A temperamental showbiz Tyrannosaur calls it quits
Author James Bartlett Illustration Luci Gutiérrez
LOS ANGELES – Steve Cooper has performed before millions of people, yet it’s likely that not a single one of them has the first idea who he is. This is what happens when you do your best work inside the belly of a beast.
A 30-year-old Englishman, Cooper bears the distinctive title of Head of Creatures for “Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular,” a popular animatronic live show—think Jurassic Park for the stage—that is reported to have cost $20 million to produce. Even with the substantial budget, the show relies on the resourcefulness of its crew. “Sometimes we’ll forget to fill a nose up [with fake snot],” Cooper says during a pre-show rehearsal in Los Angeles, “and end up rushing around to find a bottle of water.”
Along with overseeing snot production, Cooper is responsible for operating the show’s 6-ton, 39-foot Tyrannosaurus rex, a job that requires him to cram himself into a tiny cockpit—amid a tangle of “pistons, hydraulics, airbags and bungee cords”—in which, unable to see much of anything, he lumbers around the stage. “She handles like an unwieldy tank,” he says, standing beside a three-foot pile of fake dung.
Now in its eighth year, “Walking with Dinosaurs” has paraded its robotic marvels through cities around the world. After LA, it will move on to Adelaide, Australia, for its final run. Cooper will miss his co-star, he says, even if she does drive him nuts. “Sometimes, she’ll just stop moving, like she’s decided she’s had enough,” he says. “She’s a complete diva.”
As if on cue, a nearby Brachiosaurus shudders to a halt. “At times you feel like kicking them,” Cooper says, giving the malfunctioning animal an appreciative pat. “Of course, I would never do that. These things cost a million dollars apiece.”