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THEATER : Pulling Some Strings to Create Art


Gary Jones has 187 little people jockeying for his attention. Sure, they're only puppets--a bit of plastic wood, some paint, a piece of cloth, a jaunty ornament. But they're family, after all.

"One of my favorites is Judith, created in honor of Judith Jamison," says the artist. "Another is Bess, from 'Porgy and Bess.' And Eric, a white stripper who gets lots of tips. We've also got six ballerinas in the family."

Eleven years ago, Jones moved from his native Chicago to the Crenshaw district, where a converted storefront serves as home for his Blackstreet U.S.A. Puppet Theatre. "L.A. has been kind to me," says Jones, who was tapped as a California Arts Council artist-in-residence in 1988. "But people always want to meet the puppets--never me."

Jones, 52, was originally turned on to puppet art at age 17, when he saw a performance of "Madame Butterfly" at the Kungsholm Miniature Grand Theatre in Chicago.

"It was not a children's show; you had to be 16 to get in," he explains. "So here was this ghetto kid who'd never seen a puppet show, never heard an opera--and my fate was staring me in the face. I was bowled over."

After a year of written entreaties, Jones was given a job with the Kungsholm Theatre, designing and building scenery. (At the time, he had been working in an ad agency as a graphic artist and teaching arts and crafts at the local Boys Club.) He worked there for three years--until the company folded--eventually becoming a regular performer at the theater.

After the Kungsholm closed, Jones drove a cab while trying to figure out his future. But after being robbed twice, he opted out of the cabbie trade and got a job as a lighting designer consultant. And privately--in the 4,000-square-foot loft he had obtained for the large paintings he was doing--Jones began making puppets.

In 1974, he founded Blackstreet U.S.A. Puppet Theatre to "celebrate full lips, flat noses and nappy hair." (Actually, a few of the puppets, such as the stripper, are white.) He named them The Yuppets: Young Urban Professional Puppets.

Ten years later--after returning from a U.S. Defense Department tour of Iceland, Germany, Holland and Portugal--Jones realized he had burned out on the responsibility of running a business enterprise and managing artistic temperaments. He disbanded the company and came to Los Angeles as a solo act.

"I'd never been here before," he recalls. "I knew two people, but not super-super well. And it was hard at first. I started doing free performances, sending out cards and letters."

Eventually he established a regular performance schedule at the theater: Friday and Saturday evening shows for adults, Saturday and Sunday matinees for children. Yet the adult audiences--perhaps troubled by the neighborhood--waned, and over time, Jones wearied of playing for small houses.

Nowadays, he schedules shows on demand, booking private parties, corporate performances and arts festivals.

After the 1992 riots, Jones was awarded an Arts Recovery Grant by the city of Los Angeles, which he used to take his puppet theater to local elementary schools.

In a separate program, working with the county juvenile justice system, he has over the years conducted puppet workshops with incarcerated teens.

"I didn't think the inmates would appreciate a guy marching in with a bunch of dolls," he quips. "But those gang members would just melt. They could express themselves through the puppets; you put one in their hands and the real person comes through."

Jones has noticed that audiences for his private functions tend to be strictly African American. "I'm sorry that's happened," Jones says, "because I'd like to see the puppets in front of mainstream audiences."

* For more information about Blackstreet U.S.A. Puppet Theatre, call (213) 936-6091.

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