By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Some visitors from the Late Cretaceous period have been carrying on inside Covelli Centre for the past couple of weeks.
Few Valley residents know it, but the North American tour of “Walking With Dinosaurs” has booked the downtown arena for a three-week rehearsal period. Prehistoric roaring has become routine at the facility.
The tour begins in Cleveland where it will run July 9-13, and also will stop at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center from July 30 to Aug. 3.
The Covelli Centre is not on the tour, although it could be added if a second leg of the tour materializes. The show last came to Covelli in May 2010.
A hockey-rink-sized arena with enough ceiling clearance to keep a brontosaurus from bonking his head was needed. The space also had to be available for three uninterrupted weeks and be in this part of the country.
Covelli fit the bill.
“It’s not easy to find a place,” said Scott Faris, director of the arena show. “This is a luxury.”
Faris and his crew of radio-controlled “puppeteers,” dinosaur drivers and technical workers were in the center Thursday afternoon talking to reporters from throughout the region.
“Walking With Dinosaurs” is a big show, and the tour requires 20 full-size tractor-trailers.
Rehearsing it also is a beast.
“It’s a slow process,” said Faris. “We have to do it in layers.”
Each dinosaur “walks” thanks to a small car at its base operated by a driver who is seated low and flat, as though driving a Formula 1 race car.
The movements — head, eyes, mouth — are handled by remote control in a process referred to as voodoo. “That’s because when the puppeteer moves his arm this way, the dinosaur’s head will do the same thing,” said Faris.
Everyone in the show — drivers, puppeteers, directors — is in constant communication through headsets. “There is chatter all the time,” said Faris. “You have to know which voice to focus on.” Faris said that the music is the element that keeps everyone on the same page and governs the pace of the show. “Everything cues off the music,” he said.
“Walking With Dinosaurs” is a scripted two-hour show. It uses a narrator to take the audience through millions of years of history to witness the evolution of the giant creatures.
But does the cast ever ad-lib? Does a tyrannosaurus rex ever turn his head to give a wide-eyed child a special thrill?
“No,” said Faris, “but situations do arise. These are machines, and sometimes they break during a performance and the drivers have to adjust. And one time, some guy ran onto the floor during a performance and jumped on a dinosaur’s back.”
He was removed by stagehands before he could be eaten.
Andrew Blackman is the Australian actor who plays the show’s narrator — a paleontologist named Huxley — for the North American tour.
Blackman was in the 2011 tour in Australia, but this is his first time performing in the United States.
He pointed out that the show keeps abreast of new knowledge in the field of paleontology and incorporates it into the show.
For example, he said, it recently was discovered that the young tyrannosaurus rex had a crest of feathers on its head, a fact that is manifested in the current tour.
“Walking With Dinosaurs” has been a roaring success since it began in 2007. It has sold more than 7 million tickets in 200 cities worldwide.
So what is it about dinosaurs that holds such enduring fascination for humans?
“I think it speaks to a time that we think of as mythical,” said Blackman. “Our only connection to it is with fossils. It is the only clue to our past.”