Dennis the Union Menace

Merchant of DennisI recently got a hold of the autobiography of Hank Ketcham, creator of the comic strip Dennis the Menace, aptly called The Merchant of Dennis.  The book is filled with photos and illustrations on every page, and reminds me a lot of Bill Peet’s autobiography. It was published posthumously in 2005, so it includes a recounting of Ketcham’s whole life as well as his own unique opinions about every step along the way, including his stint at Disney Studios from 1938 through the Disney Strike, which, he says, happened “to no one’s surprise”.

Hank Ketcham Disney Strike

“Most of the men in my unit were recently married, just starting a family, and scratching to make monthly mortgage payments, barely making ends meet.  They had every reason to join the picket line at the gate.

“To me, the Teamsters were a bunch of heavy-handed spoilsports interrupting my ‘life of Riley,’ but I could easily empathize with my older colleagues, so I became one of the marching sign-carriers  … it was obvious that the Kansas City Mouseketeer had to loosen his purse strings or perish.” [pp 53-4]

Herb Sorrell at the Disney Strike

Herb Sorrell at the Disney Strike

These “Teamsters” were the professional organizers brought on to help the Disney strikers, led by Herb Sorrell.  Spoiler Alert: While there are Strikers and there are Scabs, Ketcham is a self-described “Fink”  – i.e. a striker who switched to a scab.

“As serious as the issues were, it all struck me as infantile behavior.  And the rantings of Teamster official Herb Sorrell, dramatically recounting days on picket lines at the Ford Motor Company and telling about the clubs and lead pipes [that] goon squads used to make their point, upset my native conception of fair play and good taste.  Even the ‘soup kitchen’ seemed symbolic of the Depression and a step in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go.” [p54]

Disney Strike Soup Kitchen

Hank Ketcham

Hank Ketcham ca.1941

A few days in, Ketcham broke the strike and went back to work, along side his loyalist friend Dick Kinney.  Dick’s brother, Jack Kinney, was a top director at Disney at the time, but the Strike outcome would not effect the directors one way or the other, so they were left alone.  Herb Sorrell had been a union organizer-for-hire for years, and whether he had anything to do with the Ford motor strikes of  January 1937 or April 1941 doesn’t make them any less significant in the minds of the strikers.  Ketcham would continue working at Disney studio for another four years, but he closes this section of his career with melancholy longing:

“It was a shattering experience for many; as in any civil war, the house was divided and close friendships evaporated.  Years later the stigma remained, and all concerned were still labeled.

“The years of innocence had ended, and with that a great deal of fun.  We were now card-carrying members of the Screen Cartoon Guild, Local 852, Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America.  A row of timeclocks was installed, the Penthouse Club folded, Mary Flanigan’s room service was suspended, the Ping-Pong tables were put into storage, and Walt went into a seven-year snit, determined to bring the Teamsters Union to its knees.  Bad vibes were all over the place.”

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