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The Cabazon Dinosaurs

One of the things in the 1985 film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure that piqued my interest as a kid (and an adult) was the Cabazon Dinosaurs during the Large Marge scene.  They were never explicitly named in the movie, nor were they even mentioned, but they played an essential role in the film. 

They look quite different today then they did in the movie, but, thankfully, they are still standing.  The next time I'm out west, and if I ever make it to Palm Beach, I hope to be able to take the quick trip 13 miles west and see the Dinosaurs made famous by Pee-Wee Herman.

To wrap up my "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure turns 35" week here at YesterYear Retro, I figured why not delve a little deeper into these two great tourist traps!

The Cabazon Dinosaurs are a roadside attraction in Cabazon, California, just west of Palm Springs.  The two steel and concrete dinosaurs stand 65 feet tall (the Brontosaurus is 150 feet long!) and are visible from Interstate 10.

The Cabazon Dinosaurs were once known as the Claude Bell's Dinosaurs.  Claude Bell was the sculptor and Knott's Berry Farm theme park artist that began construction of the pair of dinosaurs in 1964 to attract customers to his nearby restaurant, The Wheel Inn (which closed in 2013 and was bulldozed in 2016.)  The Wheel Inn was also the "truck stop diner" used in Pee-Wee's Great Adventure.  When Bell passed away in 1988 at the age of 91, his family sold the property shortly after.  The Cabazon Dinosaurs (renamed after the sale) has been the home of a creationist museum and gift shop.

The first dinosaur, the Brontosaurus named Dinny, was started in 1964 and took eleven years to build.  Claude Bell created Dinny from spare materials salvaged from the construction of Interstate 10 at the cost of $300,000, which, adjusted for inflation, would be $2.2 million in 2020. 

The framework was constructed of steel, expanded into a metal grid to form the shape of the dinosaur.  Spray concrete covered the framework to form the outer layer.  Claude Bell's original vision was to have the eyes glow, and mouth spit fire at night, but those two were never added.

The second dinosaur, Mr. Rex, was constructed next to Dinny in 1981 using the same method of metal frame and spray concrete.  Originally there was a giant slide was installed in Rex's tail, but that was later filled in with concrete. 

A third dinosaur, a giant woolly mammoth, was in the design phase but was never constructed due to Bell's death in 1988.

After his death, the Cabazon Family Partnership became the new owners of the dinosaurs.  They obtained approval for an expansion of the site in 1996, which included restaurants, a museum with gift shop, and a small 60-room motel at the Main Street exit in Cabazon.  The original developer said the original vision was to transform the area into a children's science and museum exhibit. 

The Wheel Inn diner was a roadside diner for nearly 50 years before closing in 2013 and being demolished in 2016.  You couldn't miss the giant "EAT" sign from Interstate 10, and in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was the home to Simone, the waitress, and the Large Marge memorial.

In the early years, Dinny was painted a brighter green, and Mr. Rex was a muddy shade of red.  For the film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, they were both lit up with cartoonishly bright green and red spotlights, respectively.  They have since been painted a more realistic brownish-green color, although the T-Rex retains a red interior.

A current photo of the staircase inside the T-Rex
Currently, inside the Brontosaurus is a gift shop and museum promotion creationism.  As creationists, the current owners believe that dinosaurs were created on Earth 6,000 years ago at the same time as Adam and Eve.  You can climb to the top of a spiral staircase inside Mr. Rex and take a photo inside of his mouth.  No theater-style chairs like in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, though.  Just what appears to be a painted 2 by 4 support beam and wire cage to keep people and objects inside the teeth.

The "real" view out of the T-Rex's mouth

The current attraction also features an open-air museum with fiberglass and robotic dinosaurs.  A sandpit also exists where visitors can experience a "dino dig" and fossil panning. 

The dinosaurs and the Wheel Inn appear numerous times in pop culture history.  The 80s band Tears for Fears music video Everybody Wants To Rule The World features the pair of dinosaurs.  In the 1989 movie The Wizard, starring The Wonder Years' Fred Savage, the dinosaurs appear in the final scene of the film.  Dinny makes a brief appearance in the opening sequence of 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation on a picture postcard. 

But most famously, the Cabazon Dinosaurs and the Wheel Inn make an appearance in an essential scene in 1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.  After Pee-Wee is dropped off by Large Marge, he stands in front of the Dinosaurs surveying the area before entering what in real life was the Wheel Inn Diner.  Discovering his wallet was stolen, and he can't afford his meal, he washes dishes for the waitress, Simone. 

Simone and Pee-Wee bond over their longing for something else, and she invites him to watch the sunrise.  There, the two of them walk outside and head to the two dinosaurs.  They climb to the top of the giant T-Rex, and in comfortable theater-style seating, enjoy the sunrise through Mr. Rex's mouth.  Once the sun comes up, the two exit, and Simone's jealous boyfriend Andy chases Pee-Wee away as we see both dinosaurs again in broad daylight.

The popular YouTuber, "Adam the Woo," creates videos relating to nostalgia and pop culture and occasionally does a "filming locations" video.  He has made several videos over the years about the Wheel Inn and the Cabazon Dinosaurs, as well as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure filming locations.  Just search in Youtube for "Adam the Woo Cabazon," and several should show up.  I'll be linking several to the YesterYear Retro Video Drive-In.  Click on over to the Drive-In, and if you're not reading this in September of 2020, it'll be listed at the bottom of the Drive-In page in the archives.

In 2019, Adam produced a video about the Cabazon Dinosaurs and showed what it looks like in current day, and I highly recommend watching the video if you have time.  You can view that below.