From Wrecked to T-Rex

4 mins read
A group of stuffed animals sitting next to a teddy bear
It's the rise of the dinosaur puppets at The Dinosaur Farm. Photo: Victoria Thomas

There’s a high-powered negotiation going on at David Plenn’s toy store, The Dinosaur Farm on Mission Street in South Pasadena.

An angelic, yet steely six-year-old holds her ground as grandma tries to winnow down a hefty combo Christmas / birthday wish-list. The blonde granddaughter, ringed by prospective purchases, reasons with the diplomacy of Kissinger and the resolve of Mandela.

“Gram, I just can’t lose the Stardust unicorn,” she says, “And, well, the princess skirt is a must,” patting the sparkly pink tulle ruffles. While pondering her options for compromise, the birthday girl straddles Roar-y, a riding-dino equivalent of Gilley’s mechanical bull, except that this dino won’t budge.

Plenn, who opened The Dinosaur Farm in 1994, pats Roar-y’s spiked and armored head and says, “I think Roar-y needs new batteries.” Grandma nods, and Plenn adds, “Don’t we all?”

This remarkable landscape of imagination was the site of loss and dramatic rebirth during the past summer. Flooding, not fire, was the crisis, and what has arisen is not a phoenix but perhaps a pterodactyl.

“We got 1.65 inches of rain in 45 minutes early in the morning on May 4,” recalls Plenn. The epic downpour flooded the shop’s roof drains, sending the torrent down into the store. “I thought we’d lose about ten working days, but instead, the repairs took four months. Quite the mess and the neighborhood kids who love this place were truly devastated.”

The restoration required that every piece of Plenn’s inventory be removed from the shelves, wrapped, and pulled into a dry, safe area so that the entire soggy ceiling could be removed, scraped, repaired, rewired and painted.

His crew was true-blue through and through. Employees worked without pay until the doors re-opened on August 25, and even former employees volunteered to lend a hand repainting the fierce and ferny mural that wraps the main shopping space with Jurassic vibes.

With the holiday season now in full swing, the latest crisis at The Dinosaur Farm is literally slimy: Kawaii Slime has sold out! Plenn assures several concerned shoppers, all under the age of 10, that the shipment of Slime will hit the shelves soon after Thanksgiving.

For anyone who has not yet had the Kawaii Slime experience, sinking your fingers into a rubbery, ripply, wiggly, wriggly, jiggly mass of the supple stuff, which may be topped with “crunchy” sprinkles (that’s what the kids call them), and scented like everything from pizza to sherbet (note that Slime is not edible, though tempting), offers a somewhat weird awakening into today’s “Squeeee!”-factor.

A friend in high places seems right at home with The Dinosaur Farm’s volunteer-repainted murals. Photo: Victoria Thomas

Plenn says that dinosaurs and dinosaur-related toys now constitute about 25 percent of his inventory, noting, “I think little boys will always like dinosaurs,” he says, “because they like that adrenaline rush. They like to scare themselves a little. Dinosaurs are like dragons and are definitely bigger than life.”

The rest of the stock reflects a wide range of interests and the vast vocabulary of play, with toys, games, puppets, musical instruments, apparel, accessories, art supplies and books selected for all sorts of children at any level of their development. Brand-conscious shoppers regularly request Jellycat plush animals, which Plenn describes as “the Cadillac of stuffed toys,” as well as Calico Critters and remote-control model cars.

A wall full of realistically detailed Bruder brand vehicles—from police cruisers to dump trucks—appeals to the active, nuts-and-bolts, power-tool-seeking kind of kid. Unicorns and winged Pegasus (Pegasi?) of all sizes, materials, finishes and attitudes beckon sweetly from the shelves, along with the slimy, the squeezy, the fluffy, the puffy, the glittery and the gooey.

Before opening The Dinosaur Farm at his wife’s urging, Plenn made his living as a songwriter and guitarist, writing top-selling songs for shag-rocking Kenny Loggins, among others. Today, he’s truly in his element.

“Becoming a dad was the best thing ever,” he says, “because I got to play with toys again. It keeps me young, truly.” Plenn’s adult son, Taylor, is now the boss’s right-hand man.

Plenn apologizes for the Mesozoic morass of his office, which, he admits, inspired über-organizer Marie Kondo’s scouting crew to offer him a televised purge and space makeover. For better or worse, the reorg didn’t happen, so Plenn continues to conduct business amidst a trippy jumble reminiscent of a Guillermo del Toro movie set.

An oversized lava lamp the size of a gas pump, Plenn explains rather sadly, is broken beyond repair and is destined for the dump. A realistically detailed UPS truck with a twanged roof may be salvageable.

For newborns, there are snuggly, pastel critters with matching teething rings. But perhaps the real genius of Plenn’s merchandising is his uncanny gift as a restorer of pre-millennium childhood memories. As in a musical composition, the deeper subwoofer frequency is Plenn’s stocking of nostalgic toys, games and gadgets that intrigued kids in the decades long before Slime was a thing.

Baby Boomers will recognize their own favorites from the late 20th century and before, sometimes in reimagined form. The Dinosaur Farm stocks frisbees, although the current version lights up or sports a colorful crocheted cover in the case of the “Maya Flya.”

The coiled metal wire toy that walks a stair without a care, as the old TV ad sang, is not a Slinky, but something very much like it called SPROING, “The Spring Thing.” Plenn stocks the Etch-a-Sketch, gaily colored pinwheels, classic Whoopie cushions, close-up magic sets, jump ropes (including a unicorn-handled model), planetarium projectors, stick-on glow-in-the-dark stars, bubble soap and wand sets, a foam baseball bat and ball set, and even bags of marbles including gorgeous glass marbles, shooters and players in mesh bags, patterned like Bengal tigers, bumblebees and ladybugs, just like those coveted and traded in playgrounds a century and more ago.

And of course, dinosaur-themed gifts are always perfect for adults who may be feeling a bit long in the tooth, ideally accompanied by a dinosaur cake or cupcake assortment from nearby Lark Cake Shop. As we cruise the aisles, Plenn notes with a chuckle that the 2024 Rolling Stones tour, called Hackney Diamonds, is actually literally sponsored by AARP.

“I like the idea of innocence and keeping our innocence as long as we possibly can.”

David Plenn

It’s easy to see why Plenn’s place is such a revered local institution and why the kids call him Dino Dave. At the end of November, the store hosted a book signing of “Rock Scissors Paperbag” by Burbank elementary school teacher Elizabeth Godley. On Friday, December 1 from 5 PM to 8 PM, The Dinosaur Farm will host a Holiday Open House with live entertainment and light refreshments.

“I feel good about this place,” says Plenn as he receives the news that 76 boxes – some hopefully containing Kawaii Slime – have just arrived at the back door, ready to be unloaded. “I like the idea of innocence and keeping our innocence as long as we possibly can.”

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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