Take one of his latest ventures, Dino Don’s Dinosaurium in Media’s Granite Run Mall. When first negotiating the lease with the facility’s ambitious new owners, he was candid—perhaps even shrewd. He told them Granite Run wasn’t the busiest mall, nor did it have the greatest reputation. “They were receptive, especially when I told them dinosaurs would be an attraction,” says Lessem.
Now in the mall’s first-floor center atrium, the Dinosaurium has been somewhat profitable during the past year. Not bad when you consider the alternative: paying to keep his herd in a Chester storage facility. And the venture has been an eye-opener. “I didn’t know kids were into dinosaurs as early as 3 years of age,” Lessem says. “I always thought it was 5.”
Many of the dinosaurs in Lessem’s exhibit—about 15 of them—are from the movie Jurassic Park and the touring show that followed. The collection also includes a robotic cache from a Las Vegas casino. An expert consultant on Jurassic Park, Lessem was granted caregiver responsibility for its dinosaurs. With help from sponsors and investors, it toured 15 major science museums in the United States, Holland and Argentina, beginning the day after the movie opened in 1993. The charity effort raised $2.25 million for the Dinosaur Society to fund research trips and publish a kids’ newspaper, The Dino Times.
As for the dinosaurs scattered around Lessem’s Media home, they’re in “sick bay.” People have been known to pull into his driveway, see them, and back right out. “I’m not an eccentric,” he insists. “Everyone else is.”
Lessem is a writer, not a scientist or a paleontologist, though he works with some of the field’s best. He’s authored more than 50 books, hosting and writing NOVA and Discovery Channel documentaries. He also founded the world’s largest paleontological charities. He’s served as an advisor to Universal Studios and Disney films and attractions. He’s been a guest on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Morning News and other shows.
In Highlights for Children magazine, Lessem answered 11,000 letters for his “Ask Dino Don” column. His favorite question: Do you use your mustache to brush fossils? And there’s the half statement, half question: My mother’s single. Are you available? “A kid would rather have a father who’s a dinosaur expert than an insulation salesman,” he quips.
His company, Dino Don Inc., creates the world’s most popular dinosaur touring exhibitions. The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, The Lost World was seen by more than four million people worldwide. In recognition, Lessem is one of the few people still alive with a dinosaur named after him—the Argentine plant-eater Lessemsaurus. As a vegetarian himself, he’s pleased. But, unlike many dinosaurs, he’s no dummy: Lessem is a degreed animal behaviorist, a former John S. Knight Journalism fellow at MIT, and a onetime science correspondent for the Boston Globe. He was also a Jeopardy! contestant and a winner on other network quiz shows.
Lately, Lessem has branched out. His touring exhibit, Genghis Khan, attempts to prove that its reviled subject wasn’t really all that bad. “He was a much nicer guy—and way more accomplished—than anyone gives him credit for,” Lessem says.
His latest, a Great Wall of China exhibition, debuts in December at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. Lessem is parlaying 22 years of research in China and eight years of negotiations with museums, to address how the wall was built and defended and why. It’s expected to open in Tampa, Fla., next spring and is under negotiation to hit Philadelphia by fall of next year.
Raised in suburban New York, Don Lessem spent 30 years in Boston. While his older brother became a psychologist, he became a writer at the Boston Globe, where he covered mostly nature-oriented stories.
In 1988, the Globe green-lighted his tour of every dinosaur excavation museum. “It was the beginning and the end,” he says.
After that, Lessem was offered a fellowship and a publishing contract. The original draft of his first book was 950 pages. “My editor said, ‘I don’t care what two-thirds of it goes, but two-thirds of it has to go,” Lessem recalls. “In the end, I think eight people read that book. It wasn’t the audience for dinosaurs, so I started writing kids’ books.”
It all started when Lessem wrote a piece in the New York Times Magazine about what was wrong with kids’ books. He still has the children’s dinosaur books that fascinated him as a kid. Mostly, they were written by American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, the Lindbergh of his field in the 1920s.
Lessem’s favorite dig turned up a tin cup that belonged to Andrews from a site in northern China. In Lessem’s living room, there’s a framed print of Andrews and Tarbosaurus, the “kissing cousin of T. rex.” Andrews is holding an oversized velociraptor claw that his crew found during a dig in Mongolia in 1924.
A decade ago, Lessem moved to Media—into a 1784 Smedley Penn Land Grant Quaker house where he once hosted a prepresidential Barack Obama visit for a Joe Sestak fundraiser. He’s named the estate Troodon, scientifically the smartest known dinosaur. The house is just 15 minutes from the airport, though Lessem’s frequent-flier miles are with airlines “no one else would be interested in,” he says. “I go to weird places.”
Lessem married for the second time in October on the front porch of his home. His new bride is Valerie Jones, who runs a Media-based nonprofit development company that serves art museum and environmental firms. Mongolian friends built them a yurt (a round house) for the ceremony. The couple met in Disney World on a job in Animal Kingdom. “We were the only two people to pet the live rhinoceros,” Lessem says.
Hell-bent on facts his entire career, Lessem still wants a shot at dinosaur fiction—“the Great American dinosaur novel.” He also has plans for an adventure novel that would wrap up all the loose ends the movie left behind.
And there’s the Dinosaurium, which he’s mostly done for fun and to give back. About $25,000 has gone to local elementary schools. The place was actually someone else’s idea. “We were driving with Don, and he mentioned that storing the dinosaurs was an expensive annoyance,” recalls Wallingford’s Scott Shepherd, who made the suggestion with the support of his wife, Colleen.
Lessem once had a farting dinosaur on display, but other stores complained of the smell of rotten eggs. He’s since stuck fake dino poop in the window, sans smell.
“There’s generally no description for what I do, so I say I do things with dinosaurs,” says Lessem. “But even that sounds inappropriate.”
To learn more, visit dinodon.com.