Ripley and His Legacy Profiled on American Experience
LeRoy Robert Ripley rose to fame during the Great Depression, transforming himself from a skinny, bucktoothed boy into an entertainer who mesmerized the nation with his 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; the eccentric, globetrotting playboy became an unlikely national celebrity.
Born in Santa Rosa, California in 1890, Ripley had a cartoon published in Life magazine when he was still a teenager. With the help of a family friend, he soon became a sports cartoonist in San Francisco and quickly parlayed his artistic knack and wide-eyed enthusiasm for adventure into a job as a sports cartoonist with New York’s Globe and Commercial Advertiser. It was at the Globe that he created his first sports-themed “Believe It or Not!” and the popular feature took off.
The opportunity of a lifetime soon came when the Globe’s editors sent him on a four-month around-the world cruise, and Ripley’s daily dispatches, chronicling the most bizarre forms of human behavior and the man-made oddities he witnessed, captivated readers. After the book was published, “Believe It or Not!” quickly entered the national vocabulary as Americans embraced a steady diet of the weird and wondrous. From a man who could blow up a balloon with his eye, to an Indian holy man who walked on hot coals, to another who shaved with a blowtorch, Ripley fed the country’s natural fascination with the odd, the unusual, and the grotesque.
Learn more about Ripley and his legacy on Ripley: Believe it or Not – American Experience at 9pm Tuesday, Jan. 6, on ThinkTV16 and CET.