June 15, 1998 12:00 PM

Trouble is brewing in a roomful of grade-school students in Los Angeles. A wisecracking character named TJ is mouthing off to Gary Jones, who is more than twice his size. “You’re gettin’ on my nerves,” snaps TJ, before giving his adversary a good shove. “Don’t you go pushing me!” Jones replies, and suddenly TJ is trying to knock him senseless.

In fact, the pair have tussled before and will live to tussle again. For TJ is one of 187 Ping-Pong-ball-eyed stars of the Blackstreet USA Puppet Theatre, a not-for-profit troupe run by its founder and sole human member—Gary Jones. Targeting children ages 4 to 12, Jones’s puppets, which he makes himself, cavort in musical shows about AIDS and how to prevent it, drug abuse and, in a workshop that seems more timely than ever, conflict resolution. “Television teaches kids to settle their differences by bang-bang, shoot-’em-up,” says Jones, 55. “My puppets are very in-your-face, so kids will get the message that you don’t have to fight.”

Jones’s mock dustup with TJ and a discussion about alternatives to violence that followed it hit home with the 15 students from Alta Loma Elementary School seated on colorful quilts spread out on the floor of his large Los Angeles loft. “I learned you always try and talk things over,” says 8-year-old Artinna Thompson. “And I liked learning how he made the puppets work.”

Jones credits his success to a simple belief: The puppet is mightier than the sword. “Kids have all this creative energy,” he says. “If you have art and music in schools, then you won’t have a problem with violence.” Jones performs at children’s birthday parties—actors Debbie Allen and Robert Townsend have been clients—but he saves his passion for the hundreds of shows a year he stages for hard-to-reach, inner-city kids. “In the two weeks he was here,” says Carole Stovalle, principal of the Lincoln Avenue School in Orange, N.J., where Jones held a workshop, “we didn’t suspend a single student for fighting.”

The younger of two sons raised on Chicago’s South Side by Leonard Jones, a machinist who died in 1990, and Jessie, a postal worker now retired, Jones saw his first puppet show, a production of Madame Butterfly, at 17. “My mind was blown,” he says, recalling his decision to leave the Illinois Institute of Technology in the early ’60s to study puppetry at Chicago’s Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera.

In 1974, he created a 15-person troupe that puppeted the nation, until the hassles got to him 10 years later. “It became all about raising money,” he says. In 1984, Jones moved to Los Angeles, where he now lives, to work with children. “The 1992 riots here were a terror for kids,” says Jones, who that same year was awarded an Arts Recovery Grant “to help provide children an avenue to vent their fears.”

It’s a mission the never-married Jones feels lucky to be part of. Whether he’s painstakingly sanding one of the three new puppets he creates each year or slipping new sneakers on his old pal TJ, Jones’s love for his craft is obvious. “The puppets have taught me so much,” he says. “They are my children.”

Alex Tresniowski

Paula Yoo in Los Angeles and Marilyn Anderson in Orange

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