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Dinosaur Garden Blooms in Desert : At 89, Claude Bell Has Even More Beasts Up His Sleeve

January 23, 1986|MIKE EBERTS | Eberts lives in Hollywood. and

CABAZON, Calif. — Eighty-nine-year-old Claude Bell is one of the few people who speaks about dinosaurs in the future tense.

Bell is known to the 1,400 inhabitants of Cabazon as the "dinosaur man," in honor of the 150-foot-long green-brown stucco brontosaurus he built alongside Interstate 10 about 85 miles east of Los Angeles. This month, he retired from the Knott's Berry Farm portrait-drawing studio he operated for 35 years to complete his dream: a "dinosaur garden," consisting of the brontosaurus--which is twice life-size--a similarly oversized, 65-foot-tall tyrannosaurus rex, a woolly mammoth and several smaller prehistoric animals.

A Few Years to Go

"I'll be out in the desert for good," said Bell, who began working part time on the dinosaur garden in 1964. He estimated then that the project would keep him busy until he reached 100. Now, he figures he might have to stick around a little longer.

But Bell, a slightly built man with snowy hair and some spring in his step, said that his dinosaur-building operation is going more smoothly than ever, now that he has had more than two decades to get the hang of it. "There are little tricks you learn after doing this a while," he said.

His first effort, the brontosaurus he calls Dinney, took 11 years and $250,000 to complete, Bell said. Facing toward Palm Springs, Dinney frowns down on motorists during the day and glares at them with glowing red eyes at night.

Bell's second dinosaur, which he calls Rex, began rising from the narrow pass nestled between 11,502-foot Mt. San Gorgonio and 10,786-foot Mt. San Jacinto in 1981. It is expected to be finished in about four months. "The second one, there was nothing to it," he said.

Bell would not say exactly how much the second beast cost to build, except that it was more expensive than Dinney.

He is still thinking about what to put in the base of the upright beast. Possibly a date-shake stand, he said. But Rex's greatest appeal will be to children. Bell designed the structure to have a deep channel in the tail that could be overlaid with Fiberglas and used as a slide. But now Bell is concerned that the slide may be a little steep.

View From the Mouth

Nevertheless, even if visitors are never allowed to slide down Rex's back, they will be able to climb a narrow winding staircase to the beast's mouth, which is large enough to hold one adult or two children. At the top, 55 feet off the ground, is a unique view of the desert landscape through Rex's jagged teeth.

"It's a thrill to get up there and look down and see your friends," Bell said. "You can't stick your head out but you can wave." He said the smaller prehistoric figures will be 12 to 15 feet tall and suitable for children to play on.

Bell said he got the idea to build Dinney from his childhood in Atlantic City, N.J. An uncle took him on the trolley one day in 1906 to see Lucy, a building in the shape of an elephant that was a local landmark. He was smitten.

He continues to have a fascination for elephants, perhaps explaining why, when Rex is completed, his next giant figure will be a woolly mammoth. Designing it--his role will be mostly supervision, since hard work high atop a scaffolding under the desert sun is a bit much for him--is not a complicated task, according to Bell.

"I'll get five or six pictures," said Bell, who has no education as an engineer and whose only formal art training is a few night courses in figure drawing. Then, he said, it is simply a matter of making each feature to scale and reinforcing it correctly.

Founded Upon Sand

Bell has been a professional artisan since Roosevelt--Teddy, not Franklin--occupied the White House. When Bell was 11 or 12, a physician suggested that he recuperate from surgery by spending the summer at the beach. He decided to pass the time by building sand sculptures of Roosevelt-style teddy bears.

His jacket lying on the sand behind him, Bell turned around when he heard metallic clinking noises behind him and found that people were throwing coins on it in appreciation of his work. Showing the business sense that would serve him well in later years, he brought a bedspread with him the next day. Soon, he was making more money than his father, a glass blower, and launched his long career as an artist.

He worked in Atlantic City until 1929, when at age 33 he began to travel the country as an artist at fairs. In 1940, he settled in California, working at the Long Beach Pike before meeting Walter Knott. During his long association with Knott's, Bell built a number of park statues, including a 9-foot-tall replica of "The Minuteman" and figures of a prospector and mule.

He bought 82 acres in Cabazon in 1946 in order to build a home for his first wife, who had arthritis and subsequently died. He remarried in 1951. Anna Marie, his current wife, is also an artist. She operated the Bell Portrait Studio when he was in Cabazon, where he has lived part time since 1952.

Plus a Truck Stop

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