“I Thought I Saw a Dinosaur” reads the welcome sign to Moscow, Texas, an unincorporated hamlet ninety miles north of Houston. There isn’t much more to this place. Indeed, the number of dinosaurs residing in Moscow rivals the town’s population, all thanks to a retired carpenter named Donald Bean.

Bean came up with the idea for the theme park in the late 1950s when he happened upon a similar roadside attraction in Oregon. “Soon as I saw that, I said ‘That’s what I want to do!’ So I did it.” It took Bean twenty years of planning and saving before he was finally ready to build his own park, which opened in 1981. The park cost the Beans nearly $100,000 to build, and when Dinosaur Gardens opened it was met with just about the level of enthusiasm one might anticipate for a dinosaur theme park in the heart of Moscow, Texas. The masses did not seem to share Bean’s fervor for creatures prehistoric. There were no lines at the ticket office. “It kind of disappointed me,” Bean says, wiping a spider web from Struthiomimus’s mouth. “I don’t know how many people I thought would come, but I thought there’d be quite a few.”

There is a downside to this slow business, to be sure. Bean’s wife of forty-three years had to come out of retirement and take a job at a nearby convenience store in order to help support her husband’s dinosaur habit. But there’s an upside, too. With visitors scarce, Donald Bean can spend as much time as he wants alone in his theme park pondering his dinosaurs.

Recorded in Moscow, Texas. Premiered May 27, 1993, on Morning Edition.

Jack Hitt’s audio essay on the evolution of dinosaur exhibits, from This American Life (Act 2).

Simulated worlds, Civil war reenactments, wax museums, simulated coal mines, fake ethnic restaurants, an ersatz Medieval castle and other re-created worlds that thrive all across America.

Act One. National Tour. Host Ira Glass uses Italian author Umberto Eco’s essay Travels in Hyperreality as a guidebook to American simulated worlds. Eco says that the urge to create these miniature simulated worlds is a very American impulse–a significant American aesthetic–and one that’s not often discussed. Ira visits the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, plays clips from Jessica Yu’s documentary on Civil War reenactors (called Men of Reenaction and available from the Independent Television Service at 800/343-4727), stops by a fake coal mine under Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and discusses “the poor man’s Hearst Castle”–a California hotel called the Madonna Inn. (17 minutes)

Act Two. Dinosaur Exhibit. Writer Jack Hitt discovers that the world of dinosaurs is a man-made creation, a simulated world that may or may not accurately reflect what happened on earth 100 million years ago. Talking with dinosaur experts like Jack Horner (the dinosaur expert whose work was the basis of much of the film Jurassic Park) Hitt finds that most of what you think you know about dinosaurs is probably wrong, and that Americans’ ideas about dinosaurs go through fashions–fashions that reflect the national mood. We believed dinosaurs were more aggressive when we were on the brink of World Wars One and Two. And these days we focus on their family values. (13 minutes)

Act Three. Medieval Times. Ira takes a Medieval scholar from the University of Chicago, Michael Camille, to Medieval Times a chain of fake castles where visitors eat Medieval food and drink Medieval Pepsi and watch a supposed recreation of a Medieval jousting tournament. The scholar finds that there are many historical inaccuracies, but that Medieval Times does capture something essential and interesting about the spirit of the Middle Ages. (19 minutes) (Postscript: Sadly, Michael Camille, the wonderful scholar in this story, passed away in 2002. You can read about Camille at the University of Chicago website, or on the UK’s Guardian Unlimited website. Michael’s books are still in print, though aimed at an academic audience. The one that touches most directly on the things he talks about on our show is Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (Essays in Art and Culture).

Act Four. Simulating Reality on Morning Edition. Ira Glass worked for NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered for 17 years, and shares a few thoughts on the devices he and his colleagues used to simulate the real world on those shows. (2 minutes)

This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.