting hurt as anyone. I didn’t feel invincible or anything. It’s great for kids to play like that. I thank my parents for taking me.”

Winding up our conversation, Daniel asks if there are any movements afoot to provide kids with more creative opportunities for play, He’s happy to hear about Adventure Playgrounds and Imagination Playgrounds and recalls hearing about an Adventure Playground in the San Franciso Bay Area where he currently lives.

As I’m writing this post it dawns on me that I’ve forgotten to ask Daniel about his favourite play structure and his most terrifying moment in the old playground. So Daniel, how about it, were you another ride of death aficionado? Post a comment and let us know.

Thanks to Daniel, Dennis, Hank Ketcham and Arch, I now know that there’s been a lot more happening in Monterey than John Steinbeck.

Check out the Facebook group for more on this interesting piece of pop culture Americana play.

The Dennis the Menace Playground is still a going concern run and operated by the City of Monterey. According to those who lived and breathed the excitement of the original play structures, the current version is a pale comparison. For kids who never knew the original, they’re sure to have a lot of fun even if it’s less edgy. A .pdf map and brief history of the playground are available on the city’s website.

Image sources

    Top image – The official website for Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace
    Bottom image – City of Monterey website
    All other images – I Played at the Dennis the Menace Park and Lived Facebook

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

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16 responses to “Dennis is Dead, Long Live Dennis

  1. Like most, my favorite was easily the helicopter-spinny-thing-of-death.
    But the other great thing about the place was when you got bored with one thing, there were so many other places to go and explore.

    One after the other after the other, for hours.
    And when you were bored with that?… Sno-Cones.

    -Daniel

    • Sno-cones and the helicopter-spinny-thing-of-death. I guess it didn’t get much better than that. I wish Hank Ketchum would have spent some time in Toronto too, where I grew up. We would have loved a playground like this,

      Thanks Daniel.

  2. I love Dennis the Menace, old comics are the bomb!

  3. You say “Dennis is dead.” Did the real Dennis Ketcham die? Do you have any news of him?

    • Terry, “Dennis is Dead” was a turn of phrase for me not a comment on Dennis Ketcham’s health. I’m really not sure how he’s doing or where he might be. I suggest you ask the question on the FB page referenced in the post. Maybe you can find out there.

  4. The only known video that has the Helicopter in it. The video is older than the picture on the site, hence the different coloring. It left in 1988, long before I was born (and I’m from Oklahoma anyway, nowhere near Monterey), so I never got to experience anything like it (well, there was a park in Missouri I went to in 2004 that had some old stuff in it, but it was typical 1960’s playground fare [very tall metal slide, authentic seesaw, and original merry-go-round… maybe another thing or two… I was 10 at the time and don’t remember much because the reason for the trip was to visit my great uncle right before he died], and nothing like DTM was). The current DTMP appears to be a very toned-down version of the old one. I wouldn’t quite say that it’s now only a super-large cookie-cutter playground (which wouldn’t really be the worst thing in the world… most places are not as big as that), but it’s definitely nothing like it was. If someone [rich] were to combine the new and old elements into one park, I’m sure the resulting park would become very popular with kids from around the nation (USA that is). Only thing to worry about would be the lawsuits… and maybe local building codes, though one could conceivably build one in a small town that doesn’t have such stringent regulations.

    • Hi Kyohaku,

      Thanks so much for your note and the link to the YouTube video. I would have loved to have been able to visit the Dennis the Menace Playground in its original glory. It looked like a very exciting place for kids. Let me know if you come across any other exciting playground material. I’m always looking for good stories.

      • KyohakuKeisanki

        I am currently a 17-year-old boy in Tulsa, OK. Understandably, most of my playground experiences were with the new plastic stuff. Back when I was 4 years old I often went to Whiteside Park, which had a mix of fiberglass and painted wood. I remember a boy named Joe who used to be there many times… he could swing really high on the swings which were still the old chain kind (albeit with a plastic/rubber seat; and they were only 8 or 10 feet tall). AFAIK they still have the same equipment today, including the plastic 10-12′ straight and steep slide (not too many slides are straight anymore). Another park, Darlington, had and still has all-metal equipment (though it’s a really small structure). However, LaFortune is the one I want to write about here. As late as 10 years ago they had old wooden equipment (with metal slides and bars). I remember some very high monkey bars (maybe 8 feet?), a swinging bridge (had to be pretty small… maybe 10′ long tops), and 3 slides, each bigger than the other (top one was maybe 10 feet). Back in 2000 or 2001 or so they changed to new plastic equipment. At the time I was very excited since they had changed from a relatively small structure to two large ones. In 2004 I had the opportunity to visit a playground untouched by litigation-fearful government. My great uncle was about to pass away, and the family took a 1-day trip to Aurora, MO, to see him one last time. Apparently not wanting me to see him in his poor condition, my mom found a playground and told my dad to play with me there (I was 10 at the time). That is an experience I will never forget… there were an old-style metal seesaw, a metal merry-go-round, and a very steep metal slide that had to be at least 15-20 feet tall. Being accustomed to plastic all my life, I was at first afraid of the big slide. From what I recall I eventually got on it and loved it… as well as the other stuff there. From what I see on Youtube some places still have this old-school equipment… but they are mostly in other countries (Germany pops up a lot). After reading this article I realize what has truly become of society today. This is not simply a problem with playgrounds, it extends to all aspects of daily life. The American legal system is becoming too constricting to organizations, often doling out six-figure amounts for accidents that deserve more reasonable payments of zero to four figures (case in point: Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants 1994, aka the Coffee Case). Though consumers may think they are getting a better product from the additional regulations, they are the ones who are really paying for them. Thus the governments force unintended mandatory “insurance policies” upon the people… businesses have to pay more and skimp on the product to meet regulations, and the consumer ends up paying for a few people’s troubles in the form of increased prices or inferior products. Change needs to occur in the law schools before it can occur on the playground.

        If you are older (or have relatives living in rural communities), you may remember the slides and swingsets being bigger than they are today. Many probably tell you that “you were smaller, everything was big”. In most cases they’d be right. However, in this one solitary case, I can confidently say that they are wrong and you are right. While I’ve never (as far as I can recall) seen a 12-16′ swingset, there are [hard-to-find] pictures that prove that they existed. As for the slides, just read my post. Despite the extreme difficulty in finding pictures, I am absolutely certain that they existed (and still do, though straight slides of all kinds over 8 feet are a dying species).

        One particular piece of playground equipment that intrigues me due to its unique history is the Giant Stride. Unlike most playground equipment, these were mostly removed in the 1950s, long before the Age of Litigation began circa 1984 (date chosen on purpose). Google “980 playground equipment” and read the comments on the blog to see more about this intriguing piece of equipment… sure it was probably the most dangerous piece, but it was also the most popular in places that had it. Supposedly Sunrise Park in Paris, Illinois, still has a couple (unless they were removed after the 2008 ruling that any park with one automatically loses any lawsuit related to playground injuries, regardless of the scope of the injury and regardless of what equipment actually caused the injury)

        Here’s a link: http://www.parisillinois.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=128&Itemid=148

        If they’re still there, anyone care to go and take a video for Youtube?

        Also, just something I’m curious about. After reading many comments on blogs, I get the feeling that kids back then were more resilient than kids today. Kids back then could fall four feet without it hurting much, and eight feet without getting more than a scraped knee, maybe a sprained wrist at the worst (and often these high falls of 10′ or so were from the aforementioned Giant Strides). Kids in the old days used to jump from 10-foot barn roofs for fun, and one particular comment on another blog described kids purposely jumping down 20-30 feet to slightly inclined ground and getting little more than a sprained ankle. I don’t know how they did it… there wasn’t a secretly required Parkour class in elementary schools back then, was there?

        One example of the last paragraph can be found at this picture (the sand is supposedly a few inches deep at most… definitely not enough to pass today’s standards for that kind of jump): http://a5.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-snc1/4583_85593368861_639953861_2007092_8324144_n.jpg

        Picture from “I played at Dennis the Menace Park and lived!” group, taken circa 1978.

        Part of the reason the Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey was so famous was 1. Its creator was well-known, 2. It was HUGE (one of the biggest playgrounds in the nation, still is pretty big; Hank probably created it as a place that even a super-active kid like Dennis [both the real one and the fictional one] would like), and 3. The likely reason that it maintained its fame through the years is that it was not touched by litigation-fearful people until much later than most playgrounds (the Helicopter, essentially a safer version of the Giant Stride in that both are basically large merry-go-rounds that are high off the ground, was the first thing to go in 1988). One final thought: Watch for some truly innovative (or possibly even retro-throwback) designs in the future. Most things go in cycles (it is simply human nature for people to always be dissatisfied about something… and people tend to get in a hurry and over-correct), and the current downtrend has been particularly vicious (kids are staying inside due to “stranger danger” [stranger abductions are actually lower per capita than they were in the 70s and staying inside with a friend’s parents is statistically MUCH more likely {depending on the math used it could be millions of times more likely} to result in sexual molestation than going outside is since most molesters go after someone they know, also kids are much more likely to be killed in a car accident than abducted], playgrounds are being downsized and boring-ized for the sake of “safety” [in actuality the car ride to the playground is much more dangerous than even the oft-cited playgrounds of the 1920’s… the walk to the playground is a different story though ;) ] and coincidentally [or not], childhood obesity is at its highest since records began… the last point may become the impetus for an upswing). Among those wanting to start the uptrend is Lenore Skenazy, called “America’s Worst Mom” by the paranoia-mongering media (both the conservative FOX and the liberal MSNBC applied that title to her). IMO it is just a matter of time until somebody rich en0ugh to call lawsuit settlements “pocket change” connects the dots (parenting change + playground change = weight change) and starts to actually do something about it. The kids of today will become the adults of tomorrow… and the kinds of adults these kids will become would likely support a very dramatic upswing if they would only hear from someone who could tell them that their kids don’t have to be like they were. Someone like Lenore Skenazy.

      • Kyohaku,

        Thanks so much for your interest. Re the kids from back in the day, I was one of those kids growing up in the 60s. I had a lot of freedom and discretion around how I played and with who. There were boundaries but let’s just say it was a big ballfield and I managed to have a certain amount of independence and adventurousness. Compared to those times there are generally many more restrictions on today’s kids.

      • KyohakuKeisanki

        The following, with few changes, was a reply by me to a comment on another blog (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201101/how-advise-and-help-your-kids-without-driving-them-or-yourself-crazy/comments).

        I’m fairly young (17), and I remember wanting to know things I couldn’t… but my mom would not often let me be with any other kids (and it’s gotten worse over time… I recently attended my second social event of the last ten months). Being homeschooled, an only child, and raised by a totalitarian roflcopter who never let me out of the house on my own; my only social experiences (outside of trivial-duration things like swimming lessons) were a weekly church service and a less-than-weekly homeschool group, both of which met for less than two hours at a time (she wouldn’t even let me on a Little League baseball team when that was the one thing I wanted to do… and I was willing to pay everything [around $500] and give up our trip to Disney World). As far as indoor stuff, everything was strictly G-rated until I was 11, then PG was the norm (though she does let me see an occasional PG-13 now, like I’ve seen the Pirates of the Caribbean series). When I did something wrong, the punishments were pretty extreme (like one time I hit a worker who picked me up [just as my mom had told me to do many years earlier… it had stayed in my subconscious], and she took away my favorite computer game for 4 years). My mom was one of those wackos who derided Pokémon for “Satanic influences”… the bad relationship with her began when I was 6 and I asked a fairly innocent question: “Can I have a Pokémon game for Christmas?” My dad was gone most of the time (not divorced though), and he sided with my mom on all these issues. Basically my life has been the antithesis of the Skenazy movement (though not quite a Chua since I never was forced to make straight-A’s… I just made them… though I question what my life would have been like had academic perfection not come to me so easily… one time I got a B in 7th grade history and my mom took away my second favorite video game for 2 weeks [the first was already gone by then]). Hopefully my kids can have the life I never did.

        Sincerely,
        KyohakuKeisanki, Forever Anonymous (my mom would [not literally] kill me if she knew I wrote this)

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  7. I did get to play on that helicopter of death, as did my father. I really wish my child would have had the chance to do so too! I couldn’t agree more – all the litigation non-sense has had huge contributions to the obesity issue. For crying out loud, how else is a kid supposed to learn about physics!

    I remember having to jump on that thing as the big kids were spinning it faster and faster. I remember missing more than once, and winding up in the sand below. You just got up, dusted yourself off, climbed back up the wall, and tried again! No wonder today’s kids are so dang whiny. Not only are they bored and sedentary, they are not being taught patience to “try, try again” because of not being allowed to play on challenging equipment. Sooo many lessons in that one play structure alone.

    I’m going through a lot of my dad’s old photos now – I’m hoping to find more of the park pre-1988 to add to the fb page! :)

    • Thanks so much Tina for sharing some of your memories of the helicopter of death. Not too many pieces of equipment like that in playgrounds these days. In North America, they’re probably extinct. Would you be kind enough to drop us another comment whe you get the new photos posted? Cheers, Alex

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