America’s TV and computer screens are crammed with people doing extreme, dangerous, exotic, bizarre or embarrassing things. They crab-fish or dive for gold in Alaska; they compete in little-girl beauty pageants or run moonshine in the South; they attempt outrageous feats, striving to set records and, above all, get noticed.
Our obsession with peculiar people is nothing new, though, nor did it originate with P.T. Barnum, whose genius was for sideshow spectacle. The man primarily responsible for mainstreaming our voyeuristic tendencies was Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. In his cartoons and books, on radio and TV, the globe-trotting Ripley tapped into Americans’ appetite for the oddly titillating, the unbelievable, the uncomfortable.
Until his death in 1949, at age 59, Ripley was the unrivaled impresario of freaks of the natural world (compare today’s “River Monsters”), exposes of popular falsehoods (cue “Mythbusters”) and celebrations of charismatic underdogs (“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”). He gave a platform to every sort of specialist in self-abuse and pseudo-torture: sword swallowers, glass-eaters, contortionists and self-mutilators, from the man who lifted weights with hooks in his eyelids to the one who took a shot in the gut with a cannonball to the one who ate an entire sack of portland cement. During the Depression, as Americans sought affordable means of escape and entertainment in a world before television, Ripley provided both in abundance. In his day, he possessed the combined cultural clout of YouTube, “American Idol” and Monday Night Football.LeRoy (his real name) was a carpenter’s son from Santa Rosa, Calif. Impoverished and insecure, with terrible buck teeth and a stutter, he sold his first cartoon to Life magazine in 1907 and two years later began his newspaper cartooning career. He stumbled onto his “Believe It or Not!” concept 10 years later, on the verge of his 30th birthday. By the mid-1930s, he had reached the height of his fame, earning a half-million dollars a year.
His cartoons and essays appeared in hundreds of newspapers, in dozens of languages, and were read by millions. Whatever the format—books, radio shows, films, lectures, his “Odditorium” museums—a Ripley enterprise combined a base, voyeuristic interest in human oddities and extremes with a candid appreciation of them. The awkward misfit-loner became the champion of the freakishness of others. He made it mainstream to be weird, teaching fans to gape with awe at America’s chutzpah.
Proud oddballs performed for Ripley with artistic aplomb (the pianist who played nonstop for two weeks) and sometimes grotesque determination (the man who drove spikes into his nose). His contests (“send in your own Believe It or Not’s”) inspired head-shaking feats and generated millions of letters.
Ripley appreciated that, at times, all of us feel marginal, isolated. He frequently encouraged average (and not-so-average) Janes and Joes to share their most personal stories. And he loved to mend broken families. He reunited a sister and brother, allegedly part of a set of sextuplets, who hadn’t seen each other for 25 years, and he introduced twin sisters who had been separated at birth. “Marjorie, meet your twin sister Shirley,” he said, as the sisters tearfully embraced.
Ripley was especially deft at arbitrating marriage disputes and presiding over on-air discussions of painful family histories. Like Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey, he was a patient and empathetic interviewer, whether his guests were disfigured or handicapped or from some distant land. As someone who himself had suffered humiliation and loss (his father died when Ripley was a teen), he seemed to understand the discomfort of others. He appeared to possess a great reserve of compassion, coming across as gentle and nonjudgmental.
Today, the “Believe It or Not!” brand is known mostly for quirky museums filled with squirm-inducing displays. But Robert Ripley’s legacy can be found wherever reality-show culture thrives. The great passion of his life was to provoke and inspire others, to dare them to believe in the unbelievable. Above all, he wanted people to appreciate the wonder of each other.
By NEAL THOMPSON /WSJ
For more information about Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium visit: ripleysnewyork.com