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Believe It or Not: Ripley Is Nearly Forgotten

A new PBS show celebrates the astounding achievements of this quiet giant


Robert L. Ripley's heyday was 75 years ago, but PBS' upcoming American Experience documentary, Ripley: Believe It Or Not (premiering Tuesday, Jan. 6; check local listings and watch a sneak peek at the bottom of this story) makes a convincing case that this showbiz pioneer had a lot to do with the way we communicate today.

An artist who began filling slow days in his New York Globe sports cartooning job by drawing amazing feats of strength and speed, Ripley came to the attention of William Randolph Hearst, who syndicated him and encouraged him to think bigger than The Chap Who Ran 100 Yards Backwards.

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Soon, Ripley was traveling the world to find The Man With the Revolving Head and The Shepherd Dog Who Plays the Piano and Sings. From about 1929 until his death in 1949, he built a series of occasional cartoons into an empire that included books, Broadway shows, personal appearance tours, movies, television and the "museums" of "curioddities" that still exist in many tourist towns.

It is no exaggeration to say that Ripley turned his pen into a dynasty.

Written, directed and produced by Cathleen O'Connell, Ripley: Believe It or Not is a modestly-scaled American Experience, one that is about neither a pivotal epoch in history nor a president. But, if it's a quieter American Experience, that's appropriate, because the show is about an all-but-forgotten man who figured prominently in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Robert Ripley made 24 movie shorts in New York for the Vitaphone
film company, featuring unusual artifacts and strange people (1930-31).

First Blogger?

Ripley: Believe It or Not depicts Ripley as a shy and earnest man, an "unlikely superstar" whose fame owed much to how ordinary he was. If he was amazed by something, he figured, there was a pretty good chance his readers would be, too. As the show's narrator, Oliver Platt, says: "Americans embraced a steady diet of the weird and wonderful."

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The event that made Ripley a phenomenon was a four-month, around-the-world cruise financed by The Globe, where Ripley was dazzled by the far corners of the world. Instructed to send home cartoons of the unique things he saw, Ripley — who was particularly fascinated by India and its people — was, the show says, "the blogger of his time." He observed what he saw around him and transmitted it to his readers, who could share his amazement and maybe measure the feats he reported against their own achievements. If there is strangeness everywhere, the cartoons seemed to say, then we are all strange in some way.

Ripley's work celebrated the underdog, a category that fit nearly all his readers, especially children. In a 1936 poll, kids overwhelmingly voted Ripley the person they would most like to be, well above President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who finished a distant seventh.

Robert Ripley with "Atta Boy" – a 6.5" mummified baby found in Bolivia, and
believed to have been shrunken by the Shuar (Jivaro) Indians of Ecuador (1933).

It's a Small World

To keep the cartoons coming and justify earning millions during the Depression, Ripley would become the most traveled man of his time, visiting 201 of the 230 countries acknowledged in his day and bringing them home via his work. Readers traveled vicariously through Ripley — who, at least in the early years of Believe It or Not, acknowledged that he could not afford to go to any of these places if his newspapers weren't footing the bill. Three decades before Marshall McLuhan popularized the term in the 1960s, Ripley's drawings created a global village, a common language that all his readers and viewers understood.

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"He was curious about everything," says Ripley biographer Neal Thompson. "He believed it was an incredible world we live in and he wanted to share that."
 
Not surprisingly, Hollywood wanted a share in Ripley. Warner Bros. produced a series of Ripley-introduced short films that, viewed today, closely resemble the kinds of homemade feats that daredevils upload to YouTube or send in to home-video shows. A film clip of the cartoonist, outfitted in an enormous diving suit so he can commune with a shark, will look mighty familiar to those who were recently startled by the specially-outfitted guy who was "eaten" by an anaconda, believe it or not.

Robert Ripley with a Balinese New Year's Festival Lion mask (1932).
 
It was when he brought Believe It or Not to television in the late 1940s that Ripley — who had been a handball champion, an advocate for adopting an American national anthem and an international media superstar — experienced his final believe-it-or-not moment. Ripley had a heart "flutter" while on the air, an attack that would soon lead to his death. The man who re-christened Broadway "Oddway" and called his museum attractions "Odditoriums" would be buried, appropriately, in an Oddfellows Cemetery.

Chris Hewitt is a movie and theater critic who has written for MSNBC.com, Today.com and The History Channel magazine as well as Next Avenue and whose reviews have run in newspapers across the country.

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