Ripley: Believe It or NotAirs May 2, 2017 Meet the Wizard of Odd.
Robert Ripley's obsession with the odd and keen eye for the curious made him one of the most successful men in America during the Great Depression, transforming himself from a skinny loner into a flashy entertainer who presented to the nation a blend of freakish oddities, colorful exotica, and homespun Americana. Over three decades, his Believe It or Not! franchise grew into an entertainment empire, expanding from newspapers to radio, film and, ultimately, television. Americans not only loved his bizarre fare, but were fascinated by the man himself, and the eccentric, globetrotting playboy became an unlikely national celebrity. This is the story of the man who popularized the iconic phrase, and proof of why we still can’t resist his challenge to “Believe it — or not!”
Cast and Crew
Written, Produced & Directed by
Melissa M. Pollard
Director of Photography
Motion Graphics Animator
Aaron D. Nee
Alisa Placas Frutman
Michael H. Amundson
Sound Design and Mix
John Jenkins, CAS
The Outpost at WGBH
Beth Cohen - Violin & Viola
Jill Dreeben - Flute
John Kusiak - Keyboards
Bill Novick - Clarinet
Richard Ranti - Bassoon
P. Andrew Willis - Accordion
From Patriot’s Day
Richard Sebring - French Horn
Bill Novick - Clarinet
Steven Emory - Trumpet
Jill Dreeben - Flute
Additional Archival Research
Archival Materials Courtesy of
Ripley Entertainment Inc.
Global Imageworks, LLC
Historic Films Archive, LLC
Library of Congress
The New York Public Library
San Diego History Center
San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
Streamline Films, Inc.
University of North Carolina Special Collections
Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.
Allan Holtz/The Stripper
Bugs Baer, Jr.
Forest Hill Association
Mr. & Mrs. Robert Whiteman
For American Experience
Post Production Supervisor
Senior Producer, Digital Content & Strategy
Production Assistant, Digital Media
Contracts & Rights Manager
Marketing Account Manager
A Desert Penguin Picture, LLC Production for American Experience
American Experience is a production of WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.
© 2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
All Rights Reserved
Announcer (archival): And here is that uncanny unassailable unmatched unparalleled underwriter with the ultimate in unexampled, unconfutable, ultra unbelievable unquestionable upheavals -- “Believe It or Not” Bob Ripley.
Robert Ripley (archival): And greetings everybody and welcome to the program…
On the stage here, we have assembled a group of Believe It or Not people. And you can see this gentleman; he's able to blow up a balloon with his eyes. Now if you watch closely, you can see him do it. You can see perfectly, he's absolutely normal in every other respect.
Mr. Adenon, he's one of the most sensational oddities of all times. He doesn't use a razor; he uses a blowtorch. Now just try this on your five o'clock shadow. Now this is actually a torch with a temperature almost one thousand degrees.
Narrator: In 1939, Broadway raised the curtain on a new kind of showstopper -- a unique museum that brought the newspaper feature Believe It or Not to shocking, three-dimensional life.
Robert Ripley (archival): … the most fantastic man that you've ever seen in all your life, right here in this Odditorium.
Narrator: The Odditorium, as it was called, was the latest incarnation of the popular multimedia brand that for two decades had mesmerized the nation with an encyclopedic pageant of one of a kind wonders, arcane trivia, and homespun Americana.
Allan Holtz, Cartoon Historian: Now, you can just imagine somebody reading this stuff in their daily paper, and their mind, their mind is blown.
Narrator: The cartoon introduced Americans to a paperhanger with one arm, the fakirs of India, piano playing dogs, and a Ham Seller named Sam Heller.
Robert Thompson, Media Historian: : It was almost as if you were to take this enormous confetti of data and put it into a food processor and push “high” until it blew up and splattered all over the page. And then you wrote, “Believe It or Not, by Ripley.”
Narrator: The feature was the brainchild of Robert Ripley -- a shy, bucktoothed sports cartoonist who travelled to the ends of the earth collecting "currioddites" for his eager audiences.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: Human beings have an appetite for the strange, for the odd, the unusual, the grotesque, the fantastic, and I think he intuitively understood that.
Robert Ripley (archival): Tonight's broadcast of a holy man from India as he actually walks barefoot over red-hot coals of fire…
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: Ripley was constantly searching, searching, searching. He had a fever for finding new odd things. He loved it.
Robert Thompson, Media Historian: One of the appeals of Ripley was that he was kind of a regular guy. He was part world traveler, part hayseed, which people often called him. He was not a likely person to become a superstar.
Robert Ripley (archival): Ladies and gentlemen, tonight's program is one of the most astounding I've ever attempted -- Believe It or Not.
Narrator: One evening in the winter of 1918, the sports cartoonist at the New York Globe hit a creative wall. His editors were waiting for him to turn in a sketch for the next day's paper, but 28 year-old Robert Ripley was out of ideas.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: December of 1918 --typically a slow time for a sports cartoonist like Ripley -- there weren’t a whole lot of games going on, so he often had to scramble during the winter periods to come up with something for the newspaper, to come up with a cartoon.
Narrator: Desperate for inspiration, he pulled out a scrapbook of clippings he had been saving of peculiar athletic feats.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He collected articles, and notes to himself, and all these ideas in order to use those during the winter lull. So he starts sifting through to find a few odd sports feats to cobble together into this one cartoon.
Narrator: Ripley assembled a collage of material and called it -- "Champs and Chumps."
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: It is a series of 11 little drawings. No big, central drawing. They're all minor items. It looks like he just scribbled it together -- it’s kind of a last-minute, haphazard, OK, I gotta turn in something.
Narrator: Years later, he would say that this was his first Believe It or Not cartoon -- but that night, Ripley was simply relieved to make his deadline.
Allan Holtz, Cartoon Historian: He didn't do another one for 10 months -- and when he finally did another one, at least he did make some progress, he called it Believe It or Not. But from then on, he might produce a Believe It or Not every few months. He did not recognize it as his ticket to fame by any means.
Narrator: In the early 1920's, Ripley's quirky sports-themed Believe It or Nots appeared only sporadically, filling in the gaps between his more conventional sports coverage. He wrote articles to accompany his cartoons and quickly garnered a reputation as a good read. "If you really appreciate art and literature combined" touted the paper, "you can't afford to miss Ripley."
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: About 10 years into Ripley’s career at the Globe, something happens that’s a turning point for him in his life and his career. He's sent on this adventure around the world.
Narrator: The ocean liner Laconia was embarking on a luxury cruise that would circle the earth. Ripley's editors booked the cartoonist passage on the ship and instructed him to sketch and write about what he saw during the four-month voyage.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He had always wanted to travel, but he was stuck on a reporter salary and didn’t have really the means to do much travelling until this opportunity fell on his lap to finally see the world.
Narrator: Through his "Ramble 'Round the World" columns, Ripley took readers along for the ride of a lifetime.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He goes to Hawaii first, and then heads over Asia. He's sending a dispatch home, a brief essay, and some cartoons every day. It was almost like the blogging of its time.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: It’s his first trip to China, first trip to Japan -- all life-changing experiences -- introduction to architecture, introduction to religions. It’s just all new and exciting to him. When he gets to India, he’s absolutely overwhelmed by Hinduism. It’s just as foreign as anything could possibly be to him.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: On the banks of the Ganges, he witnesses the burning ghats where people burn corpses. Right alongside these burning corpses are holy men bathing themselves in the water. Elsewhere in town are other holy men who are doing, to Ripley’s mind, strange things to themselves to prove their devotion to their god -- staring at the sun until they go blind, holding their arms aloft for 20 years 'til their arms become fused in place. So suddenly, he's seeing some of the most bizarre forms of human behavior that he’s ever witnessed and he's just fascinated by it. And he draws pictures of it.
Narrator: Ripley was transfixed, by both the human and man-made extremes he saw. Awed by the Taj Mahal, he called it an unsurpassed monument of beauty and human devotion. He returned from India a changed man, which soon became evident in his work.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: More of his cartoons now begin featuring flashbacks to some of the things that he saw on that trip. They also begin to feature strange things that he is seeing or hearing about elsewhere. It was this progression from the extreme athletes that he once featured in his sports cartoons. They evolved into featuring the extremes in all areas.
Narrator: The eclectic feature drew the attention of crossword publishers Dick Simon and Max Schuster, who wrote the cartoonist, offering to publish a book of his cartoons.
Ripley threw the letter away.
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: He didn't feel he was a book man. He had been published in newspapers for all his life and he saw himself as a newspaper cartoonist.
Narrator: Then, one controversial cartoon would launch him onto the national stage.
Announcer (archival): May 1927 - Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis are to join hands to make history.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: In 1927, Charles Lindbergh is the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Announcer (archival): Thirty six hundred miles to Paris and all America vicariously shares every lonely mile.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: It is big news, worldwide, everybody knows the Lindbergh story. He's a national hero. There’s a ticker-tape parade on Broadway.
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: Ripley put out a cartoon that Lindbergh was not the first man to fly the Atlantic, and it created a sensation. He got thousands of letters -- "What do you mean by saying such a stupid thing like that?"
Narrator: Ripley was accused of being anti-American. He let the furor and publicity around the Lindbergh cartoon build -- before offering proof.
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: He showed there were a couple of aviators who flew it and two dirigibles that flew over with 30-some odd people in each flight. And so as far as he was concerned, Lindbergh was the 67th man to fly the Atlantic. But the keyword is solo. He was the first man to fly solo.
Allan Holtz, Cartoon Historian: He really took a concept and turned it on its head and turned it around and turned it inside out until he could give you a Believe It or Not fact that just blew your socks off.
Narrator: More shockers soon followed and his reputation as a brash instigator grew. Meanwhile, Simon and Shuster continued to pursue the artist, and Ripley finally agreed to a book deal.
The result was an instant best seller.
Allan Holtz, Cartoon Historian: You can't imagine a success as stupendous as this. Every book review was just crazy for the book. They were flying off the shelves.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: The book is really the best of the weirdest, most unusual things that he has found in the last five, six years.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: That book was the point at which he and the rest of the country finally realized what Ripley was on to. People wanted to be entertained in this way. They wanted their sense of reality to be challenged.
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: Everybody was thrilled with it, and Bob Schuster did something very smart. He sent a copy of the book to William Randolph Hearst who owned the biggest news syndicate in the world called King Features. And Hearst looked at the book, liked it, and said, “Hire Ripley.”
Narrator: Hearst's newspaper empire stretched from coast to coast. The media mogul offered Ripley a contract worth 100 thousand dollars a year, increasing his income 10 fold. Ripley signed, committing to pen a new cartoon every day, seven days a week.
The phrase “Believe It or Not” soon entered the national vocabulary, as Americans embraced a steady diet of the weird and wonderful.
The universe of Believe It or Not contained something for everyone.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: He had different categories of the odd, the curioddities. There were natural oddities. There were people that would bounce down stairs on their heads. And then -- he loved numbers -- strange combinations of numbers. He basically said there’s an infinity of strangeness in the world that will never run out. It’s inexhaustible, all the weirdness in the world. I think he felt he was barely scratching the surface of it.
Narrator: When Hearst promoted the cartoon with a series of contests, inviting people to submit their own Believe It or Not stories, Ripley was inundated with letters.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: He is receiving up to 3,000 letters a day. Many of them don’t even have his name on the outside. People are drawing puzzles, semaphore -- anything to catch Ripley’s eye. It becomes such an issue that the Postmaster General has to write an edict and say, “My guys are not gonna waste any more time delivering mail to Robert Ripley."
Narrator: Contest prizes included cars, trips, even airplanes -- but for most, the real prize was the chance to be immortalized by the famous cartoonist.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: Being in the Ripley cartoon would possibly be the most important thing that ever happened to somebody. You know, this is their 15 minutes of fame.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: Ripley was never cynical or sarcastic. When he presented people doing odd things, it wasn’t in a mocking tone. It was in an appreciative tone.
I feel like Ripley’s life work was ultimately a celebration of the underdog, and I think he viewed himself as an underdog. So I don’t think the Ripley Believe It or Not brand that he created was just a brand. I think it was a complete reflection of who Ripley was.
Narrator: He was born Leroy Robert Ripley in 1890 in Santa Rosa, California, a dusty frontier town north of San Francisco.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: He was quite odd looking. He had a very severe set of bucked teeth. He stammered, he stuttered.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: Ripley in his youth is shy, a bit of an outcast with a stutter and funny teeth, you know he's not a handsome looking guy.
Narrator: Roy, as he was known, was the eldest of three children. His father worked as a carpenter, and the family struggled to make ends meet.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: When he was growing up, his mother would sometimes make him clothes using the scraps of some of the laundry and sewing jobs that she took in. So Ripley would go to school wearing pants that looked like a dress, which is what it was. And the kids noticed and they picked on him and I think he got teased a lot as a kid.
Narrator: A loner, he occupied himself with his favorite pastime: drawing.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: He’s drawing from a very early age, a lot. You know, he’s drawing every time he gets a chance to.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: Since the family didn’t have much money for something like art supplies, he would use butcher paper with a chopping block as an easel. Any time he had a free moment, he was doodling.
Narrator: As he grew older, Roy dreamed of turning his hobby into a professional career.
Allan Holtz, Cartoon Historian: Just like a kid who was interested in science, might aspire to be an engineer because of Thomas Edison, a kid who had a little bit of ability to draw funny pictures would aspire to be a cartoonist. Those guys were famous -- they made a lot of money. I mean, to draw funny pictures for a newspaper? What a great job!
Narrator: At age 17, he mailed a small sketch to a national magazine. To his delight, they published his submission and paid him eight dollars.
Allan Holtz, Cartoon Historian: For Ripley to get a cartoon into Life magazine would have been just the most exciting thing that ever happened to him. You can imagine Ripley seeing that eight dollar check and saying, “I’ve got a career. If I can sell one of these a week, I’ve got it made."
Narrator: When a family friend secured Ripley a job as a sports cartoonist in nearby San Francisco, he said goodbye to his family, and left home to begin a career as a professional artist.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He loved the idea of moving to San Francisco. It seems so far away to him, even though it was only 50 miles south.
Narrator: Ripley's newspaper debut appeared in the evening edition of The Bulletin on February 22, 1909. It depicted a baseball fan's eager anticipation of Opening Day.
But his initial success was tempered by loneliness.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: I think when he got settled in San Francisco, he still felt like a little bit of an outsider. You know, he was brand new at this job of sports cartooning. He didn’t have many friends. So during this time, Ripley starts spending a lot of time in Chinatown because he can get a cheap meal there. You know, for five cents, he can eat some noodles.
But I think he was also drawn there. I think in Chinatown, he felt like less of a loner, and developed a connection to these people who were on the outside of things themselves. They weren’t part of the mainstream.
Narrator: He felt welcome in Chinatown, but Ripley struggled to find his niche in San Francisco's competitive newspaper world. He was fired from two different papers. Colleagues advised the discouraged artist to try his luck in New York -- a bigger newspaper market with more opportunities. With nothing to lose, he scraped together his meager savings and bought a one-way ticket east.
The move paid off. Ripley soon found a job as a sports cartoonist for Manhattan's Globe and Commercial Advertiser.
It was the beginning of a dramatic transformation, starting with his name.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: If you want to be a tough sports guy in New York, you can't be Leroy. So he changes from Leroy Robert Ripley to Robert Leroy Ripley.
Narrator: With his $25 a week salary, he invested in a new wardrobe, swapping his scruffy California clothes for smart two-piece suits.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: This new person emerged -- from this very shy, winning boy from Santa Rosa to this snappy dresser, snappy if loud, garish dresser.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He bought his first suit, sent home a picture to his mom of himself posing in Central Park with rolled up pants and a high waist and big lapels, and he was just so proud of that, proud that he could finally buy something nice to wear after not having that ability as a child.
Narrator: He rented a studio apartment at the venerable New York Athletic Club. A natural athlete, he availed himself of the Club facilities. Handball became his sport of choice.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: From 1922 through 1928, handball is a major part of his life. He's the New York City champion. He becomes the national team’s champion.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: I think that success on the handball court was important to him. It was a place where he could excel at something and feel good about himself because he often felt bad about himself as it related to his strange looks, and his buckteeth, and his stutter.
Narrator: By 1929, Ripley had recast himself from a chump into a champ -- a journey culminating in a best selling book and his new partnership with William Randolph Hearst.
With Hearst's financial backing, Ripley packed his bags and set off in search of bigger and better Believe It or Nots.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: During the Depression, it was exorbitant to travel by plane or ship. Most people couldn’t afford it. Robert Ripley was bringing back the world. He was the messenger.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: Ripley is credited for going to 201 countries. At the time there’s about 235 recognized countries, so he was the most traveled man of his time.
Narrator: Ripley’s fact-finding expeditions took him from Afghanistan to Zanzibar, Fiji to Finland, Mombasa to Marrakesh. He bagged countries like a big game hunter -- bringing back one-of-a-kind wonders to readers at home.
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: He was your travel agent. He took you around the world, by looking at his cartoons. And he gave you something that you could talk about at the dinner table, which was great, because it made you an entertainer.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: I think the appeal to the Believe It or Not cartoon is curiosity mixed with education. Here’s a guy that’s traveling to places where I’m never gonna get to; I can only dream of. At least, I can learn about it through him.
Narrator: And yet, for all his worldly travels, he could also be small-minded and parochial.
Robert Thompson, Media Historian: Normally you think of somebody like Ripley, who was bringing us the world, you think of them as being something of a high-brow, somebody who’s educated and well traveled. But he was well traveled kind of like in the way that maybe your weird uncle was well traveled. One minute he would really be somebody who was using travel to raise his consciousness; the next minute he would seem to be just another ugly American tourist.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He'd refused to learn even a few phrases of the local language. He boasted that he would go to places and just speak English louder if people couldn’t understand him.
Narrator: Preferring to travel in comfort, Ripley was game to rough it when he had to. He had a fear of flying, yet still managed to log over 600,000 miles -- enough to circle the earth 24 times.
But the intrepid globetrotter had a secret, one that he kept hidden a world away.
Jonathan Pearlroth: People always thought that there was a team of employees combing the globe looking for all these amazing and strange facts, but the truth was, it was just my grandfather sitting in the library six days a week, ten hours a day, finding these items on the bookshelves.
Narrator: Ripley's travels were guided by an unseen hand, a polyglot researcher named Norbert Pearlroth, who was directing his employer's adventures from an unlikely location -- the New York Public Library.
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: Through Mr. Pearlroth, he had the whole world at his fingertips because he could go into any country and there was Pearlroth’s research of eight, or ten, or fifty Believe It or Nots that he would go to and "discover."
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: I call them the odd couple. There was Robert Ripley and his chief researcher, chief facts checker, Norbert Pearlroth, who no one's heard of.
Narrator: Ripley had first hired Pearlroth, a Jewish immigrant from Europe, in the 1920's to help translate documents and research content for his early Believe It or Not feature.
Jonathan Pearlroth: Well, my grandfather, Norbert, was a teller at a bank and Ripley was a client of the bank. My grandfather never sent him a resume or applied for a job. It was just a man in a bank who spoke all these languages and got hired.
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: I think Norbert spoke 14 languages ultimately and read them and wrote them. I mean, it was a fantastic find for Ripley.
Narrator: In the quest for material, Pearlroth ensconced himself in the Reading Room of the Public Library and scoured the stacks and shelves for Believe It or Not facts.
Jonathan Pearlroth: My grandfather had a routine that was the routine of all routines. He took the train from Flatbush Brooklyn right to 6th Avenue and 42nd Street. He spent the entire day at the library and he took the subway back home, had dinner and, I assume, he went to bed and then he did it the next day.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: While Robert Ripley was hunting after the strange, the fantastic, the weird all over the world, Norbert was hunting through books. Norbert Pearlroth was like one of Robert Ripley's own Believe It or Not characters.
Narrator: In fact, it was Pearlroth who conceived of the infamous Lindbergh cartoon -- one of many born of this fruitful collaboration. Ripley was careful, however, to keep Pearlroth's existence quiet. At the end of the day, it was Ripley's Believe It or Not.
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: He never, to my knowledge, gave Pearlroth any credit or any publicity. But he was the man behind the king.
Jonathan Pearlroth: He seemed to be so immersed and so in love with his work that it really didn't matter if it was a Norbert Pearlroth story. My grandfather had a true thirst for knowledge, that’s really what it was.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: They were absolute opposites, and yet, somehow, they fulfilled one another. They made a perfect complete union of entertainment. You know, one couldn’t exist without the other.
Narrator: In 1930, Warner Brothers studio produced a series of theatrical shorts featuring the world traveller and his odd facts.
Man’s voice (archival film): Oh Mr. Ripley…
Robert Ripley (archival film): Yes?
Man’s voice (archival film): I was just wondering if you could tell me how you came to draw your first Believe It or Not cartoon?
Robert Ripley (archival film): About eight years ago on a certain day when I was drawing pictures for a New York paper, I couldn’t think of anything to draw…
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: Ripley comes across in the movies as awkward. He's not comfortable, very formal.
Robert Ripley (archival film): and sent them to the engraver and for no reason at all I called them Believe It or Not!
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: There’s no sense of relaxation at all, stiff as it could be in most cases.
Robert Ripley (archival film): I'd like to show you one of the most curious things that I've ever collected in the Believe It or Not museum.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He's not the most natural performer and he deals with that in his own ways, one of which is -- has a little cup of whiskey always at hand and kind of loosens himself up before he has to get in front of the camera.
Robert Ripley (archival film): Now I'm going to show you the strangest man that I've ever seen in all my travels. I came across him in a few years ago in the northern part of Africa and he had on his head, horns more than 18 inches long.
Narrator: Audiences were captivated as the formerly silent artist stepped out from behind his easel and onto the screen.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: A celebrity doesn’t always have to be beautiful or handsome or incredibly charismatic with that kind of star power. He had a different kind of star power.
Reporter (archival film): They say this room is a clearinghouse for strange information that you gather, Mr. Ripley.
Robert Ripley (archival film): Yes, this is the Believe It or Not “Hall of Curiosities”…
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: I think they see this guy who is not Hollywood handsome…
Robert Ripley (archival film): Robert L. Ripley, starting another Believe It or Not expedition.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: But he's up there anyway doing his best, making mistakes, and I think that’s appealing. I think people appreciate it.
Radio Announcer (archival): Post Bran Flakes presents (GONG) Believe It or Not!
Narrator: Building on his success in publishing and film, he set out to adapt his Believe It or Not brand for radio.
Radio Announcer (archival): And here’s that notable, nationwide, neigh-bob of nonstop non-nugatory nerve-numbing, neck-and-neck naturals, Believe It or Not Bob Ripley!
: Greetings everybody, and welcome to the program.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: Ripley’s star in the Walk of Fame in Hollywood is for radio broadcasting. It’s not for anything else he did. And the fundamental thing that makes it different from everybody else is on-location broadcasting.
Robert Ripley (archival): Greetings everybody and welcome to Grand Canyon. This is Bob Ripley speaking to you one mile down at the bottom of the Canyon.
Robert Thompson, Media Historian: They broadcast from places that you’re not supposed to be able to broadcast from: the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He broadcast from the bottom of Carlsbad Cavern.
Robert Ripley (archival): I am now standing in the largest room in all the world. This room is one mile long; the ceiling is thirty stories high…
Robert Thompson, Media Historian: Back then, that was a big stinking deal. So his broadcasts themselves became, to some extent, "Believe It or Not" sorts of things.
Robert Ripley (archival): And in just a moment, I hope to settle that age-old question: can a man and a man-eating shark get along peacefully together?
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: "Marineland, Florida" was a famous show where Ripley broadcast actually from underwater.
Robert Ripley (archival): So I'm going down to the ocean bottom and attempt to feed the sharks, I mean, feed them with fish I hope…instead of myself.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: Ripley suited up in this massive divers suit, went under water and mumbled a few words, actually got knocked on his butt by a shark.
Robert Ripley (underwater archival): That one is coming over here toward me.
Man underwater (archival): Yes Sir, watch it.
Robert Ripley (underwater archival): I don't like it one bit.
Man underwater (archival): They are getting pretty hungry down here, Bob, I guess we better get out.
Robert Ripley (underwater archival): I'm going to get out of here, I don't like it one bit, I'll tell you that….
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: People start talking about, “Did you listen to the Ripley show last night?" People tuned in every week to find out where he was. That was a big part of the attraction, not so much what he was going to talk about as, where is Ripley today?
Radio Announcer (archival): The makers of ExLax presents: Strange As It Seems!
Narrator: Ripley's formula inspired dozens of copycats -- on the airwaves and in print.
Allan Holtz, Cartoon Historian: Some of them were just blatant rip-offs. Others specialized: nature, the bible, stamps, but all of them were based purely on the Ripley model.
Radio Announcer (archival): Believe It Or Else, I bring you odd and interesting facts… strange news and odd facts, curiosities that are had to believe…
Narrator: Ripley said he felt "besieged" by imitators, and sued his most blatant mimics. But none of the impersonators were able to unseat Ripley as the king of curiosities.
There was only one Believe It or Not, and by the mid-1930's, its creator was a national celebrity.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: There was this poll that was done in 1936, where they asked thousands and thousands of kids who would they want to be when they grow up, and far and away, the kids said, "I want to be Robert Ripley. I want to travel the world. I want to draw cartoons." He got more than the President, more than J. Edgar Hoover, more than Jack Dempsey, or any baseball player. They wanted to be Robert Ripley.
Narrator: Even his imperfect smile was famous. When he finally had surgery to tame his unruly teeth, Ripley instructed the dentist not to straighten them all the way. By now, they had become his trademark.
And in spite of his unconventional looks, he was popular with the ladies.
Robert Whiteman, Colleague: And he liked two things, mainly. He loved liquor and he loved women.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: It’s impressive this guy who doesn’t have Hollywood handsome looks, he becomes something of a ladies’ man, sort of a renowned ladies’ man.
Narrator: He was often seen out on the town in the company of actresses and models. After a brief, turbulent marriage to a dancer in the 1920's ended in a bitter divorce, Ripley publicly vowed to remain single. Still, the press deemed the bachelor a "catch", his impressive income part of the appeal.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: By the mid-1930’s, he's making half a million dollars a year during the depths of the Depression. He's making so much money, he finally decides, "OK, it’s time for me to buy a place for myself." And like everything else in his life, no ordinary house will do.
Narrator: He purchased a 27-room mansion north of New York City which he called "Believe It or Not Island", and a luxury apartment overlooking Central Park. In his homes, the wealthy entertainer indulged his obsession for all things Chinese. His early infatuation with Chinatown had blossomed into a full-blown love affair with the culture.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: Everywhere you looked were signs of Ripley’s devotion to China and the Chinese. He would often dress in Chinese garb. He would wear these embroidered robes. He had entire rooms that were decorated with artifacts from China.
Narrator: Ripley hosted elaborate dinner parties where he served gourmet Chinese food. He purchased a Chinese junk and sailed up and down Long Island Sound donning a captain's hat to welcome friends, and girlfriends, aboard.
Ripley's personal life was as unconventional as his chosen career -- and the eccentric artist pursued both with gusto.
Not satisfied to coast on his success, Ripley continued to explore new outlets for Believe It or Not.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: Whatever is the next best thing, I think he’s always looking for it, searching for the next way that I can go one step further and expand this empire that I've built, this universe of Ripley.
Narrator: In 1933, he opened the doors to an unusual museum at the Chicago World's Fair.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: He calls them Odditoriums, O-D-D, because they are featuring the odd and the unusual, and that’s what Ripley’s at the core is all about. It was a traditional sort of museum, a little bit strange what some of the content might be, but it’s displayed in glass cases with a path that you walk through and show cards that you read about and you learn something-- that’s the front end.
Narrator: In the back was a unique slate of performers: the living incarnations of Ripley's cartoons.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: He says, "You didn't believe it when I drew it; here it is. Seeing is believing. It's right in front of you now."
It’s bringing the circus sideshow into a legitimate theatre museum situation that, OK, it’s not so bad to gawk because you've paid money and you’re sitting in a nice seat to do it.
Narrator: Some acts were so unsettling that visitors reportedly fainted.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: He actually has nurses on the staff to help people that are seeing something that scares them, or freaks them out, or causes their heart to beat a little too fast. And the Chicago show was a major success. It gets held over. He comes back in 1934. They couldn’t get enough of him.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: One of the more popular acts was this nine year-old girl named Frieda Pushnik who was born without arms or legs, yet over time had trained herself to do typical things. She attended school. She was a good student. She had won an award for penmanship. She could sew a button. And, I think she is an example of the kind of person that reflected Ripley’s appreciation for the underdog. Somebody who in Frieda’s case was disabled but was able to do exemplary things and I think Ripley loved that kind of thing and love sharing it with other people.
Narrator: When the Chicago Fair closed, Ripley was invited to restage his show at a new exposition opening in San Diego. But there, his line-up met with resistance.
A California judge fined Ripley's company for including performers like Frieda Pushnik, citing a state law prohibiting the exhibit of so-called “deformed persons.”
Ripley himself refused to use the term "freak" to describe his cast members and reportedly threatened to fire anyone on his staff who did. He preferred the term "oddity." When pressed, however, he admitted that "an oddity is a high class freak."
In 1939, Ripley invested millions to develop a permanent museum site on Broadway in Manhattan, which was rechristened "Oddway" for the grand opening. The New York City venture debuted to great fanfare and featured a bill of eye-popping performers.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: Ripley instinctively understood that human beings love to be shocked, but only temporarily and then we want to go back to the safety and familiarity of life. He stops just short of terrifying us. But he makes it entertaining.
Robert Thompson, Media Historian: We know our daily lives, where everything operates in a predictable kind of way and the people that we know behave all in the same kind of way. His idea was to say, “You ain’t seen nothing. This world is one freaky, bizarre sort of place. And we should embrace that, and we should love it.”
Radio Announcer (archival): …Bob “Believe It or Not” Ripley…
Robert Ripley (archival): Thank you and greetings everyone… I have just returned from some of our military and naval air bases and I may say I've never been so completely astounded…."
Narrator: The advent of the Second World War grounded the so-called “modern day Marco Polo.”
Unable to travel overseas, he turned his attention to the home front, celebrating heroic soldiers and their amazing war stories in his Believe It or Not panels.
But despite his patriotic enthusiasm, friends began to see a change. He started missing deadlines and grew noticeably heavier. In the mid-1940's some in his inner circle speculated he may have had suffered a small stroke.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: I think he probably ignored or pretended it wasn’t happening -- this slow decline in his health, hoping that he could just muscle through it.
Narrator: With the war's end, Ripley began planning a trip to the Far East. In the past, travel had been a panacea for him. Now, friends hoped another journey would rejuvenate the ailing artist.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: So after having not traveled for years, Ripley’s obviously excited about another chance to go to the Orient, the countries that he loves the most. There may be some sense that this is our last fling. Let’s do it all because there may not be another time to come back to these countries.
Narrator: What he encountered was a world irrevocably altered by global war. From the start, it was clear that this journey would be unlike any he had taken before.
En route to Asia, he offered a wreath for soldiers lost at sea.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: This is a very different trip for Ripley. It’s the first time he’s been overseas since World War II has ended. Basically, he sees the destruction of these lands that he loved so much.
Narrator: Arriving in China, he found the war-torn country almost unrecognizable.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: It has an effect on him that China is no longer the China I know. It’s been bombed to death. Clearly, China is the love of his life, and by ‘48, it’s a whole different place.
Robert Ripley (archival): This is Believe It or Not Ripley. I am now in Hiroshima, the spot where the atomic bomb exploded…
Narrator: In Japan, Ripley broadcast a show from Ground Zero, his Believe It or Not statistics capturing the horrors of war.
Robert Ripley (archival): In Hiroshima, 15,000 people vanished from the face of the earth, 47,000 were dead, 60,000 more died within 2 months of the blast and 100,000 were injured…
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: It’s been a long time since he’s seen his favorite lands, and what he sees in these places has a pretty big impact on him. I mean he is seeing some of the battlefields of World War II, and I think it breaks his heart.
Robert Ripley (archival): ...so little children, you and all our listeners, say with me, today, oh Lord we pray, that come what may, give us peace forever and a day…
Narrator: Returning home from the sobering trip, Ripley threw himself into his work, setting his sights on a new frontier -- television.
Robert Ripley (archival television): Greetings everybody and welcome once again to the Believe It or Not television show. And tonight I'm going to show you an actual flying saucer, which you've all heard of. I'm going to dramatize for you a card game in which, the winning hand was held by a dead man.
Narrator: In 1949, Believe It or Not premiered on NBC, joining an early television line-up that included programs like Howdy Doody and the Ed Sullivan Show.
Robert Ripley (archival television): And as a special guest, I'm going to present the man who without doubt, underwent the greatest physical uh uh, in all the world….a great example of human endurance…
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He is still not comfortable in front of the camera, needs his little glass of gin or whiskey to get him over the nerves that confront him.
Robert Ripley (archival television): The event that I will sketch for you now…
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He just forces himself to do it. He insists on finding a way to make Believe It or Not a television show, and he does it.
Narrator: During the 13th episode, Ripley was examining a display of the crown jewels of Europe when something happened.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: He and his lovely assistant, Peggy Corday, are on camera discussing the jewels when suddenly he gets this glazed look in his eyes, he sorts of slumps down a little bit. He stops talking and this is live.
Edward Meyer, Archivist, Ripley Entertainment: With very little warning, Ripley has a heart attack, or a flutter, on the show. He gets through it, but there’s seriously something wrong. The people on the show realized that this isn’t in the script.
Narrator: Friends urged Ripley to get examined at the hospital, but he shrugged them off. When he did go in for tests later that week, doctors admitted him for observation overnight.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: The next afternoon, he got on the phone with his friend Bugs Baer, and said, "I'm breaking out of here tomorrow. Let’s do something this weekend. We’ll have a party." He hangs up the phone, clutches his heart, apparently a sudden heart attack, and one of his girlfriend-slash-assistants goes running to find a doctor and a nurse. And by the time they got back to his bedside, he was dead.
Narrator: Hundreds attended Ripley's funeral and crowds lined the street as his rose covered coffin was carried from St. James Episcopal Church to Grand Central Station.
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: It seemed fitting that Ripley’s journey to his final resting place was a cross-country journey. His body was loaded onto a train and began this slow journey west, back to where he came from.
Narrator: Robert Ripley's unbounded travels had finally come to an end. The world famous cartoonist was laid to rest next to his parents, in Santa Rosa's Odd Fellows Cemetery -- Believe It or Not.
Robert Ripley (archival): Many times, people have asked me, "What is your strangest believe it or not?" Well, my answer is that I've never found the strangest Believe It or Not, because the strangest thing hasn't happened yet...
Neal Thompson, Author, A Curious Man: I don't think it was an act -- Ripley was curious about everything. He had this childlike sense of wonder. He believed this is an incredible place, this is an incredible world that we live in, and he wanted to share that with his readers.
Robert Thompson, Media Historian: In many ways, what he did is still happening all over the place today. If you want to get into the soul of Robert Ripley, you simply log on, go to YouTube, knock yourself out. Because that’s where the spirit of Believe It or Not lives today.
Melissa Pritchard, Writer: I think one of the gifts that Robert Ripley brought to us, still today, is the idea that there is nothing ordinary. If you look at it long enough, and with enough clarity and you can begin to see that even the most ordinary thing is extraordinary.