My Father, And The Brontosaurus

1190429869_1By James H. Burns:  “I couldn’t believe I found myself talking to a dinosaur, Jim,” my father told me, some years ago. “I should have felt silly, but there I was, with this happy Tyrannosaur, saying, ‘Good afternoon, my friend.’ ”

Some people, of course, would have seen the T-Rex as glowering, rather than  with a smile.

My parents had gone to what must have been one of the very first editions of “Dinosaurs Alive,” in 1989, a neat attraction featuring “life-sized” primevals in a natural setting,” moving and roaring in animatronic splendor.

One could actually walk around the dinosaurs.

(My folks saw this “prehistoric park,” at Sand Points, along the  Long Island Sound, in New York — also the site of the magnificent 1923 medieval-styled castle, Falaise.)

My Dad, Hugh — known to almost all by the nickname “Hy” (derived from his original birth-name,  Hyman Birnbaum) — was a retired mechanical engineering professor (at NYU, Polytechnic, and the City College of New York), and a decorated World War II veteran. In other words, he wasn’t necessarily one to be overwhelmed by whimsy, although he certainly embraced that part of his personality.  (If you were there, with the dinosaurs by the woods, you might have seen a rather dignified looking gentleman, about six feet tall — imagine, if you will, Telly Savalas with a grey crewcut, and beard; or, from certain angles, Dean Martin, under similar accoutrements…)

113bHe was also a science fiction guy going back to the golden age of Flash Gordon in the newspapers, and Stanley G. Weinbaum and Jack Williamson (and Astounding and Planet Stories magazines) on the newsstands,  in the 1930s.

He first must have seen dinosaurs come to life in the halcyon era of 1933’s King Kong, probably later in its run, when a movie really could only cost a nickel…

(One of the few easily accessible miracles of the Depression (still the greatest economic calamity to ever face our nation), was that ANY American for the equivalent today of about a buck, could see a cinematic miracle; or for a bit more purchase over one hundred pages of pulp parables; and, for absolutely free, tune into wonder on the radio, with a myriad of adventure serials, comedies, and other entertainment.)

As others have pointed out, has there been a child of the century who wasn’t fascinated by dinosaurs?

dinoland-1964-5-world-s-fair_imagelargeThe first dinosaurs we would have shared must have been at the New York World’s Fair in 1965, in Flushing Meadows, Queens (where the baseball Mets still play).  In the second, and final year of that unparalleled spectacular’s existence, we saw Dinoland,  Sinclair Oil’s famous “dinosaur garden.” (A small plastic stegosaurus soon became one of my prized possessions).

But the most stunning experience at the Fair — and a highlight not only of childhood, but of many attendees’ lifetimes — was “The Magic Skyway.”  The Ford Motor Company in collaboration with Walt Disney and associates, fashioned a “ride” where you actually sat in a real car.  The brand new automobile first took you through the distant past — dinosaurs and early man — and then as you went through what felt like a tunnel in time, you were suddenly surrounded by dioramas of the worlds of tomorrow, including a happy future in space.

(For decades before the internet’s inception — and the ability to prove  a veracity of memory — people would doubt my toddler’s reminiscence  that the Ford vehicles first went through a window, and journeyed on a track outside the building, several stories high, in what resembled a glass corridor, before reentering, and commencing this voyage through the eons!

tumblr_n4gn3hwA9X1s6mfc6o1_500(Memory, of course, can be tricky. My father, beginning in the 1980s, swore that as a three-year old, I insisted that the family wait for a Ford convertible.  But when fact-checking this small memoir, I discovered that every one of the cars used for the exhibition was a convertible.  Perhaps, in 1965, I urged that we should wait for a Mustang, which was debuted at the Fair, a year earlier!)

(The other featured automobiles included Galaxie 500s,  Lincoln Continentals, Mercury Montereys, Ford Falcons, Thunderbirds, and Mercury Comets.)

Sadly, Disney felt that “The Magic Skyway” was too expensive to remount at Disneyland, but some of the dinosaurs were transferred to the park, as well as a reconfigured cave man.  (Certainly, much of the spirit of the Flushing Meadows EXPOSITION  lives on in certain venues at Disney’s EPCOT, in Orlando, Florida.)

Pasta-Brontosaurus COMPThere was also, of course, the Hall of Dinosaurs at New York’s Museum of Natural History, a chamber of awe that my Dad first saw in his own youth.  (There are few places I have been in my life, that seem permeated with such reverence.) And in 1968, on one of my first trips to a movie theatre to see an adult motion picture (as opposed to a “kiddie matinee”), we saw a Saturday afternoon double-bill of One Million Years B.C. featuring the incredible stop-motion animation dinosaurs of Ray Harryhausen (Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason And The Argonauts), and the particularly resplendent Raquel Welch, paired, remarkably, with Planet of the Apes!

how_and_why_dinosaursVirtually forgotten today, though, is what must have been one of the most widely viewed of “filmed” dinosaur depictions, or at least the one in the most American homes…

In 1956, Irwin Allen (Lost In Space, The Poseidon Adventure) put together a theatrical documentary, The Animal World, which included a lengthy sequence on dinosaurs, created by stop-motion animation filmmakers Willis O’Brien (King Kong, Mighty Joe Young) and the aforementioned Harryhausen.

Viewmaster — the amazing company that innovated three-dimensional images released on circular reels that could be seen through a special hand-held, dual lens device — licensed the movie, using its Mesozoic sequences for a packet entitled, Battle of the Monsters.

Unexpectedly (and rather incredibly), the reels make a cameo in Jurassic World.

Before home video, Viewmasters offered the most readily affordable chance to “own” a TV show or movie that one liked, or at least a reproduction of such.  It can still be a thrill to see 3-D shots from other genre fare as Zorro, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea, The Addams Family, Batman, Star Trek, The Green Hornet…. There were also excellent sets devoted to NASA and our early manned space missions.

The most fantastic Viewmaster reels may have been their fairytale and mythology editions, for which they devised their own models and dioramas.  The inherent enchantment of these hand-crafted vistas seemed to touch a special place in the imagination, and have remained timeless.

(These miniatures, and their photography, were largely the work of Florence Thomas, and later, her assistant, Joe Liptak, in Portland, Oregon..  Thanks to their artistry, and ingenuity, it was also marvelous to see many of the most famous cartoon characters (including Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker) be brought to “realistic” stereoscopic life. I can still remember my shock, as a boy, in seeing The Animal World’s ceratosaurus, through the viewer, drawing bloood from its prey.  (Although I can guarantee you that, at the time, I had no idea of the first dinosaur’s name!)

Battle of the Monsters was released under different titles, over the decades:  its model work easily holding its own against more contemporary effects outings. (And coincidental to this article, it’s intriguing to note that Viewmaster was introduced at the very first World’s Fair, in 1939!)

LR-22422_TP_00042RI felt bad, when my father lay dying in the summer of 1993, that he may have missed Jurassic Park, a movie that could have fulfilled what might have been some of his early dreams.

(It was, of course, the least of my family’s sorrows.)

But my mother told me that he had gone out one July afternoon, to catch it locally.

I knew that he had already been impressed by a sequence he saw on TV, which he recounted as the heroes being afraid that they’re about to be trampled by a herd of dinosaurs, only to be ultimately IGNORED by the charging horde–action which reminded him of a jungle stampede he thought he once saw in King Solomon’s Mines, or one of the other “Africa” movies of the past.

Somehow, my Dad wound up conveying to me that he did indeed love the movie. I wasn’t as crazy about Jurassic Park, apparently, but especially enjoyed, and admired — and was struck by, really — its last moments, when the paleontologist gazes through the window of a soaring helicopter, watching a flock of pelicans flying over the sea: The film’s subtle reflection on the long held theory that birds may be the modern descendants of dinosaurs.

I’m not sure when I first encountered that premise, but it has resonated with me as a lovely possibility, for what now seems ages.

My parents always had a deep affinity for all creatures. I grew up watching my mom — with my dad’s encouragement! — put food out daily for the birds and squirrels—

A habit I continue to this day.

Often now, for years, as I watch the sparrows and mourning doves and starlings a dancing, I think how lucky I’ve been, to know all these primordial, and blissful kingdoms.


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30 thoughts on “My Father, And The Brontosaurus

  1. I had a Viewmaster reel with a dinosaur story on it, but I can’t remember the name. There was a pterosaur of some sort, I think, that had to find a cliff it could glide off because it couldn’t take off from the ground.

  2. The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs might be the greatest book ever written. Like Homer/Milton great.

    It’s also great having non-Puppies SFF content. More please.

  3. Thank you for that lovely reminiscence. It was great seeing all those wonderful old dinosaur interpretations.

    I’ve collected (and copied art from) dinosaur books since I was a child. I am very excited by the new discoveries, especially about how they all may have had feathers, or at least down when hatched.

  4. I love absolutely everything about this post.

    I’ve still got a set of little bronze dinosaurs from the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, acquired when I was in single-digit years. The triceratops and the stegosaurus still look pretty au courant, and I bet the tyrannosaurus would be happy to know he’s gotten cooler with the passage of time. 🙂

  5. I had one of those How And Why Wonder books on dinosaurs. Who remembers Brook Bond’s little-bitty dinosaur cards — they came in a variety of products, including tea. There were many other series, including one on astronomy, but most were about trees, birds, flowers and mammals. I still have the dinosaur and astronomy sets I completed in the 1960s, pasted dutifully into their albums. I’d post a scan of a page, but Mike’s site isn’t set up that way.

  6. Great Article Mike!

    I didn’t make it to New York until my mid-twenties, so I was all geared up to be blown away by the Museum of Natural History, and it didn’t disappoint. Characterizing ‘the Hall of Dinosaurs’ as “A chamber of awe” sums it up nicely.

    I also absolutely loved ‘The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs’. Geez, I wish I still had my copy. Hmm…

  7. That post brings back so many memories: Viewmaster! Wonder Books!… and, of course, dinosaurs. I don’t even remember my first exposure to dinos; I seem to have loved them from birth.

    Fantasia – the original one, which I first saw as a child during one of its numerous re-issues – gave me my first heartrending dinosaur tragedy. The Rite of Spring sequence, which tells the story of the rise and fall of the dinos. The single image that seared itself into my childhood memory is one of the last: a dinosaur, dying of thirst raising its head in despair, backlit by a killing sun.

    If a Jurassic Park or Jurassic World ever actually existed, I’d fight to be the first in line to get in.

  8. When I was a boy, I had the “How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs” essentially memorized. I think for inspiring kids to go into science, it was one of the most influential pieces of writing of the era.

  9. Thank you for this wonderful post! It sure beats the large number of obits lately (sigh!).

  10. That was a lovely reminiscence, James. The ‘How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs’ was one of the formative books of my childhood. And those Viewmaster dinosaur sequences!

    @CaseyL: I had the same reaction to ‘The Rites of Spring’ section of ‘Fantasia’.

  11. I had that How and Why book! Whoa, just when you think you don’t remember any of your childhood, you see a pic of a book you had and you haven’t seen for more than 40 years and BAM! Proust-in-a-can nostalgia!

  12. Not sure when, but at some point Sinclair took their dinosaurs on tour. I remember seeing them at a shopping mall parking lot. They had those Mold-a-Rama machines where you put in your money and the machine would make you a dinosaur by injecting hot plastic into a mold. One of the nice things about the internet is people have put up photos of both the large and small Sinclair dinosaurs.

  13. For me it was Dinosaurs Did the Strangest Things. I copied the art and I tried to make dioramas based off the art as well. That and every dino book my school library had.
    Good memories.

  14. When in second grade in France, I kept taking out the same some twenty or so books on prehistoric life from the Air Base Library. Wish I could recall the titles. Obviously out of date, but I wouldn’t care. The only one I can recall, and later found a copy of, in a thrift store, was ON THE TRAIL ON ANCIENT MAN by Roy Chapman Andrews.

  15. The How and Why Wonder Book of DINOSAURS was a prized possession in my childhood, along with many others in the series, including the one about COMPUTERS, which taught me how to write a program flow chart at the age of seven or eight, something decades later I discovered many people didn’t learn until taking specialized community college courses.

  16. While attending one of the Chicons, I visited the Field Museum (hi, Sue!). In the basement, they have the Mold-O-Rama machines! I bought one of each model! Old school, but great!

  17. Dr. Strangelobe on June 19, 2015 at 1:19 pm said:

    While attending one of the Chicons, I visited the Field Museum (hi, Sue!). In the basement, they have the Mold-O-Rama machines! I bought one of each model! Old school, but great!

    The Field Museum also has the original Charles R. Knight dinosaur and prehistoric life murals that the Museum of Natural History in New York only has as photoprints on the walls.

  18. This is a lovely memoir and a great piece about your dad!

    (I snorted when I saw the Viewmaster in J-World.)

  19. That was beautiful. I spent a lot of time with my father in London’s Natural History Museum when I was a child and the awe and wonder of dinosaurs has never left me.

  20. A wonderful post.

    I remember my family’s Viewmaster and collection of slides, and am now wondering whatever happened to them. Maybe they’re in storage with the stuff that came up from my mom’s place in Florida. I can hope …

    I do know what happened to my Sinclair Dinoland brochure. I’ve still got it, almost a whole lifetime later …

  21. First off, my thanks to Tim Walters, my pal from the Classic Horror Film Board, and a pretty nifty film historian for helping come up with that very elusive picture of the baby dinosaur, from THE ANIMAL WORLD (and, natch, THE BATTLE OF THE MONSTERS Viewmaster)!

    And my thanks to all of you, for all the kind words!

    Taral, I actually tried to get a SINGLE image from the Brooke Bond Tea card set devoted to dinosaurs! Here in the United States, those cards were often featured in Red Rose tea… I had a few of the animals and other ones from my youth, and bought the space exploration set–glued into its accompanying book!–at a comics convention, in the mid 1980s.

    Jack, if you Google the Sinclair Oil Dino Land, there’s a nice Wikipedia entry, detailing all the museums and other places that the 1964/65 World’s Fair dinosaurs wound up. Many of them are apparently still in existence!

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