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. (Note: October, 2018 – the Facebook Page has been shut down)
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….”
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.
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. The city put together a YouTube presentation for the Prak’s 55th anniversary in 2012 that can be viewed here.
– The official website for Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace
– 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.
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