Hank Ketcham doesn't like invasions of his privacy. Not surprisingly, the man who since 1950 has been depicting wholesome American family life in the "Dennis the Menace" cartoon is a protector of home and hearth -- and the right not to have crudeness or lewdness infect family-oriented entertainment. "The whole moral picture is so dreadful," he laments.

Ketcham, 70, a genial, youthful-looking Californian clad in a khaki suit and a pink-and-white-striped shirt with expensive loafers and matching pink socks, is in Washington shedding a little of his shield to pump for a musical version of "Dennis the Menace" -- "a play you wouldn't be embarrassed to take the kids to see," he explains. With a book by Ernest Chambers, music by Doug Katsaros and lyrics by Richard Engquist, "Dennis" had its world premiere at the Olney Theatre this week and is playing through May 27.

In Ketcham's world -- and in that of the musical -- daily details may have changed since the '50s (like trading tricycles for skateboards or acknowledging the existence of the women's movement) but not the essential world view.

It is a world where women are ladies, and profanity doesn't get stronger than "heckuva"; where Mom is at home with the kids; and where the closest the cartoon gets to touching on world events is acknowledging such holidays as Christmas and Easter -- or recently springing for Earth Day. "We're not out waving any banners," says Ketcham.

It is a world where Ketcham is in control. "These are people I want to live with," he says of the characters in the musical so familiar from the cartoon: Dennis; his parents, Alice and Henry Mitchell; and their next-door neighbors, George and Martha Wilson. "And if they aren't what I like, I erase them. The headlines can be murderous and bloody, but in my world, the birds are singing."

One of the ways Ketcham avoided everyday unpleasantness -- in particular the pain he encountered at the end of his first marriage and during his second one -- was by living in Geneva for 18 years, from 1959 to 1977. It was there that he met his third wife, Rolande, and there, in a penthouse studio overlooking Swiss banks and Harry Winston's diamonds and Patek Philippe's fine watches, that he continued to draw the quintessential suburban American cartoon.

It was there that he also avoided the turmoil of the '60s and much of the '70s. Instead he witnessed the America of that period by leafing through Sears catalogues (which he has always used for accurate lifestyle details) and visiting the States once a year for Bing Crosby's Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif. "Turmoil is something I don't need -- other than what I generate myself," he says. "It was a nice life."

It was a life afforded by "Dennis the Menace." He has told the story of its creation many times, but still warms to it. A freelance cartoonist, he was sitting at his drawing board in his Carmel, Calif., home when his wife stormed into his studio with the words, "Your son is a menace." "You mean Dennis?" he asked. A light bulb lit up in his head, and a star was born.

In the early days of cartooning, Ketcham could empathize in particular with the young father trying to start a career. "He comes home tired, full of other thoughts -- and it's hard to come back and relax enough to enjoy your family," he says. The young Ketcham saw children, in particular his son Dennis, as a part of the problem. "They always seemed to be in the way of what you wanted to do," he remembers.

But being the model for Dennis the Menace loaded the real Dennis with heavy baggage. So did the turmoil surrounding the end of his parents' marriage and his mother's death during the divorce proceedings. And today, Dennis, who lives in Ohio, and Hank Ketcham are estranged. "These things happen," says Ketcham, referring to both the marital breakup and his son's loss of privacy. "But this was even worse because his name was used. He was brought in unwillingly and unknowingly, and it confused him."

The situation pained Ketcham as well. And the cartoon offered him the outlet of a more orderly life. "It was a little like Pagliacci," he says -- trying to create laughter when you are crying inside. An older, more prosperous father now, he acknowledges he is more at ease with his children with Rolande: Dania, 17, and Scott, 13.

The years -- and the cartoon, which is carried in more than 1,000 newspapers in 14 languages in 48 countries -- have been good to him. He starts each day early, having spent some time on his exercise bike before he gets to his studio at 8:30. "I am never out of work," he says with delight. And although he has been drawing "Dennis" a very long time, he says the challenge of it all keeps him fresh. "I like to draw," he says. "I want to solve the problem of transforming the joke from the written page to the graphic so it will jump off the page -- so I keep trying to top my own act."

Ketcham started using assistant artists for the Sunday cartoons in 1953 or '54; and for the past 10 years, he has allowed them further into the daily process, though he guards his creation fiercely, demanding that he okay preliminary rough drawings, final roughs and inking. He makes suggestions at each stage of the game. Through the years, he estimates he has had "half a dozen" assistants, and uses suggestions from gag writers as well, as do many other cartoonists, he says. It turns out there is a system for such arrangements: Gag writers send in batches of 3-by-5 index cards with jokes. They are rejected or kept by the cartoonist, who pays for what he or she uses: in Ketcham's case, $50 for an idea for a daily panel and $300 for a Sunday one.

The world of the cartoon panel may be where he feels the safest. "I make a point of staying away from the ugly side of life. It's just my nature," he says. "When I was a youngster, in the '20s and '30s, I just felt amusing others -- keeping somebody else's face in a smile -- was a driving force withing me." He even remembers that when he was a kid, instead of going out for football, he was the head cheerleader. "I'd rather have upbeat things around me," he says of his Pebble Beach life. "Lord knows there are enough things dragging you down."

But evidently not too many at their three-bedroom, one guest room house with -- natch -- a golden retriever in residence and a piano and an electric guitar in the garage. And in case you wondered, Rolande Ketcham, a trim, stylish woman, whom he describes as "a marvelous cook and sensational mother," does not work outside the home.

"I don't want her to work out there," says Ketcham, generally pointing in the direction of the real world. "We have a great time."