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Extinction Along Interstate 10

How a 250-ton, steel-reinforced dream disappeared

November 27, 2005|Martin J. Smith | Martin J. Smith is acting editor of the magazine and the author of five books, including "OOPS: 20 Life Lessons from the Fiascoes That Shaped America," which HarperCollins will publish in March.

The first time I saw the dinosaurs of Cabazon, looming like a kitschy desert mirage on the north side of Interstate 10, I was a young news reporter racing to cover the Liberace deathwatch in Palm Springs. Despite the urgency of my mission that day--grim reports leaking from behind the compound walls, tearful fans keeping vigil outside, a tabloid reporter already hauled away for attempted trespassing--I eased onto the freeway shoulder and spent a few minutes studying a creation that, to me, conveyed something profound and elemental about Southern California.

Back then, in 1987, the two dinosaurs rose nearly unobstructed from the desert floor. What struck me most was the clear sense of purpose that apparently had set them there in that desolate spot. There's just nothing unintentional about 250 tons of steel-reinforced concrete fashioned into the shapes of a 150-foot-long apatosaurus ("Dinney") and a 65-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex ("Rex"). Someone had decided to build them, and in precisely that place, for some unfathomable reason.

These things happen. The Watts Towers were no accident, and like the dinosaurs, they had no clear purpose, commercial or otherwise. Of course, everyone knows about Simon Rodia and his towers--the singular and profound result of one man's obsession. But who built the dinosaurs? And why dinosaurs? And why way out in the middle of nowhere?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Extinct animals -- Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine article on Claude K. Bell, the creator of two dinosaur sculptures in Cabazon, referred to a mastodon as a dinosaur. It was a mammal.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 18, 2005 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "Extinction Along Interstate 10" (Nov. 27) incorrectly referred to a mastodon as a dinosaur. It was a mammal.

You already know how the Liberace story turned out. Legends aren't always built to last. But even as I made my way toward that unfolding desert drama, I couldn't shake the notion that, somewhere out there in that vast, arid weirdness, an even better story was just waiting to be told.

Claude K. Bell was 91 when I invited myself into his life. I'd tracked him down through public records, then telephoned his wife, Anna, who at the time was a spry 71. Claude wasn't well, she explained, but if I came out to the desert, and Bell was feeling up to it, I might be able to talk to him for a little while.

I met him in his studio, just behind the dinosaurs, not far from the Wheel Inn restaurant. It was mid-summer, a dry inferno of a day, but the inside of Bell's studio was dim and cool. He received me while sitting stiffly in his rocking chair. He was clearly frail. By then I already knew there were other problems. For years, Bell had welcomed visitors who wanted to see the viewing platform in Rex's mouth--the one re-created for that famous scene in the film "Pee-wee's Big Adventure"--and use the sliding board down his tail. He'd also built a small gift shop in Dinney's belly. But on the day I met Bell, the whole operation was shut down. The hired caretaker had broken a hip, and Bell's family was trying to decide what to do.

"I think we could go on if we found the right person, someone who understands," Anna told me that day. "Right now we're . . . trying to hang onto this for him, but we just can't get it together enough to do what he wanted to do."

What Claude Bell wanted to do, essentially, was the same thing most of us want to do: make a permanent mark before leaving this world. But as he and his family told his story, Bell's attempt to make his mark struck me as particularly poignant.

He grew up in Atlantic City, N.J., where he spent much of his youth creating sand sculptures for the loose change tourists would dig from their pockets. He got so good that for a while he made a career of it, touring the continent creating sand sculptures for fairs and exhibitions. During those years, Bell spent his time building things that had all the permanence of smoke. By day's end, his marvelous creations usually had been reduced to piles of nothing.

That Sisyphean sense of impermanence apparently wears on a man. "He got tired of working on something for others, then seeing it torn down with no appreciation for its demise," his wife told me. "He said he was going to build something that nobody could tear down."

Bell eventually found permanent employment as a sculptor at Knott's Berry Farm, and he began raising his family in Buena Park. In 1945 he bought 60 acres of desert land, and it was there that he spent much of his free time. "I kept thinking, 'Why would anyone want to buy a piece of sand and dirt?' " Anna recalled. "I couldn't imagine what he was ever going to do with that piece of ground. But he never regretted it. He'd come out here and look at it and say, 'That's where I'm going to build my dinosaur.' "

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