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

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

Now a level, dusty, prosperous patch of land alongside Interstate 10, "This piece of ground you wouldn't pay a nickel for," said Bell, who actually purchased it for $5,000 and built a truck stop (of which he is still part owner).

He had the hilly lot leveled for free, making a mutually beneficial deal with the state to haul away the incline in order to use the gravel for an overpass on the then-new freeway.

Dinney is a bargain-basement dinosaur, made of cast-off steel and cement from the freeway after a flash flood buried some of the materials and state engineering practices prohibited their reuse. Bell was given the materials in exchange for clearing them off state property.

Dinney's skeleton is made of steel reinforcing rods and heavy girders. The steel sides are cross-braced and welded in thousands of places. The rods are "rebars" used in the reinforced concrete of freeway bridges. The heavy girders are from a defunct drive-in theater in Banning. The whole thing was covered with 1,200 bagfuls of cement.

Building dinosaurs requires not just vision, but common sense, Bell said. For example, since no dinosaur flesh has been preserved, no one knows what color dinosaurs were. He settled on a green-brown mix for Dinney. Its skin texture, something like an elephant's, was created by Bell's gloved hands running down the wet cement on the dinosaur's body.

Split-Level Beast

Dinney is a split-level dinosaur, having an 18-by-56-foot main room--entered through a doorway in the tail where visitors climb a stairway that once stood in a Banning hotel--and an apartment high in its back.

Bell originally thought the main room in Dinney's belly might house a cocktail lounge or steakhouse. He figured it could seat about 80 persons. But he said he scratched the idea because he wanted curious passers-by to be able to walk through the dinosaur.

"It's too small for a restaurant," said Ida Rowing, his daughter and manager of the museum and gift shop that was eventually placed there.

She presides over a collection of artifacts and merchandise that reflect Bell's eclectic tastes. Inside the museum are murals painted by Bell and his wife. One is of three prehistoric men bringing down a bear with spears. Another is of a flying reptile.

Bell also made busts. They are a roll call of human evolution: Cro-Magnon Man, 30,000 years old; Neanderthal Man, 150,000; Peking Man, 200,000; Java Man, 400,000.

The museum includes collections of pottery, Indian jewelry, guns, arrowheads, foreign money and rare stones.

"When I see something I like, I buy it," Bell said.

The merchandise on sale is also a mixed bag, ranging from small rubber dinosaurs to $55 custom-made skunk pelt caps.

Fee for Investment

Bell charges an admission fee to explore Dinney's innards: 50 cents for adults and a quarter for children over 10. A sign at the entrance says the fee will help Bell build the rest of the Dinosaur Garden.

"You know what really hurts," said Denny Rowing, Bell's son-in-law, sitting in a Naugahyde restaurant booth placed behind a counter inside the dinosaur. "It's when people come up those stairs, see that it costs 50 cents and turn around and walk away. They don't think this man's dream is worth 50 cents."

But Ida Rowing said on a good day more than 200 people pay for the privilege of walking around inside the dinosaur, while hundreds of others gaze at it from outside.

Over the years, Bell's stucco dream has cultivated some dinosaur lore. In the early 1970s, the mayor of Cabazon reportedly thought Dinney was an eyesore and tried to get Bell to obtain an outside engineering opinion on the structure's safety. Not only did the dinosaur pass the engineering inspection, but the mayor was recalled.

"We threw him out," Bell said. "That's the only one who said the dinosaur was in the way. The others were all for it."

In January, 1974, a blizzard made San Gorgonio Pass snowbound, stranding hundreds of motorists. Although a local newspaper account said that 150 people bedded down inside Dinney waiting for the storm to blow over, Bell said the actual number was more like 25.

"I got a lot of thanks," Bell said. "We sat around talking there until pretty late."

Air-Conditioned Too

Payne Air Conditioning made Dinney famous in 1974 with a nationwide advertising campaign claiming to be the only company to ever design an air-conditioning system for a dinosaur. (A generator had to be mounted alongside Dinney's left-rear leg. Bell covered it up the best way he knew how: with a 15-foot-long prehistoric turtle.)

Anna Marie Bell said she is happy to trade in the bustle of the portrait studio at Knott's for the tranquility of living in a house behind the Wheel Inn truck stop, only a few brontosaurian strides from her husband's beloved dinosaurs.

Although living with two dinosaurs certainly provides enough prehistoric company for her, Anna Marie Bell said she regards the completion of the dinosaur garden as virtually inevitable. "You have to believe him because he's always done what he said he'd do," she said. "I really think he will accomplish it."

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