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Return of the Dinosaurs

August 26, 1987|SHELDON TEITELBAUM

After 65 million years of extinction, dinosaurs are back, and as big as some of them were, they're even bigger now.

While paleontologists continue to argue whether the beasts were cold- or warm-blooded, merchandisers are discovering that dinosaurs are, in fact, hot.

At a recent gathering in the Hollywood Hills, guests garbed in the latest prehistoric fashions chased each other with plastic clubs while munching on "carnosaurus" canapes and whacking pterosaur-shaped pinatas.

And at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History's annual dinosaur ball, about 800 patrons in black tie or gown waltz among the petrified remains of the once-glorious creatures.

Accomplished "dinophiles" can also satisfy their lizardly cravings by dropping by Crayons at the Westside Pavilion, for a "Godzilla," elsewhere known as a club sandwich. Or, on a jaunt to New York, they can visit the East Village's Continental Divide, a bona-fide brontosaurus of a restaurant decked out in Early Jurassic and replete with prehistoric beasties outside the door, on the walls, over the bar and in the drinks. It is, as owner Allan Roy says, "the ultimate in retro."

In Los Angeles, serious, hard-core yupp-a-sauruses can be found at the County Museum of Natural History or at the Page Museum, mulling over the latest fortunate--or unfortunate--to have been fished from the La Brea tar pits after a few eons of pickling.

Then it's off with the kiddies for a day at Knott's Berry Farm, where the $7-million Kingdom of the Dinosaurs ride, which opened in May, is still pulling them in.

Next, it's home for a soak in the primordial hot tub and a scrub with dinosaur egg-shaped bars of soap that have little plastic creatures at their core. Then, a nice cup of tea from the Tea-Rex teapot, at $65, a brachiosaurian bargain.

And, as darkness falls and a new Ice Age begins, it's off to bed with stuffed designer dinosaurs from Carousel by Guy, the Pierre Balmain of plush.

"What you're seeing," says Mark Hallet, a Pasadena-based artist, naturalist and writer, whose paintings figure prominently in the County Museum's 'Dinosaurs Past and Present' exhibit--now traveling the continent--"is a dinosaur renaissance."

If so, it's not the first.

Don Glut of Burbank, who wrote "The Dinosaur Scrapbook" (Citadel Press, 1981), reports that in our century, dinosaurs have already enjoyed two major waves of popular interest.

The first began in 1933, when the Sinclair Oil Co. adopted the dinosaur as its logo and sponsored a dinosaur exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair. The fad was later fueled by the release of "King Kong."

Twenty years later, Life magazine helped kick off a second revival by putting dinos on its cover, in tribute to a then-popular series of nature books. King Kong was re-released, Hollywood unleashed a horde of brand-new dinosaurs ostensibly awakened by the Bomb, and dinosaur toys went into mass production for the first time.

Lisa Babylonia, one of two full-time paleontologists on hand at Knott's Berry Farm, traces the origins of the current craze to the early 1970s. A series of fossil discoveries, as well as advances in biology and biomechanics, had forced scientists to revise their thinking on how dinosaurs looked and lived.

"For years we had thought dinosaurs were slow, stupid and boring creatures," she says. "We learned that they were far more gregarious, possibly the result of being warm-blooded."

The realization that dinosaurs may not have been huge, plodding dullards, doomed by their own faulty biological design, but rather, adaptive creatures that managed to reign for nearly 140 million years, made them intriguing once again.

"We've lifted them up by their tails and brought them out of the swamps," Babylonia says.

It took a while, however, for the idea to become popular. Some say part of the credit for renewed interest could go to William Stout, a 38-year-old artist in Pasadena, whose book, "The Dinosaurs" (Bantam, 1981) was among the first to compile most of the new thinking--not to mention some exciting new art--within a single volume aimed at the general reader. Stout's book had an initial run of 250,000 copies, and he is presently negotiating for a second edition.

According to artist Hallet, the present fascination for dinosaurs may be due to a growing awareness that they were not the fantasy animals depicted in film.

More Aware of Nature

"Dinosaurs have always captured the imagination," Hallet says, "but once they were popular because they were these not-quite-real monsters. People were intrigued by the fancy that they might have once roamed the earth.

"Today, however, people seem much more aware of nature as it is, probably from decades of nature programs on TV. And, because of advances in our understanding of animals, which have made it possible for us to better understand dinosaurs, they have begun, quite possibly for the first time, to view dinosaurs as real animals."

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