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November 20, 2009

News Article: Roanoke Times

By Mike Allen

Third-graders at Roanoke Catholic School were probably the luckiest pupils in the Roanoke Valley on Thursday morning.

Although it's possible that for a few moments -- as a 7-foot-tall baby Tyrannosaurus rex disconnected a cordon with its teeth and began snapping its jaws at them -- some of the kids might not have agreed with that statement.

But there was laughter amid the shrieks. And some students told their teachers they wanted the T. rex to come back -- as soon as it was safely backstage again.

No one was in any real danger, but the utterly convincing, life-size puppet made that hard to remember.

The dinosaur's appearance at the Roanoke Civic Center was part of a promotional campaign for "Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular," a massive stage show involving full-scale free moving animatronic dinosaurs that's coming in January.

The 90-minute arena show features 17 dinosaurs, including a lumbering brachiosaurus that's 36 feet tall -- tall enough that its head will be at risk of brushing the Roanoke Civic Center's ceiling. There are two 23-foot-tall adult tyrannosaurs. There's also an ornithocheirus, a flying dinosaur with a wingspan of 38 feet.

Matthew Rimmer, a spokesman for the production's North American tour, said the ornithocheirus actually flies during the show. When asked how that's done, he just smiled.

The show, based on a popular BBC television program of the same name, took six years and $20 million to create. The dinosaurs are designed to be as scientifically accurate as possible, to simulate what seeing those creatures in the flesh might have been like. The show began touring in 2007 and often sells out, Rimmer said.

It takes 25 tractor-trailers to transport the equipment. Three people are required to operate each of the largest of the dinosaurs by remote control, Rimmer said.

At Thursday's news conference, Alton Dooley, a paleontologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, said the museum will open a new exhibit in January, "Messages from the Mesozoic," that will include a never-before displayed skeleton of a small dinosaur.

At Roanoke's main library later Thursday afternoon, about 50 kids displayed the same reactions as the Roanoke Catholic students, falling completely silent when the dino walked into the room, then shrieking and scrambling as it leaned down and nipped at them.

Roanoke City Manager Darlene Burcham attended the civic center conference and then came to the library event with her two grandsons. Her youngest grandson, 8-year-old Justin Kraft, tried to hold his ground as the tyrannosaur loomed over him, roaring, but finally backed away when the puppet's jaws briefly engulfed his head.

"I loved it," said 8-year-old Kayla Walker, who was with a group brought by the Boys and Girls Club of Southwest Virginia. "When he came out, it freaked me out, it like freaked me out."

"At first I thought it was real, but it wasn't," said her friend Taneah Ledesma, 7.

The actor inside the 100-pound puppet, 23-year-old Stephen Hershey of Pennsylvania, landed the job through a January audition and now tours the country pretending to be a T. rex.

"It's probably the most complicated puppet in existence," he said, describing the levers and consoles inside.

He said he loves interacting with children. "You kind of see their imaginations go wild."

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