With his syndicated weekly feature, Believe It or Not!, his radio and television shows and Odditoriums, those dim-lit exhibition halls of the bizarre, grotesque and weird, Robert Leroy Ripley was easily the most popular American icon of the twentieth century.
One of my salient childhood memories is of poring over the Believe It or Not! box cartoon in the lower right-hand corner of the Sunday newspaper’s “funnies” page. A chubby, myopic, bookish child, I was convinced of my own secret weirdness, yet here was a celebrated, infinitely varied province of extremes, peculiarities and wonderment. Here were monsters and saints, the deformed and defamed, the largest this, the smallest that in the world -- always that thrilling phrase, “in the world!” Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoons transformed my child’s hunger for excess, my fascination with oddness into fact-as-entertainment. Ripley fed the nation’s appetite for awe, wonder and terror by recognizing the de-vitalizing effect of the mundane, the electrifying frisson of the foreign and disturbing. A curator of the incredible, he understood that shock makes us feel alive, and that fear and ecstasy mirror one another.
In January and February, 2015, American Experience is premiering five new documentaries. "More than ever before," said Executive Producer Mark Samels, "this season's films reflect on times when American was dealing with many of the issues that we find ourselves facing today - murky wars with no simple way out, institutionalized racism, and terrifying contagions that arouse public panic and fear." Watch this synopsis with Mark's commentary, and check out descriptions below.
Ripley: Believe It or Not
January 6, 9/8c
Robert LeRoy Ripley rose to fame during the Great Depression, transforming himself from a skinny, bucktoothed boy into an entertainer who mesmerized the nation with a razzle-dazzle blend of homespun Americana, colorful exotica, and freakish oddities. Over three decades, his "Believe It or Not!" franchise grew into an entertainment empire, expanding from newspapers to every form of "new media" in the 20th century: radio, film, and ultimately, television. At the center of it all was Ripley, whose obsession with the odd and keen eye for the curious made him one of the richest men in the country. Americans not only loved his bizarre fare, but were fascinated by the man himself, and the eccentric, globetrotting playboy became an unlikely national celebrity.
January 13, 9/8c
As the civil rights movement grew in the 1960s, the long-dormant Ku Klux Klan reemerged with a vengeance. That the Klan would rise up once again wasn’t surprising, but where the reincarnation took place was. North Carolina, long seen as the most progressive southern state, saw a boom in Klan membership under the leadership of Bob Jones, the most successful Grand Dragon in the country. In just three years, he grew the North Carolina Klan from a handful of friends to some 10,000 members - more than the Klans of all other southern states combined. In the process, Jones helped give the Tarheel State a new nickname: "Klansville, U.S.A."
January 27, 9/8c (2 hours)
By the time he died in 1931, Thomas Alva Edison was one of the most famous men in the world, and the name "Edison" was virtually synonymous with invention. The holder of more patents than any other inventor in history, Edison had been lauded during his lifetime for the invention of sound recording, motion pictures, and electric light, and would be remembered as the genius who created the modern world. Edison explores the complex alchemy that accounts for the enduring celebrity of America's most famous inventor, offering new perspectives on the man and his milieu, and illuminating not only the true nature of invention, but also its role in turn-of-the-century America's rush into the future.
The Big Burn
February 3, 9/8c
Inspired by Timothy Egan's best-selling book, The Big Burn is the dramatic story of the massive wildfire that swept across the Northern Rockies in the summer of 1910. The fire devoured more than three million acres in thirty-six hours, confronting the fledgling U.S. Forest Service with a catastrophe that would define the agency and the nation's fire policy for much of the 20th century. As America tries to manage its fire-prone landscapes in the 21st century, The Big Burn provides a cautionary tale of heroism and sacrifice, arrogance and greed, hubris and, ultimately, humility in the face of nature's frightening power.
The Forgotten Plague
February 10, 9/8c
By the dawn of the 19th century, the most deadly killer in human history, tuberculosis, had killed one in seven of all the people who had ever lived. Throughout the 1800s, the disease struck America with a vengeance, ravaging communities and touching the lives of almost every family. The battle against the deadly bacteria had a profound and lasting impact on America. It shaped medical and scientific pursuits, social habits, economic development, western expansion, and government policy. Yet both the disease and its impact are poorly understood; in the words of one writer, tuberculosis is our "forgotten plague."
And on April 28, we premiere Last Days in Vietnam, a two-hour film by Rory Kennedy detailing the American evacuation of Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army was closing in.
Nikita Khrushchev’s delightfully absurd 1959 trip across America was a hilarious journey that illustrates a truth most historians choose to ignore: History is sometimes comedy.
Historians tend to chronicle the past in two somber moods—the heroic and the tragic. And of course, there’s plenty of heroism in history—and plenty of tragedy. But history is the story of what human beings have done on this planet, and—as every human knows—much of human life is absurd, preposterous, inane, insane and laughable.
Most historians ignore the comic side of history, perhaps because they want to be taken seriously. But I wrote my book on Khrushchev’s trip, K Blows Top, precisely because the event illustrates just how funny the world’s most powerful humans can be, even when they are threatening to unleash nuclear Armageddon. Cold War Roadshow goes one step further by letting us actually watch these powerful people at their most ridiculous.
At the semi-annual Television Critics Association conference today, PBS and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE announced that "Walt Disney,” a new four-hour, two-night film that explores the life and legacy of one of America’s most enduring and influential storytellers, will premiere in fall 2015.
Remembering John Seigenthaler: At American Experience, we are grateful for Mr. Seigenthaler’s stories, for his time, and for his enduring contribution to this nation. He will be missed.