We all know that dinosaurs are extinct. We know there hasn’t been a giant lizard or bird roaming the Earth that ranks higher than us on the food chain for at least the last 65 million years.
Movies like the upcoming Jurassic World, starring Chris Pratt, have creatures that cost millions of dollars to bring to life and they still don’t feel real bec ause there’s a screen separating you and the hammy overacting of a crowd of extras.
Yet when you find yourself staring into the gaping maw of an 18-foot-tall Tyrannosaurs Rex puppet as it stares right back at you in Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo show at the Dallas Zoo, the little fear troll that keeps you alive tells you that you might want to take a step or two back just in case it’s not fake.
“No matter what kid I bring up on stage for the T-Rex, their hand grips mine,” says show host and puppeteer Miles Portek. “The closer they get to the T-Rex, the tighter their hand grips to mine.”
Unlike dinosaur movies or theme park rides, the goal of the show and the work of the impressive puppeteers operating the neck of a giant Brontosaurus or inhabiting the body of a massive T-Rex isn’t to make you jump out of your skin.
“W e’re trying to empower the kids through puppetry to be inspired by science and confront their fears, and it’s a really fortunate position to be in,” Portek said. “I’m very happy to be where I am.”
Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo is a live, interactive dinosaur show that runs four times a day at the zoo Thursdays through Mondays. Portek plays the ringmaster in this prehistoric pageant featuring dinosaurs of all sizes, from a baby triceratops that kids can actually hold to a massive T-Rex that’s friendly enough to let kids look inside its giant mouth without trying to eat their faces.
The show has 11 dinosaur puppets, all of which are operated by hand except for a hidden voice modifier that transforms the puppeteers’ voices into massive dinosaur roars and growls. The lack of animatronic controls makes for more fluid movements that are more realistic and believable. The puppets were designed on the latest discoveries of the dinosaurs' authentic looks and lineage — from the elongated neck of the Brontosaurus to the feathers on the T-Rex’s back.
Jeremiah Johnson, a local actor who also controls some of the dino puppets, says even though these ferocious beasts are higher than us on the food chain, he gives them a softer side.
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“They remind me of my dogs, like how they interact with each other,” he says. “That even goes for the T-Rex. I just think of that playfulness.”
Miron Gusso, the show’s head puppeteer, said these puppets bring him closer to his audience, even if the scarier ones something make them back up a bit.
“There’s always a distance from the performer and the audience,” he says. “There’s always a curtain so you have to rely on sound. As a puppeteer, I’m looking at the audience or with the big guys, I’m inside and I have a camera so I’m literally looking at a child head-on. I’m inside this magnificent hero of a beast and that can either scare a child or I can reel them in and give them a sense of empowerment.”
Besides educating children about dinosaurs, Portek said they also have a unique opportunity to build up a child’s courage and sense of accomplishment especially when they manage to muster the courage to stick their head in the mouth of a massive T-Rex.
“We had this girl who came up and she was doing a bit with the Lleyanasarui, the dinosaur that [its discoverer] named him after his daughter, which is something we teach in the show,” Portek says. “This little girl came up and she was terrified of the dinosaur from the beginning but Miron was amazing. He understood that she was scared and she was petting it just like this and got her to hypnotize the Lleyanasarui, and by the end of it, she was hugging the Lleyanasarui and giving her a kiss on the head. Giving them that kind of empowerment through puppetry is just the best.”