There is, for a moment, an odd reversal of roles. The mother is aquiver with childlike excitement; her little girl is merely bewildered. "Here's Captain Kangaroo, Nancy," whispers the woman, advancing on her quarry at his restaurant table. "Say hello to the Captain!" The child looks confused. Where is the Captain? And who is this jowly stranger with the beetle eyebrows and the three-piece suit? Suddenly, understanding dawns, and disappointment congeals in the tiny face as Mother explains: "Well, he doesn't have his wig on, or his red jacket or..."

Eventually the two of them leave, and Bob Keeshan is clearly distressed. "I can never understand the insensitivity of adults to children's need for make-believe," he says. "I don't mind having my dinner interrupted. What bothers me is the sadness in kids' eyes when they're told there isn't any Captain Kangaroo—there's just an actor. It's like saying, 'There isn't any Santa Claus.' You destroy the illusion. I can't be party to that."

Indeed, Keeshan's success in sustaining the illusion of Captain Kangaroo has surpassed all expectations, including his own. Last month he began his 25th year on CBS, having broadcast more than 6,800 shows. He has received honorary degrees from six colleges and universities, and his professional awards include three Peabodys and an Emmy. Joan Ganz Cooney, head of the Children's Television Workshop, producer of Sesame Street, calls Keeshan, 52, "a stalwart of children's television, a beacon of light." Fred Rogers, creator of the equally esteemed Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, likens Kangaroo to a classic work of children's literature. "Some of the first people who watched the Captain are now parents themselves," he says. "They feel the show is part of their heritage, and they would like to pass it on to their children."

It is no secret that Keeshan sometimes takes a mailed fist approach with his staff, but his achievements are universally recognized. "He's not a lovable fatherly type. He's a very demanding talent who is in utter control," says a children's TV insider. "But what's under the rug is not as relevant as what's exposed." Countless parents agree. As for Keeshan, he steadfastly avoids slapstick and violence, and says he has always thought of Kangaroo as "a visit" rather than "a show." He prides himself on fostering an affectionate relationship between his young viewers and the program's characters, and leaves didacticism to public TV. "I don't pose as an educator or a child psychologist," he says. "The first thing is to make a child feel good about herself or himself. Make them feel valued and loved. Then the alphabet, numbers, reading skills and all that will just flow."

Keeshan's audience of 6.2 million (59 percent of them under age 12) is loyal but insufficiently large to bring him high ratings. Moreover, for a kids' show, Kangaroo is expensive to produce; the costume budget alone is $75,000 a year. As a result, CBS has lost up to $1 million a year on the series and thought of axing it as long ago as 1957. "We were terrified of the mothers," admits a network official. Last year the news department lobbied to exile Kangaroo to Sunrise Semester country at 6:30 a.m. but soon found itself overmatched. "The Captain is bigger than all of us," concedes Richard Salant, former president of CBS News.

At home in his 26-room Williamsburg-style mansion on Long Island's south shore, Keeshan is loath to pull rank. He and his wife, Jeanne, will celebrate their 29th anniversary next month. "Don't call me Mrs. Kangaroo," she says. "The Captain lives in the Captain's Place with Mr. Green Jeans and Bunny Rabbit, and doesn't have a wife. I am Mrs. Keeshan." She and her husband took pains to protect their three children's privacy when they were growing up; as toddlers they were told simply that their father worked at CBS. Keeshan did pay attention to what they liked and disliked on Kangaroo, but insists, "I could have been a business executive or an airplane pilot and they would have had the same childhood." Jeanne agrees. "When the kids were little and Bob was not at home, he would call them every morning," she says. "He also called after school and again at bedtime, and each child was called individually. The kids," she adds, "are the best thing Bob and I have ever done." The youngest, Maeve, 24, is a bank manager; Laurie, 26, a third-year law student; and Michael, 28, a vice-president of a New York ad agency.

Himself the son of an Irish immigrant father, Keeshan grew up in Forest Hills, N.Y., and learned the power of imagination in childhood. His brothers were several years older than he, and the senior Keeshan, who had worked his way up from delivery boy to vice-president of a grocery chain, was away on business most of the time. "I had friends, but I did a lot of lonely play," he remembers. "I made armies out of buttons and airplanes out of clothespins." He also kept his ear to the family radio, and could recite complete Jack Benny and Fred Allen scripts. As a teenager, he was emcee for school assemblies.

When Keeshan was 16, his mother died. With his father ailing and his brothers off fighting in World War II, he took a part-time job as an NBC page, working after school from 5 p.m. until midnight. It was strenuous, but Keeshan was fascinated to be so near his idols. Once, while guarding a door at a closed rehearsal of the NBC Symphony, he worked up the nerve to steal inside. "Toscanini must have been 800 feet away," Keeshan recalls, "but the baton went down instantly, and he walked off the stage. I didn't know what had happened. I thought maybe he'd gotten tired." A moment later the errant page was ordered back to his post, and the temperamental maestro resumed his conducting.

After the war, and a stretch in the Marines, Keeshan enrolled as a prelaw student at Fordham University, intending to pay his tuition as a page. Back at NBC, however, he managed to ingratiate himself with Bob Smith, a morning radio personality who was about to start Howdy Doody on television. Smith hired Keeshan as a go-fer, and eventually the rail-thin young man was pressed into service as a clown. Keeshan took a pratfall over a cable one day, got a laugh from the kids and soon had Smith's writers working up material for him. Thus was born Clarabelle the Clown, a role he played for nearly five years.

Keeshan was told to turn in his clown suit in 1952 after he and three other performers on the show had hired an agent. Smith and Keeshan have not been friends since. "Bob Smith taught me everything technical," says Keeshan. "He was my father in this business in that sense, but spiritually not at all." Smith recalls acidly: "Bobby followed me around like a puppy dog. He would do anything, but he was not a versatile performer. There were people on that show who had more talent in their pinkies than he has in his present 200-plus pounds. That's why his success has come as such a shock."

Unaware of Smith's jaundiced assessment, Keeshan was making plans for the future. In 1950, after a five-month courtship, he married Jeanne Laurie, a speech therapist. The next year Michael was born. "When I became a parent," Keeshan says, "I turned around 180 degrees philosophically from the old slapstick tradition of entertaining children. I saw that TV was an intimate experience, that it came into your home and you tended to spend a lot more time with it than perhaps was right. The basic element of my philosophy became respect. That has influenced everything I've done since."

After Howdy Doody, Keeshan found himself on his uppers. He made a disastrously inept pilot for CBS called Billy Buttons, scavenged deposit bottles to buy groceries and hocked his wife's engagement ring. Then he landed the role of Corny the Clown on a new local show, Time for Fun. Keeshan's gentle Corny and Tinker the Toymaker, a Gepetto-like character he created on four days' notice for ABC's experimental Tinker's Workshop, were precursors of Captain Kangaroo. CBS chose it in 1955, from among five pilots, to replace Jack Paar in the 8 a.m. time slot.

Kangaroo has changed little in 24 years, and the basic cast—Keeshan's professional family—hasn't changed at all. Chief among them are 72-year-old Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum, who played bass with Fred Waring for 15 years before donning his green jeans; puppeteer Cosmo "Gus" Allegretti, creator of Mr. Moose, the practical jokester, and Bunny Rabbit, the carrot-fixated forerunner of Sesame Street's Cookie Monster; and director Peter Birch. Together they churn out 100 new programs a year (the rest are repeats), producing two shows in a single 10-hour workday. Guest stars (including Carol Channing, Jean Marsh, Alan Arkin) earn their keep, which is union scale—$355.75 per show. For the most part, Keeshan prefers guests from the legitimate theater, with enough range to play more than one role. "We tried some of the young people from new network series," he says, "and they had practically no experience in the way we work. They would come in here and be absolutely flabbergasted that we do a sketch in one take. They were lost."

As Kangaroo's producer as well as its star, Keeshan is totally in charge—and it shows. When things go wrong, he sometimes explodes. Even so, his professional relationships are based on mutual respect and have stood the test of more than two decades. "Every once in awhile I've told him what he can do with the job, but we've never had a knock-down screamer," says Brannum. "We don't socialize, and we never have lunch together. But we can chop down an eight-minute script to two-and-a-half like so much bamboo." Adds Allegretti: "The show is like a marriage without sex. I'm Italian, the volatile one. Lumpy is a Methodist minister's son from the Midwest, and the soul of gentleness. Keesh is our captain. Take one element out and it wouldn't be the same."

Certainly Kangaroo couldn't survive without Keeshan, whose company owns the show and sells it to the network. CBS may be taking a bath, but Keeshan is a millionaire. When he isn't cutting an orotund figure in the Captain's red blazer and silvery wig, he lectures at universities, testifies as an expert witness on children's television and child-rearing, and fends off criticism of his show's unembarrassed commercialism. There are up to 10 minutes' worth of advertising in every hour, and Keeshan is quick to point out that the show simply couldn't survive without them—though he rejects commercials for war toys and guns. He has no plans for retirement and can't imagine who would succeed him. "It just couldn't happen," he says, "because whoever took over would have to manage the show and fight for it and do all the things that keep it alive. It's like juggling—keeping so many objects in the air all at once. If you drop one and you stoop to pick it up, that's when all the others come down."