By Karen Knapstein
Did you know, the man behind the popular books, museums and television show “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”, dropped out of high school to help bring in money for his struggling family, displayed some of the oddities in his collection during the Chicago World’s Fair, and owned an island? It’s all true, and there are more fascinating facts Antique Trader Print Editor Karen Knapstein dug up about Mr. Ripley for this Ten Things You Didn’t Know column.
1 LeRoy Robert Ripley (1890-1949), grew up in Santa Rosa, California, and played semi-pro baseball in his teens. He traveled to New York City in 1913 at the urging of his friend, writer Jack London. He tried out with the New York Giants, but after breaking his arm in a training game, effectively ending his chances at a big league baseball career, Ripley became a full-time cartoonist. It was at the suggestion of one of his editors that he dropped “LeRoy” and became “Robert L. Ripley” (the editor believed “LeRoy” didn’t sound masculine enough).
2 In 1908, Ripley was paid $8 for his first commercial cartoon. Life magazine purchased Ripley’s illustrated pun of a young woman pushing laundry through a wringer with the caption “The Village Bell Was Slowly Ringing.” [belle]/[wringing]
3 Although he never completed high school (he was forced to drop out and work to help support his family after his father’s death), in the midst of the Great Depression, in 1934, NBC was paying Ripley $3,000 per half-hour radio show; the cartoonist’s King Features Syndicate contract was worth $7,000 per week; Ripley charged $1,000 per night to appear as a lecturer. When added to his other lucrative earnings, Ripley’s income totaled more than a half-million dollars per year. (For comparison, $500,000 in 1934 translates to nearly $9 million in 2016.) He was well on his way to becoming the first cartoonist to earn $1 million per year – including Walt Disney.
4 After a two-year run at the Chicago World’s Fair, which drew more than 2 million visitors and earned $1 million, in 1933 Ripley opened his first permanent “Odditorium” in Times Square, New York City. Ripley’s attraction portfolio has grown to more than 95 attractions in 10 countries. Attractions include 32 Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditoriums, five Guinness World Records Museums and four Louis Tussaud’s Wax Works – many of which hold items from Ripley’s own personal collections. The Niagara Falls, Ontario, Odditorium reopened in May 2016 after a six-month, top-to-bottom makeover. “Ripley’s has been entertaining Niagara Falls visitors for more than 50 years,” said Tim Parker, Ripley’s Niagara Falls general manager. “We’re now proud to offer our biggest and best experience yet.” Here, visitors can also see a rickshaw carved from jade, and an actual segment from the Berlin Wall.
5 Robert Ripley was quite charming and popular with women. Among others, Ripley found
companionship in Hungarian antiques dealer Ruth Ross (nicknamed “Oakie”). She helped organize and display Ripley’s eclectic collections of antiques and artwork, turning his private island, BION, into a private showcase that Ripley loved to show off to members of his social circle. When he entertained, he often did so dressed in Chinese garb because the culture fascinated him.
6 Ripley’s first book, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” was published by Simon & Schuster in 1929. The first edition, originally selling for $2.50, sold more than 500,000 copies. Thanks to the prolific print runs, first editions can be found today for less than $50. Simon & Schuster is still publishing Ripley books filled with amazing facts; there are dozens of titles listed at http://www.ripleys.com/publishing/.
7 A Believe It or Not! cartoon revealed “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t the official national anthem, sparking public outrage. Within a year, as a result of the publicity generated by Ripley, Herbert Hoover signed the bill on March 3, 1931, officially making the song the United States’ national anthem.
8 While living at the New York Athletic Club, Ripley played in dozens of handball tournaments. He even won the NYAC singles handball championship in 1925.
9 Holly Palance, who hosted four episodes of the television show “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” from 1982 to 1984, played the part of Damien Thorn’s ever-protective Nanny in The Omen (Twentieth Century Fox, 1976).
10 In 1949, while filming the 13th episode of his television show, Robert Ripley collapsed; he suffered a heart attack and died two or three days later. The subject of his final show: The story behind the military funeral song “Taps.”
Compiled by Karen Knapstein
Sources: “A Curious Man – The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley” by Neal Thompson, Crown Archetype, 2013, hardcover, 432 pages, $26 (available on Amazon.com for $19.84); http://www.nealthompson.com [bit.ly/RipleyLife]
www.vanityfair.com; www.ripleys.com; www.huffingtonpost.com; www.biography.com/; www.legacy.com; www.pbs.org