Claude K. Bell; He Described Himself as a ‘Nut on Dinosaurs’

Times Staff Writer

The self-described “nut on dinosaurs” who created a concrete prehistoric panorama seen by millions of Southland desert travelers has died in Anaheim.

Claude K. Bell, whose giant creations are visible for miles along a stretch of Interstate 10 in Cabazon near Palm Springs, was 91 when he died Monday of pneumonia at Humana Hospital.

A retired artist at Knott’s Berry Farm portrait studio in Buena Park, Bell and the 150-ton mock brontosaurus he called “Dinney” and the 100-ton tyrannosaurus he dubbed “Rex” have been the subject of dozens of magazine and newspaper articles. They and their creator were included in a book: “The Well-Built Elephant and Other Roadside Attractions--A Tribute to American Eccentricity” and seen in the film “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”


Started in Late 1960s

He began creating his prehistoric pals in the San Gorgonio Pass in the late 1960s. He originally envisioned them as housing in their innards restaurants and gift shops on land he had purchased several years earlier as a site for a truck stop. But as they evolved, he instead opted to make them “pets,” where visitors, particularly children, could slide or walk up and down their backs or stroll through the middle of them.

They were inspired, he told The Times in 1985, by a childhood visit to Atlantic City where he saw “Lucy,” a building shaped like an elephant.

He worked at the New Jersey amusement attraction as a teen-ager, drawing figures in sand for the nickels people would toss him.

His father was a glass blower on the boardwalk and “it wasn’t long before I was making more money than my old man.”

He came to California and was hired by Knott originally to build the statues in Ghost Town. Years later he also created the huge Minuteman that stands outside Independence Hall there and later ventured into the portrait studio attraction.

Bargain to Create

“Dinney,” his first attraction, was a bargain to create. He built it of castoff steel and cement from the freeway after a flash flood buried some of the construction materials and they were abandoned for safety reasons.

Nonetheless “Dinney” cost more than $250,000 and took two decades to erect. “Rex” cost even more but Bell would not say exactly how much. They were intended to be the first of many figures in Bell’s dream of Dinosaur Gardens. On his drawing board when he died were a giant mastodon and a saber-toothed tiger which are expected to be completed.

“The dinosaurs aren’t dead and they never will be,” Bell’s daughter, Wendy Murphy of Costa Mesa, said. “He wanted to build a monument that would withstand the sands of time, and he has done that.”