To some, the thought of dinosaurs walking the Earth seems like a long and faraway thought, but to one local, working with the prehistoric creatures is just another day at the office.
“Dinosaurs have that special allure,” says Don Lessem, also known as “Dino Don,” who is a leading authority on everything about dinosaurs as a global explorer, fossil excavator, blockbuster exhibit creator and even an advisor to Steven Spielberg. It’s that special allure of the massive and antediluvian species that drove Lessem to leave his job in journalism and embark on a new path of life that revolved around dinosaurs.
“I was a reporter for The Boston Globe and I wrote for the magazine section, and they told me I should go do a story about two dinosaur scientists,” explains Lessem. “I was in my mid-30s and writing about other science stuff, and I met these two guys—they were crazy, and I loved what they were doing. It wasn’t the same fascination that I had as a kid, but it was more about the science. They go out and they look at the landscape and they could see what was there 60 million years ago. It’s a great treasure hunt to find stuff.”
From there, Lessem took his fascination and utilized his year-long fellowship at MIT to go to every dinosaur dig he could throughout the world. The desire to learn more and uncover led Lessem to Mongolia, the Arctic, Alaska, Nova Socita, Utah and Argentina where he actually excavated the biggest dinosaur ever which he says they inventively named the Argentinosaurus.
But that was just the start.
When Lessem worked with Steven Spielberg on the sensation that became known as ‘Jurassic Park,’ he found himself asking at the end of production to take all of the sets and props to make a touring exhibit to show what the movie didn’t highlight when it came to the dinosaurs—accuracy. That quest also led Lessem to get the honor of having a dinosaur, the Lessem Saurus, named after himself.
“I said, ‘Can I have everything in the movie when you’re done?’ Because they weren’t listening to me and they weren’t doing it very accurately,” explains Lessem. “They were telling the story. So I said, I want all the sets and props, please, and I’m going to make a touring exhibit about what’s wrong with this. Spielberg said fine and Universal had to give its royalty, which they still are angry about, to dinosaur research. We raised about three million dollars… which is probably the most raised for that. Some guy who thought I was rich and the source of the money then named the dinosaur after me.”
Shortly after embarking on his own journey with the mechanical prehistoric dinosaurs, Dino Don says his main goal was to do everything he could with dinosaurs that would pique the interests of others. That led him to buy a historic 18th Century mansion in Media that is now home to numerous dinosaur fossils. But that came after years of delving into the world of facts from years and years ago and trying to make it relevant still today.
“I’m not intimidated by the fact that I don’t know anything. So I keep trying things and I’m sort of an avid personality,” Lessem says. “So with dinosaurs, it’s just I wanted to think of all the different things I could do [with them] that are legal… and so I started writing. The first thing I was writing was a big book for adults and nobody read it, and I realized kids were the audience.”
After writing over 40 children’s books on the subject as well as a few others for adults, Dino Don also found himself on a path to something much larger. When on a trip to China, Lessem found himself at a factory that made large-scale dinosaur robots.
“While I was in this town, there were all the factories that make robot dinosaurs there, and I always hated robot dinosaurs. They’re not accurate. So I kind of rejected the idea that children love them. When I got to the factory, I saw that it’s made by hand: They use like sort of couch cushions and exacto knives [and then an] iron armature to make a dinosaur… but if somebody gave them the right information, they could build the right thing. So we built a 110-foot-long Argentinosaurus, and I love him. He’s in Chicago, and then the one in Philadelphia is 89 feet.”
That dino that Lessem is talking about—right here in the City of Brotherly Love—is also the largest in the United States.
“We wanted to sort of capture the whole range of them,” Lessem continues. “And now just because we’re the only guys doing this, it’s kind of a captive market…This is the third year and we’re already covered in zoos around the world.”
That reach equals to about 200 dinosaurs around the world, about 20 skeletons in Lessem’s possession and also eight employees and 15 installers around the globe as well. Dino-enthusiasts and those with a curious eye can check out Lessem’s creations in Chicago, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Seattle, Copenhagen, London and beyond. The goal ultimately however, is to start their own traveling tour around the country, with the first stop planned for Texas. People will be able to see dinosaurs in their own natural habitat out in nature with Lessem’s exhibit and not in a stadium or somewhere anatomically incorrect. But for now, Philadelphians can set their eyes on his displays at the Philadelphia Zoo.
Don’s company, Dinodon, Inc., is the world’s only maker of these full-sized scientifically accurate robots, and in all, it takes only about a month to make each robot. Lessem’s process begins with an iron skeleton stick on motors, he then adds silicone and foam over that and the process involves dozens of people and even a guy who specializes in illustrating the dinosaur robots who oversees the construction.
“We send them drawings that are coming from scientific drawings beforehand, and we have paleontologists here to supervise it… so we’re getting as close as we can,” Lessem explains. “You know, it’s interesting how you can never quite know, but there are more clues than you would think… Like we know the colors of lots of dinosaurs. They’re really so not as mysterious as you would imagine.”
Interestingly enough, this reporter learned that the colors are learned through the study of cells. They also can learn things like why some dinosaurs are bigger than others, where their energy comes from digestively and even if some species had stripes or feathers. Lessem describes it as a bevy of “really cool engineering facts.”
But the fascination for these creatures doesn’t get left at work. Lessem’s mansion-sized home in Media is home to many dinosaurs and fossils including a 70-foot dinosaur, where he put his tail coming out of the office of his head coming out the other end… so now the Lessem’s barn is a dinosaur, but you could say that the home is continuing to grow.
Lessem also has a few other tricks up his sleeve in the dinosaur world with his website Dinodon.com and also his fossil hunts where he hides a giant dinosaur each month, and participants have to use clues to figure out where they can strike gold, or in this case, dino.
But ultimately Dino Don is living out his passion and love for the prehistoric creatures any way he can, and he hopes to spark that passion in others as well.
“This is the only place that you’ll get a sense of just how enormous they were and the amazing variety that they have. But just the scale is awe inspiring. To look up at a five story high thing and know that that was alive,” says Lessem. “I mean, they don’t move quite the same way that they would if they were alive, but there’s no other way to capture that. I think even if I didn’t love dinosaurs, that really is a jaw dropping moment… and really, it’s the only way to get it.”
To learn more about Don Lessem, visit dinodon.com