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David Nelson / Society

Mesozoic Era Backdrop for Museum Gala

October 30, 1986|David Nelson

SAN DIEGO — It always is rather nice to find one cultural institution giving a boost to the fund-raising efforts of another, no matter how inadvertent that assist may be.

Saturday, the Museum of Man lent a helping hand to the Natural History Museum's Dinosaur Ball by setting a mood for those ball guests who strolled or drove into Balboa Park via the Laurel Street bridge. Long lines, composed mostly of families and teen-agers, waited outside the Museum of Man's annual "Haunted House" exhibit, which anticipates Halloween in the most blood-curdling way. At regular intervals, screams pierced the otherwise still night, evidently the work of delighted souls out of whom the living daylights were being scared.

As one approached the Natural History Museum, further shrieks were heard, some the love chants of the nearby zoo's peacock population, but others echoing from within the museum's walls.

Although it might be said that regulars of the social circuit would assume the screams coming from the museum to have been bellowed by benefactors being asked to contribute yet another dollar or two, such was not the case. They emanated instead from the mechanized giant animals that make up the "Return of the Dinosaurs" exhibit, the museum's current pride and joy, and the focal point of the Dinosaur Ball's cocktail hour.

The black-tie crowd of 150 looked rather formal for a stroll through the antediluvian atmosphere arranged by the museum's curators. After accepting drinks and canapes from leopard-skin-clad cavemen and cavewomen--A's Carriage Trade caterers searched its ranks for glamorous types to serve the "Mesozoic" punch and nibbles--the guests strolled into the dinosaur exhibit and found themselves confronted by a mechanized reproduction of a parasaurolophus.

The benign-looking critter periodically waved a massive front leg, rather as if it were greeting the spectators, although those guests who were just on their first cocktail did not seem inclined to take the welcome personally. Other members of the saurian family, some given to frequent roaring, waited along the route, including a five-horned penteceratops that one divorcee (whose desire for anonymity shall be respected) said reminded her of a former husband.

The exhibit is stunning and, according to museum officials, its success has aided the institution's efforts to raise funds with which to buy actual dinosaur skeletons. One especially successful fund-raising gimmick is the "Buy a Bone" program, which enables benefactors to contribute the amount necessary to purchase a single component of a skeleton.

The museum's Connie Meyers remarked that she had bought an allosaurus bone--a cervical rib, to be exact.

"When the skeleton is installed this spring, I'll be able to point out my very own bone," she said, mentioning that the cervical rib of an allosaurus is a rather large and readily identifiable specimen.

New Natural History Museum board President Richard Bundy enjoyed all the fuss being made over the dinosaur exhibit, and said that it was one more sign that the institution is heading into a new age.

"The museum has been sort of dowdy for a long time, and we have two dreams, to re-do all the exhibits, and to build a major addition," he said. "The exhibits should be finished by 1992, and we will seriously begin discussing the new addition next year."

Bundy added that the plans for the addition are ambitious, since it would cost $12 million or more, but he feels they are justified. "The museum is a strong education institution," he said. "We touch 50,000 kids a year, and we're going to try to double that number over the next few years."

Another board member commented, seemingly without the slightest sense of irony, that "the Natural History Museum needs to be brought into the 21st Century. It's very antiquated."

Meanwhile, the challenge that faced party chairman and co-chairman Ann Benjamin and Lyn Gildred was to make the evening seem as antiquated as possible. For dinner table decor, Benjamin said, "We were thinking of having little nests with dinosaur eggs in them, but we couldn't find any." Given the shortage of these curiosities, she and Gildred instead opted for baskets of potted cattleia orchids, which at the end of the evening were presented to patrons as party favors.

Guests enjoyed a mammoth feast--not of mastodon, but of roast lamb and veal--inside the tented precincts of the neighboring Casa del Prado courtyard. The area was gussied up in a way consistent both with the prehistoric theme and the demands of a formal occasion. The guests were invited to dance the night away to the notably contemporary sounds of a band called Sunbursts.

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