It took a call from Tokyo two years in the making to inspire local puppeteer Tommy Duren to return to his basement workshop.

In 1985, Duren was in peak form. He had just completed two sold-out performances of his innovative brand of puppetry at the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab, had won the D.C. Talent Search contest and had been featured on local television shows. His appearance in People magazine in July 1985 was a media pinnacle of sorts for the puppeteer, who combines a range of entertainment genres into a brand of puppetry he calls "poppetry."

The Japanese television company Nippon TV saw the People spread and sought Duren for an annual variety show called "Super People From Around the World." But Duren already had shifted gears, entering the University of the District of Columbia as a freshman political science major looking toward law school.

"I thought that this was a good finale for my career; it's time to concentrate on school," said Duren, now 20.

Duren, an only child, began playing with puppets made of old socks when he was 4, and began performing when he was 11. Since then, he has developed a style of puppetry that features music, dance, dialogue both among puppets and with the puppeteer, and eventually acts in which he is visible onstage with life-size puppets.

"Stopping was dumb," Duren said of his decision to turn his back on his 15-year passion. "This summer, I decided I'm a performer, and now my mind is flowing with ideas -- I'm in a creative mode now, puppets are being born now, my company is in labor."

After failing to locate Duren two years ago, NTV found him last summer through the efforts of Brad Waisbren Enterprises, a West Coast firm working for the Japanese company. By the time Waisbren phoned him, Duren had a week to decide whether to accept an all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo to appear on the variety show. He was not late for the flight.

"Before they called, I had been thinking about going to Japan or Europe because of the way puppetry is regarded there," said Duren, adding that most of his renewed enthusiasm stems from his experience in Japan. "In Japan and in Europe, puppetry is a major form of art, and the closest thing to my puppetry is something they do in Japan, called bun raku. But usually their puppets are three or four feet high, whereas mine can be life size.

"The puppeteer {in bun raku} is not covered by a stage, but wears a black outfit so all you can see is the puppet against a black curtain," Duren said. "I've always liked to go out into the audience, not necessarily be covered up."

For Duren, the visibility of the puppeteer and the size of the puppets are challenges to the audience and to the performer. "It's hard to see a person operating the puppet, so the illusion to the audience is that they see a life-size dancer on stage," he said of his dancing act with the full-scale Michael Jackson puppet he created.

The effect draws the audience into the act, Duren said. "They know it's a puppet, so they'll say, 'Oh, it's got to be strings,' and then they see something that shows them it's not, so they say 'Oh, he's got to be working it from underneath,' and then they see underneath and keep guessing while the movements prove them wrong."

Waisbren, whose company is involved in film production, research and personal management, was impressed by Duren's poise and imagination. "He's got some good illusions, especially for television, something not too many other people are doing," Waisbren said.

"I happen to work with puppeteers {in Los Angeles}, and he's on a par with some of the best," said Waisbren. "Whatever he lacks in years and years he makes up for in his enthusiasm -- part of the charm is that he's still finding his own way and his puppets are homemade."

Since his days of charging $15 for one show, $20 for two -- "I've always loved to perform," he said -- to finance his college education, Duren has expanded his puppetry goals at the same pace as his company. There are now more than 200 members of his cast, most of them made by Duren himself, ranging from hand puppets to one monster puppet that barely fits in the back of the family station wagon.

He is working on a puppet that would "seem to react on its own, while I'm virtually motionless."

Jean Duren, his manager and mother, who teaches in the education department at UDC, has been backstage from the start, driving Duren and his company to performances and helping with puppet personnel changes and other props.

"His act is not just for little children," she said. "For some of his performances, the adults crowd up in front, and he has to ask the parents to move to the back so the children can see."

Tommy Duren is hoping his poppetry will become a new entertainment form.

"I think it's time puppetry had a face lift, basically, in the United States," he said. "I'm trying to bring something that's not really here into the mainstream."

Duren is working on a video of his performances, and hopes to tour and perform soon. He may also appear in a commercial produced by Charles Long, who created the local "Beautiful Babies" series. Still, he says he has no plans to sidetrack college and law school.

"Of course, if I became a multi-multimillionaire {from poppetry}, I wouldn't see any need to try to get a good government job," he said with a smile, "but school is definitely the reality for me."