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Profile: Steve Springer, The Dinosaur Man

From brontosaurus gas station mascots to vintage fiberglass triceratops replicas in post-World War II motel courts, the roadside dinosaur is classic American kitsch. But a nearly 30-foot-tall tyrannosaurus rex looming over a quiet suburban neighborhood? Now that’s unexpected, even in outrageous-friendly Las Vegas Valley.

Officially called Shan-Gri-La Prehistoric Park (you can find it on Facebook), this menagerie of historical and fanciful beasts on Henderson’s Greenway Road was created by Steve Springer, beginning 11 years ago. Springer, a retired English teacher, helmed classrooms at Lyall Burkholder Middle School for decades. Many locals call his creation the “Dinosaur House.” Naturally, he’s the “Dinosaur Man.”

“After I taught school for 30 years, I decided I’d do something that puts a smile on your face and makes your day better,” Springer says.

Shan-Gri-La is filled with more than 50 figures, from a duck-faced parasaurolophus — pre-Vegas selfie! — and giant Carboniferous-epoch insects to a new, fantastical dragon, complete with gleaming red scales. The eye-popping coterie of critters ranges from faithful paleontological interpretations of fossils to denizens of the imaginative terra incognita of yore. (Many were constructed in the Philippines and shipped to North America.)

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On weekends, Shan-Gri-La gets busy with visitors; many are families with young kids, others are solo adult sightseers. Some folks venture here from abroad. A few have even come to get married among the monsters. At the beginning of each tour, Springer lays down a few common-sense “walk here, not there” safety rules for the jam-packed space. He estimates that 20,000 people stop by annually.

There’s more lizard-o-rama in his adjacent garage, including a four-door “Dinomobile 2.0” sedan decorated hood-to-trunk in the ancient theme. Even the rims are newly decked out with Jurassic bling.

Fittingly for a former educator, Springer keeps Shan-Gri-La largely kid-focused. At the end of a visit, each youngster gets a complimentary plastic prehistoric memento and can make a wish as he or she tosses costume jewels into a dinosaur egg.

In seasonal exuberance, Springer introduces decorative themes tied to holidays, complete with colored lights, creative banners and temporary residents placed here and there amid the DIY diorama. For April, expect an Easter bunny or two to show up — probably lodged in T. Rex’s jaws. There’s often a bit of such macabre playfulness at work here, something that a very unlucky March leprechaun could attest to if he could talk today. Halloween’s fun phantasmagoria is renowned.

Another remarkable thing about Shan-Gri-La is that it is open every day, sunrise to midnight. And it’s always free. Springer has it set up as a charitable foundation, but he doesn’t really cultivate donations. It’s largely on his dime.

Springer also strives to keep his creation prehistoric in another way: It’s free of modern partisan muss and divisive fuss. Dinosaurs don’t care about current events.

“This is a place where you come to relax,” he says. “Two things you don’t do here: We never discuss religion, and we never discuss politics. This is a place were you get away from all your cares for 10 minutes.”

Now that’s welcome history in the making.

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May 12, 2004

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