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DINO MIGHT : Making Extinct Critters as Handily as You Can Say Pachycephalosaurus

February 04, 1988|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Times Staff Writer

Behind the walls of a 30-year-old manufacturing plant in a dusty, nondescript Santa Ana industrial park lurks a hidden wonderworld of prehistoric monsters.

In the center of one room is a creature not seen moving in these or any other parts for more than 65 million years, a 12-foot-high Pachycephalosaurus. Here "Packy" spends his days nervously turning his head, chomping his jaw and swishing his tail.

If he seems a little antsy, it may be because he's sans skin and bones, his all-too-obvious insides looking like something from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Terminator."

In another room hangs the vinyl hide of a Tyrannosaurus rex, fresh from the mold, sagging and deflated as though it were some sort of wet suit for surfing dinosaurs. On a counter sits a tray of dinosaur eyes, and nearby hunkers the muscular form of a "gigantelope," a fantasy creature that looks like a cross between--if you can picture this--a musk ox and an elephant.

Packy and his playmates are the creations of the occupants of the building, a company called Dinamation, a maker and marketer of animated dinosaurs and other creatures.

Clearly it is not the sort of company you run across every day. "People who have known me for a long time say it figures," says manufacturing supervisor Mark Klein, hinting at an eccentric streak. "But strangers just don't believe there's a business like this around."

It was the summer of 1982 when company president Chris Mays began the unlikely jump from airline pilot to dinosaur mogul. "I was flying for TWA at the time, and I needed a new challenge," Mays recalls. "After years of sitting in a cockpit, I was getting a little bored." He saw some huge (full- and half-scale) animated dinosaurs made by a Japanese firm, and he decided to form a company to market the creatures in the United States.

"My brother and some close friends were involved, and some business people," Mays says. "We set up shop in a garage--you know, the typical American business story."

The Japanese-built creatures were originally designed for shopping centers and other non-museum settings, but an early and fortuitous acquaintance with the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History helped Mays introduce his dinosaurs to a skeptical museum world.

"I thought they deserved museum exposure," says the director, Craig Black. After requesting some modifications to make the models more accurate, he leased two dinosaurs for his museum. "People loved them," Black says, and he went on to purchase an animated woolly mammoth model for the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.

He then persuaded Mays to attend a national convention of the American Assn. of Museums, with a model Triceratops in tow.

"There was some mild resistance at first, but with Dr. Black's credibility and his backing, we were certainly more easily accepted," Mays says. "After we had our first showing, and others were able to see these in the museum environment, then it really took off."

In 1985, Mays and company decided they wanted more accurate dinosaurs, and they were also being hit by the rising value of the yen. The next step was designing and building the creatures themselves, and in May, 1986, they opened their plant.

Riding the crest of a wave of interest in dinosaurs--they are media stars, featured in amusement parks, on lunch pails and T-shirts and in comic strips--Dinamation has been a genuine success story, now employing about 60 full-time workers, from artists and sculptors to engineers and draftsmen. The company is getting ready to move into a new 24,000-square-foot facility, nearly twice the size of the current plant. And Dinamation has become the toast of museum directors across the country.

A Dinamation exhibit at the Buffalo Museum of Science closed recently after drawing 247,000 visitors in four months. According to director Ernst Both, the museum normally draws about 50,000 visitors in that span. Also during the exhibit, museum memberships nearly doubled from about 2,300 to 4,000.

"The response was tremendous," Both says, although it was not entirely unexpected. In his research, Both found that Dinamation exhibits routinely set attendance records at museums.

"A museum visitor wants to be entertained, not just informed or educated," Both believes. "Many people who came to see the dinosaurs had never been to the museum before, and some had not been for many years and didn't know about all the changes that have taken place."

"Using models of this sort really helps to bring people in, and then they can learn more about the dinosaurs," Black says. "The number of people who have seen them, when you combine all the institutions, is really quite enormous."

Dinamation is part of an evolution in natural history museums toward more interactive, experience-oriented exhibits that entertain while they educate, according to Dudley Varner, director of the local Museum of Natural History and Science (formerly the Natural History Museum of Orange County).

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