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The Adventure Of
Robert L. Ripley
BELIEVE OR NOT COLLECTIONS
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Robert LeRoy Ripley (December 25, 1890 – May 27, 1949)
was an American cartoonist, entrepreneur and amateur anthropologist, who created the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! newspaper panel series, radio show, and television show which feature odd facts from around the world.
Subjects covered in Ripley’s cartoons and text ranged from sports feats to little known facts about unusual and exotic sites; but what ensured the concept’s popularity may have been that Ripley also included items submitted by readers, who supplied photographs of a wide variety of small town American trivia, ranging from unusually shaped vegetables to oddly marked domestic animals, all documented by photographs and then depicted by Ripley’s drawings.
Robert L. Ripley
AKA LeRoy Ripley
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Curator, Cartoonist
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Believe It or Not!
Born LeRoy Ripley, he played semi-pro baseball in his teens, and sold cartoons to Life magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle before dropping out of high school. He worked as a sports columnist in New York, and became ‘Robert Ripley’ when an editor suggested that ‘LeRoy’ did not sound masculine enough. On a slow sports day in place of his next day’s column he submitted a nine-panel drawing called “Champs and Chumps”, about odd but actual sports — a backward running race, an ice jump, etc. That cartoon drew a much more enthusiastic response than his sports columns, and soon he was writing and drawing “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” instead of covering ball games.
In his new beat as chronicler of the unusual, Ripley spun tales and related facts too bizarre to be believed, but always claimed everything he reported was true. After several years with the New York Globe and later the Post, Ripley’s cartoon was syndicated beginning in 1929. He employed a full-time fact-checker who, in that pre-Google era, spent virtually all his working hours at the New York Public Library — so Ripley was rarely proven wrong. He lied about his own life, though, at various times insisting that he was born in 1891, 1892, and 1893, bragging of an extensive education when he was in fact a high school drop-out, and claiming to have visited over 200 countries, including such ‘nations’ as the Garden of Eden.
He did, however, travel widely in his lifelong quest for the peculiar, becoming something of an oddity himself. He kept a pet boa constrictor, routinely dressed in native wear from several continents, and before and after his brief marriage he reportedly shared his 28-room mansion with up to five ladyfriends at the same time. For many years he was one of America’s most well-known celebrities, and regularly received more mail than the President of the United States.
He opened his first “Odditorium” in Chicago in 1933, featuring such attractions as a man who would eat and then regurgitate a rodent. In the movies’ early sound era, Ripley was featured in a series of shorts, screened before the feature attraction in theaters. He published a drawing submitted by 12-year-old Charles Schulz, the “Peanuts” cartoonist’s first paid work. Several books of his collected columns were bestsellers, and he also had a popular nationwide radio program until the late 1940s, when he took his talents to television. Midway through his first season on TV, after filming his thirteenth episode — about the death rituals of different cultures worldwide — he suffered a heart attack and died.
After his death, his long-time radio and television producer took over management of the Ripley empire, and the cartoon, drawn by several different artists over subsequent decades, has never ceased publication in daily papers. Within a year of Ripley’s death the display of his artifacts was spun off as its own company, and he continues to be listed as ‘author’ of new Believe It or Not books. Ripley Entertainments, now owned by Jim Pattison, currently operates dozens of kitschy Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums in ten nations, and also owns several Guinness World Records Museums and Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks attractions. A mid-1980s Believe It or Not TV series was hosted by Jack Palance, with Marie Osmond co-hosting in the show’s last season, and an early 2000s series starred Dean Cain.
Father: Isaac Davis Ripley (b. 1854, d. 1905)
Mother: Lillie Bell Yocka Ripley (b. 1868, m. 1889, d. 1915)
Sister: Ethel Ripley (b. 1893)
Brother: Douglas Ripley (b. 1904)
Wife: Beatrice Roberts (m. 1919, sep. 1920, div. 1926)
High School: Santa Rosa High School, Santa Rosa, CA (dropped out)
Author of books:
Believe It or Not!:A Modern Book of Wonders, Miracles, Freaks, Monstrosities and Almost-Impossibilities (1929)
The Second Believe It or Not!:1930
The New Believe It or Not! (1931)
Ripley’s Big Book: Believe It or Not! (1934)
The Omnibus Believe It or Not! (1934)
God Rewards Faith and Service (1940)
Robert Ripley’s Double Believe It or Not! (1948)
Ripleys Believe It or Not!: An Odyssey of Incredible Oddities Set Down By a Modern Marco Polo Who Can Prove Every Statement He Makes (1941)
Throughout the 1920s, Mr. Ripley continued to broaden the scope of his work and his popularity increased greatly. He published both a travel journal and a guide to the game of handball in 1925. In 1926, Ripley became the New York state handball champion and also wrote a book on boxing. With a proven track record as a versatile writer and artist, he attracted the attention of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, who managed the King Features Syndicate. In 1929, Hearst was responsible for Believe It or Not! making its syndicated debut in seventeen papers worldwide. With the success of this series assured, Ripley capitalized on his fame by getting the first book collection of his newspaper panel series published.
Robert L Ripley
The Believe-It-Or-Not life of Mister Robert L Ripley, millionaire freak fanatic
By Marc Hartzman
Ripley’s many exotic expeditions spawned thousands of Believe It Or Not!s, but blessed with an uncanny knack for twisting the ordinary into the extraordinary, he found fodder just as easily at home. A friend of his described how his mind worked: “You go into a restaurant with Rip and you both order steaks. If you think about the steak at all, you wonder whether it will be properly cooked. Not so with Ripley. He’s probably figuring how many steaks there are in a full-grown steer, how many steers there are in the state of Texas. Then he’ll come up with a statement that there are enough steaks in Texas to feed the entire population of the Gaspé Peninsula for 18-and-a-half years, three times a day.” When he wasn’t developing a convoluted calculation, he was creating shocking statements using simple semantics, such as the time he wrote: “Buffalo Bill never shot a buffalo in his life.” Those who disagreed would have been reminded that the ‘buffalo’ were technically bison.
As the cartoon’s popularity grew, it went from weekly to daily to syndication. But this was only the beginning. In 1929, after much reluctance, Ripley accepted an offer from Max Schuster – of Simon & Schuster – to collect his work in a book. It sold millions, and even the Great Depression couldn’t slow the Ripley phenomenon. Publishing giant William Randolph Hearst Sr soon took notice and wanted in on the act, dispatching his head of King Features Syndicate with a two-word telegram: Sign Ripley. The hiring swelled Ripley’s salary to 0,000 a year and boosted his syndication to 300 publications in 17 different languages. The book also led to a series of movies and a career in radio broadcasting.
Sticking with the theme, many of his radio programmes were aired from unusual locations. One show was live from a Florida snakepit, where Ripley carried his microphone into a pit of 500 poisonous serpents. It was the best way to give his listeners an accurate account of a snake handler extracting venom from a rattler. Another live broadcast starred a skydiver describing his 10,000ft, 160mph freefall. When he finally pulled his ripcord there was a malfunction, and he slammed into the ground and nearly died. But it made for great radio.
In 1933, Ripley brought his cartoons to life on stage at his first Believe It Or Not! Odditorium show at the Chicago World’s Fair. The museum, reminiscent of PT Barnum’s beloved American Museum of the mid-19th century, featured numerous live acts that were guaranteed to shock and amaze. Audiences witnessed Martin Laurello, who painlessly turned his head completely backwards on his shoulders. They squirmed watching Leo Kongee, The Human Pincushion whose “skin never bleeds and seems to be immune to torture”. And they marvelled at young Frieda Pushnik, The Little Half Girl Born Without Arms or Legs, who used her mouth and dextrous stumps to write, thread needles and complete jigsaw puzzles. Contortionists, eye-poppers, sword-swallowers and more added to the entertainment, along with a display of shrunken heads, medieval torture devices and other wondrous artifacts. Odditoriums soon opened across the country.
While Believe It Or Not! had become a household name, Ripley had been living a believe-it-or-not life himself. After a brief marriage in 1919, he shunned monogamy and indulged in women of all kinds – Chinese, Japanese, German, Russian, French and Greek. He even kept his own harem, sometimes stocked with as many as 12 girls. As the world’s first millionaire cartoonist, he blew money on expensive foreign cars, but was afraid to drive them. He wouldn’t use a telephone, fearing he might be electrocuted. He drank heavily, but considered smoking evil. And between the hours of 7am and 11pm, wearing little more than an old robe and slippers, Ripley drew his cartoons upside down – unless he was hungover, in which case assistants handled the inking over his outlines. But perhaps all that was to be expected of the world’s foremost purveyor of the bizarre.
Ripley’s home was equally eccentric, and his New York mansion served as a shrine to his peculiar tastes and treasures – a model of the Eiffel Tower made from 30,000 matchsticks, chastity belts from the Crusades era, and an Iron Maiden from Nuremberg to name a few. He called this live-in museum Bion (for Believe It Or Not! ). One of his personal favourite possessions was a Chinese Foochow riverboat called the Mon Lei, which the Japanese had confiscated during their 1930s invasion of China. Ripley used it to entertain guests in trips along the nearby Long Island Sound estuary.
Despite his colossal collection, Bion amazingly still had room for Ripley’s mail – which was pouring in at the rate of 3,500 letters a day during the ’30s and ’40s. People everywhere inundated his mailbox with claims of the astounding and, in some cases, ridiculous things they could do. Eli Vicellio of Hurley, Wisconsin, wrote of his ability to lift a table and chair weighing 70lb with nothing more than his teeth. Then there was Bill Wausman of Detroit, who boasted about his unique talent for holding a pencil under his ear, instead of above it. Other times the letters merely concerned a strange coincidence, like in 1937 when Mr EE East of West Virginia met Mr EE West of East Virginia at the National Business College in Roanoke, Virginia. The accompanying photo captured the two men shaking hands.
Some of Ripley’s mail was worthy of a Believe It Or Not! just for finding its way to him. Fans challenged the postal system by seeing how obscure an address could get to the cartoonist, but addresses made out in Braille, Morse code and rebuses always got delivered. Even mail that was simply ripped – for Rip – found its way. However, the postal puzzles were put to a stop in 1930 when the US Postmaster General declared that mail with incomplete or unclear addresses would not be delivered because postal clerks were spending too much time “deciphering freak letters intended for Ripley”.
Not all of the mail involved frivolous feats and enigmatic envelopes, and the reaction to a 1929 edition of Believe It Or Not! still resonates in America today. The illustration bemoaned the fact that the US did not have a national anthem, and Ripley received so many letters on the subject he urged readers to flood Congress’ mailbox instead. More than 5million wrote to their Representatives and, as a result, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was adopted as the national anthem. If not for that little cartoon, who knows what song would bring Americans to their feet before the start of every major sporting event?
As beloved as Ripley was, many referred to him as the World’s Biggest Liar. He claimed he felt flattered by this: “It means my cartoon that day contained some strange fact that was unbelievable – and therefore most interesting.” The ‘liar’ took pride in his ability to provide documentation for all his fantastic facts – however, his standard of proof was not particularly high. Ripley convinced himself that any printed word was true, and if he could dig up even one article supporting a story, he claimed his tale was validated. A research team was always on hand, ready to search the New York Public Library to unearth some piece of documentation (though lesser sources must have sometimes sufficed, since Ripley once wrote about a surgeon who lived to be 140 and drank heavily every day since he was 25). He’d read about the drunk in a little-known German publication in 1916. But then, maybe that’s why he always gave his fans the option to believe it or not.
Ripley’s pursuit of the weird and wonderful lasted until the very end. In true Believe It Or Not! fashion, the subject of his 13th – and final – television show was the story behind the writing of ‘Taps’, the bugle call for the dead. Shortly after, Ripley suffered a heart attack. He died on 27 May 1949 at the age of 55. More than 400 people paid tribute at the cartoonist’s funeral. Among his pallbearers were publishing giant William Randolph Hearst Jr, former world heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney, and president of Eastern Airlines, Edward Rickenbacker. Ripley was fittingly buried back home in Santa Rosa, in Odd Fellows Cemetery, so it would seem his final resting place was amongst good company.
Death hasn’t hurt Ripley’s popularity in the least. Today, Believe It Or Not! illustrations are still produced daily, and it is the world’s longest-running syndicated cartoon. A TV show and museums across the globe continue to capture the imagination of millions, and in 2007 Ripley is set to be reincarnated as Jim Carrey in a film directed by Tim Burton, with a script written by the men who gave us Ed Wood. Somewhere above, Ripley, along with the horned Chinese farmer, the armless and legless girl, and a human pincushion or two, will be watching proudly with the world’s largest tub of popcorn.
Ripley’s Odditorium in Hollywood
On November 3, 1929, he drew a panel in his syndicated cartoon saying “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.” Despite the widespread belief that “The Star-Spangled Banner“, with its lyrics by Francis Scott Key set to the music of the English drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven“, was the United States national anthem, Congress had never officially made it so. In 1931, John Philip Sousa published his opinion in favor of giving the song official status, stating that “it is the spirit of the music that inspires” as much as it is Key’s “soul-stirring” words. By a law signed on March 3, 1931, by President Herbert Hoover, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as the national anthem of the United States.
The 1930s saw Ripley expand his presence into other media. In 1930, he began a fourteen-year run on radio and a nineteen-year association with the show’s producer, Doug Storer. Funding for his celebrated travels around the world were provided by the Hearst organization, and Ripley recorded live radio shows from underwater, the sky, caves, snake pits, and foreign countries. The next year he hosted the first of a series of two dozen Believe It or Not! theatrical short films for Warner Brothers Vitaphone, and King Features published a second collected volume of Believe it or Not! panels. He also appeared in a Vitaphone musical short, Seasons Greetings (1931), with Ruth Etting, Joe Penner, Ted Husing, Thelma White, Ray Collins, and others. After a trip to Asia in 1932, Ripley opened his first museum, the Odditorium, in Chicago. The concept was a success, and by the end of the decade, there were Odditoriums in San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland, San Francisco, and New York City. By this point in his life, Ripley had been voted the most popular man in America by the New York Times, received an honorary degree from Dartmouth College, and visited 201 foreign countries.
In 1919 Ripley married Beatrice Roberts. He made his first trip around the world in 1922, delineating a travel journal in installments. This ushered in a new topic for his cartoons: unusual and exotic foreign locales and cultures. Because he took the veracity of his work quite seriously, in 1923, Ripley hired a researcher and polyglot named Norbert Pearlroth as a full-time assistant. That same year, his feature moved from the New York Globe to the New York Post.
During World War II, Ripley concentrated on charity efforts rather than world travel, but after the war, he again expanded his media efforts. In 1948, the year of the 20th anniversary of the Believe it or Not! cartoon series, the Believe it or Not! radio show drew to a close and was replaced with a Believe it or Not! television series. This was a rather bold move on Ripley’s part because of the small number of Americans with access to television at this early time in the medium’s development. Ripley completed only thirteen episodes of the series before he became incapacitated by severe health problems. He reportedly passed out during the filming of his final show. His health worsened, and on May 27, 1949, at age 58, he succumbed to a heart attack in New York City. He was buried in his home town of Santa Rosa, in the Oddfellows Lawn Cemetery, which is adjacent to the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery.
Ripley’s cartoon series was estimated to have 80 million readers worldwide, and it was said that he received more mail than the President of the United States. He became a wealthy man, with homes in New York and Florida, but he always retained close ties to his home town of Santa Rosa, California, and he made a point of bringing attention to The Church of the One Tree, a church built entirely from the wood of a single 300-ft (91.4-m)-tall redwood tree, which stands on the north side of Juilliard Park in downtown Santa Rosa.
Ripley claimed to be able to “prove every statement he made,” because he worked with professional fact researcher Norbert Pearlroth, who assembled Believe it or Not!s array of odd facts and also verified the small-town claims submitted by readers. Pearlroth spent 52 years as the feature’s researcher, finding and verifying unusual facts for Ripley and, after Ripley’s death, for the King Features syndicate editors who took over management of the Believe it or Not!’ panel.
Other employees who researched the newspaper cartoon series over the years were Lester Byck and Don Wimmer. Others who drew the series after Ripley’s death include Joe Campbell (1946 to 1956), Art Slogg, Clem Gretter (1941 to 1949), Carl Dorese, Bob Clarke (1943 and 1944), Stan Randall, Paul Frehm (1938–1978), who became the panel’s full-time artist in 1949; and his brother Walter Frehm (1948–1989).
Ripley’s ideas and legacy live on in Ripley Entertainment, a company bearing his name and owned since 1985 by the Jim Pattison Group, Canada’s 3rd-largest privately held company. Ripley Entertainment airs national television shows, features publications of oddities, and has holdings in a variety of public attractions, including Ripley’s Aquarium, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museums, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, Ripley’s Mini-Golf and Arcade, Ripley’s Moving Theater, Ripley’s Sightseeing Trains, Great Wolf Lodge overlooking Niagara Falls, Guinness World Records Attractions, and Louis Tussaud’s wax Museums.
1890 Born in Santa Rosa, California
- 1901 Receives his formal education
- 1906 Becomes a semi-pro in baseball and sells first cartoon to Life
- 1908 Quits baseball briefly to support mother
- 1909 Moves from the San Francisco Bulletin to the San Francisco Chronicle
- 1912 Creates his last drawing for the San Francisco Chronicle and moves to New York that winter
- 1913 On January 2, writes his first comic for the New York Globe and tries out for the New York Giants, but an injury ends his baseball hopes
- 1914 Takes his first trip to Europe
- 1918 On December 19, publishes Champs and Chumps in the New York Globe
- 1919 Marries Beatrice Roberts
- 1920 Takes his first solo trip to Europe to cover the Olympics, held in Antwerp, Belgium
- 1922 On December 3, takes first trip around the world; writes in installments in his travel journal
- 1923 On April 7, returns to the U.S. and hires researcher and linguist Norbert Pearlroth; the Globe ceases publication and the series moves to the New York Evening News
- 1925 Writes travel journal, handball guide
- 1926 Becomes New York handball champion and writes book on boxing score; divorces Beatrice Roberts after being separated for some time.
- 1929 On July 9, William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate features Believe It or Not! in seventeen papers worldwide
King Features Syndicate,
a print syndication company owned by The Hearst Corporation, distributes about 150 comic strips, newspaper columns, editorial cartoons, puzzles and games to nearly 5000 newspapers worldwide. King Features Syndicate is a unit of Hearst Holdings, Inc., which combines the Hearst Corporation’s cable network partnerships, television programming and distribution activities and syndication companies. King Features’ affiliate syndicates are North America Syndicate and Cowles Syndicate. Each week, Reed Brennan Media Associates, a unit of the Hearst Corporation, edits and distributes more than 200 features for King Features.
was an American newspaper publisher who built the nation’s largest newspaper chain and whose methods profoundly influenced American journalism. Hearst entered the publishing business in 1887 after taking control of The San Francisco Examiner from his father. Moving to New York City, he acquired The New York Journal and engaged in a bitter circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World that led to the creation of yellow journalism—sensationalized stories of dubious veracity. Acquiring more newspapers, Hearst created a chain that numbered nearly 30 papers in major American cities at its peak. He later expanded to magazines, creating the largest newspaper and magazine business in the world.
He was twice elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, and ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York City in 1905 and 1909, for Governor of New York in 1906, and for Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1910. Nonetheless, through his newspapers and magazines, he exercised enormous political influence, and was sometimes blamed for pushing public opinion with his yellow journalism type of reporting in the United States into a war with Spain in 1898.
His life story was the main inspiration for the development of the lead character in Orson Welles‘s film Citizen Kane. His mansion, Hearst Castle, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean near San Simeon, California, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, was donated by the Hearst Corporation to the state of California in 1957, and is now a State Historical Monument and a National Historic Landmark, open for public tours. Hearst formally named the estate La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Slope”), but he usually just called it “the r
- 1930 Begins an eighteen-year run on radio and a nineteen-year association with show producer Doug Storer; Hearst funds Ripley’s travels around the world, where Ripley records live radio shows from underwater, the sky, caves, snake pits and foreign countries
- 1931 Releases movie shorts for Vitaphone, second book of Believe it or Not!
- Vitaphone was a sound film system used for feature films and nearly 1,000 short subjects made by Warner Bros. and its sister studio First National from 1926 to 1931. Vitaphone was the last major analog sound-on-disc system and the only one which was widely used and commercially successful. The soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but issued separately on phonograph records. The discs, recorded at 33 1/3 rpm (a speed first used for this system) and typically 16 inches in diameter, would be played on a turntable physically coupled to the projector motor while the film was being projected. Many early talkies, such as The Jazz Singer (1927), used the Vitaphone system. The name “Vitaphone” derived from the Latin and Greek words, respectively, for “living” and “sound”.
- The “Vitaphone” trademark was later associated with cartoons and other short subjects that had optical soundtracks and did not use discs.
- 1932 Takes trip to the Far East
The Far East is an English term (with equivalents in various other languages of Europe and Asia, Chinese 遠東 yuǎn dōng literally translating to “far east“) mostly describing East Asia (including the Russian Far East) and Southeast Asia, with South Asia sometimes also included for economic and cultural reasons.
The term came into use in European geopolitical discourse in the 12th century, denoting the Far East as the “farthest” of the three “easts”, beyond the Near East and the Middle East. For the same reason, Chinese people in the 19th and early 20th centuries called Western countries “Tàixī (泰西)”—i.e. anything further west than the Arab world. The term is less commonly used than in the past as it allegedly connotes the “orientalism” of the 19th century more explicitly than East Asia. Since the 1960s, terms like East Asia and the Orient have become increasingly common. East Asia remains the most common media term for the region today.[3
- 1933 First Odditorium opens in Chicago
- 1934 Does the first radio show broadcast simultaneously around the world and purchases 28-room home in Mamaroneck, New York
- 1935 Odditorium opens in San Diego
- 1936 Odditorium opens in Dallas
- 1937 Odditorium opens in Cleveland; Peanuts creator Charles Schulz’s first published drawing appears in Believe it or Not!
- 1939 Odditoriums open in San Francisco and New York City; Ripley receives honorary degree from Dartmouth College
- 1940 Purchases a 13-room Manhattan apartment; receives two more honorary degrees; number of foreign countries visited through funding by Hearst reaches 201
- 1945 Stops foreign travel to do World War II charity work
- 1946 Purchases a Chinese junk, the Mon Lei (万里)
- 1947 Purchases third home, at High Mount, Florida
- 1948 Radio program ends; the 30th anniversary of Believe it or Not! is celebrated at a New York costume party
- 1949 Ripley dies of a heart attack on May 27 in New York City, New York, shortly after thirteenth telecast of first television show and is buried in Santa Rosa; auction of his estate is held; estate is purchased by John Arthur.
Historic Time Line of a Company Built from One Single Cartoon in 1918
1890 – Robert Leroy Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Christmas Day.
1893 – Birth of sister Ethel.
1904 – Birth of brother Doug.
1906 – Played semi-professional baseball in Santa Rosa and sold his first artwork locally.
1908 – Robert Ripley quit school before graduating in order to support his widowed mother; made first major sale of a cartoon, “The Village Belles are Wringing,” to LIFE Magazine.
1909 – Joined the staff of the San Francisco Bulletin, then moved over to the San Francisco Chronicle when the rumor came out that he was about to get fired from the Chronicle.
1912 – August 28, Ripley’s last drawing for the Chronicle, moved to New York that winter.
1913 – January 2, landed a job and drew first cartoon for the New York Globe; later in the spring he tried out for the New York Giants, made the team, but got injured in his first game, ending his dreams of a baseball career.
1914 – Took his first trip abroad to Belgium and France.
1918 – December 19, published “Champs and Chumps” cartoon in New York Globe, long regarded as the first Believe It or Not! cartoon; moved into the New York Athletic Club.
1919 – October 16, the first cartoon with the Believe It or Not! headline was published; married Beatrice Roberts on October 21 but separated three months later.
1920 – Took his second trip to Europe (his first solo excursion) to cover the Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
1922 – December 3, embarked on his first around the world trip and returned on April 7, 1923; published his travel journal in installment form.
1923 – April 13, divorce from Beatrice was finalized; hired researcher/linguist Norbert Pearlroth as researcher; New York Globe newspaper closed down and Ripley moved to The New York Post.
1923-1929 – While drawing Believe It or Not! for The New York Post, the cartoon was syndicated by Associated Newspapers.
1925 – Took trip to South America, published his travel journal; published a handball guide.
1926 – Became the New York City handball champion representing the New York Athletic Club; published “Boxing Score,” a book on boxing.
1929 – July 9, he joined W. R. Hearst’s King Features Syndicate and the Believe It or Not! cartoon went from being published in 17 papers to world-wide distribution; first Believe It or Not! book was published.
1930 – Began his 14-year run on radio and his 19-year association with radio show promoter Doug Storer (future president of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!); Hearst funded Ripley’s wanderlust, starting a decade of world travel which culminated in Ripley visiting 201 countries by 1940; developed the concept of on-location live radio broadcasts throughout the decade, which became the Ripley radio show trademark with shows broadcast from underwater, in the sky, in caves in snake pits and from foreign countries.
1931 – Created movie shorts for Vitaphone Pictures, later owned by RKO; published his second Believe It or Not! book.
1932 – Took lengthy trip to the Orient; the first, biggest and most successful national Believe It or Not! contest was held.
1933 – July, opened his first Odditorium in Chicago, Ill. at the World’s Fair. It operated for the length of the fair.
1934 – Broadcast the first radio program heard simultaneously around the world; purchased a 28-room home on an island in Long Island Sound, off the shore from Mamaroneck, N.Y. and named it BION (Believe It or Not!) Island.
1935 – Opened odditorium at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego, Calif. It operated for the length of the fair.
1936 – Opened odditorium at The Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas, Texas that operated for the length of the fair; in a national poll of newspaper readers Ripley was voted the most popular man in America, Roosevelt came in second.
1937 – Charles Schulz’s first ever-published drawing, a sketch of a cute little dog that would later become famous as “Snoopy,” appeared in the Believe It or Not! cartoon panel of Feb. 22; opened odditorium at The Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland that operated for the length of the fair.
1939 – Opened odditorium at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco that operated for the length of the fair; opened odditorium in New York City on Times Square; received Honorary Degree from Dartmouth College.
1940 – Closed Times Square odditorium when invited to move exhibits to the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows in Queens; purchased his second home, a Manhattan studio apartment with 13 rooms; received two more honorary degrees.
1940-45 – Ceased all foreign travel and concentrated on “Seeing America First,” a theme of his radio shows during that time; was busy with World War II charity work, including a Madison Square Gardens baseball game featuring Babe Ruth.
1946 – Purchased his Chinese junk, the Mon Lei.
1947 – Purchased his third home in Hi Mount, Florida.
1948 – Created a TV show pilot; took last foreign trip to the Orient and Hawaii; celebrated 30th anniversary of Believe It or Not! with an elaborate costume party at Toot Shor’s famous nightclub in NYC.
1949 – Starred in his first TV series; died on May 27 from heart failure after collapsing on the set of his weekly television show, live on air while interviewing a man about the military custom of playing Taps at funerals. It was Ripley’s 13th TV show.
1949 – Public auction of the Ripley estate was held; exhibits and artifacts were purchased by circus impresario John Arthur; long time friend and radio producer Doug Storer teamed up with Ripley’s brother Doug Ripley to take over the publication of the Ripley Believe It or Not! cartoon and books; Paul Frehm became the Ripley cartoon artist.
1950 – December 9 – John Arthur opened the first permanent Believe It or Not! museum in St. Augustine, which still operates in its original location, Warden’s Castle.
1950s – John Arthur opened a NYC odditorium on Times Square in 1957 where it operated until 1966; several traveling trailer shows toured the country; rights to Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks acquired for Canada and a few years later for the U.S. and the rest of the world.
1957 – Doug Ripley sold all family interest in the company to Doug Storer who joined with John Arthur to bring both exhibits and publishing back together into one company.
1960 – Doug Storer retired after a 30 year association with Ripley.
1963 – Alec Rigby, a Canadian, became a partner in the company and built the third Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Still in operation, it is located in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.
1966 – The company opened a Believe It or Not! museum in San Francisco, which is still in operation.
1968 – Believe It or Not! museum opened in Chicago. It closed in 1986; publication of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon took place in December.
1969 – Alec Rigby became sole owner of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and moved the company headquarters from New York City to Toronto, Canada.
1970-76 – Several Ripley museums opened, including Gatlinburg, Tenn. and Myrtle Beach, S.C.; the first overseas facility opened in Blackpool, England in 1972. It closed in 1976.
1972 – Santa Rosa honored Ripley with a city run memorial in “The Church of One Tree” which closed in 1998.
1973 – Robert Masterson, the future president of Ripley Entertainment was hired to work at the San Francisco museum.
1976 – Head Ripley researcher Norbert Pearlroth retired after 53 years of service.
1978 – Paul Frehm retired as Ripley cartoonist, replaced by his brother Walter Frehm.
1980-1985 – Ripley owner Alec Rigby turned the operation of the company over to John Withers; 1980-1984, successful national television show, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! starring Jack Palance was broadcast.
1985 – January, the company was purchased from Alec Rigby by Canadian entrepreneur Jim Pattison of Vancouver; October 1, the Las Vegas Believe It or Not! opened as the first franchised Ripley museum.
1988 – Ripley’s Believe It or Not opened in Surfer’s Paradise, Australia as a franchise and as the first Asian museum. It was later acquired by Ripley Entertainment Inc. It shut down temporarily in 2007 and is set to reopen in December 2009 in a new building.
1989 – John Withers retired as company president of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and Bob Masterson took over that position; Walter Frehm retired as artist and was replaced by Don Wimmer in January 1990; Ripley’s left King Features Syndicate after 60 years and moved to United Media which still syndicates the cartoon to more than 200 newspapers worldwide.
1990-93 – Several franchised museums, domestic and foreign, including Orlando and Korea opened; new museum opened in Blackpool, England.
1991 – The first Ripley’s Moving Theater opened in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
1992 – Ripley’s Moving Theaters opened in Niagara Falls, Canada and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
1993 – Ripley Entertainment Inc. headquarters moved to Orlando, Fla. from Toronto; 75th Anniversary of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon was celebrated; 90-minute television documentary, “The Life and Times of Robert Ripley” was broadcast on TBS network.
1993-97 – Asian expansion took place with openings of museums in Thailand, Korea, Jakarta and Hong Kong.
1996 – Guinness World Records Museum franchise rights were acquired.
1997 – The first Ripley Aquarium opened in Myrtle Beach, S.C. By 2007, more than 10 million guests had visited the aquarium, which is still the state’s most attended paid attraction.
1999 – First Ripley Haunted Adventure in Gatlinburg, Tenn. opened as a year-round, multi-million dollar haunted house with live actors.
2000 – The first Guinness World Record Experience in Orlando opened. It closed in 2002; Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies opened in Gatlinburg, Tenn.; new television show starring Dean Cain premiered. Eighty-eight shows ran over four seasons with the last shown in 2003 before going into successful world-wide syndication.
2001- Ripley’s three Moving Theaters were converted to become 3-D presentations.
2002 – Museums in Genting Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, and Malaysia opened; second Haunted Adventure was opened in Myrtle Beach; Davey Crockett Mini-Golf, the company’s first venture into miniature golf opened in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
2003 – New museums opened in Key West, Fla. and New Orleans, La.; third Haunted Adventure opened in San Antonio.
2004 – In January, Ripley Entertainment Inc. acquired two of its franchised Believe It or Not! museums and two Louis Tussaud’s wax museums from Classic Attractions in San Antonio and Grand Prairie, Texas; St Augustine Sightseeing trains were acquired; Ripley Publishing company was launched with successful the New York Times best seller, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!; Ripley cartoonist Don Wimmer retired and was replaced by John Graziano, becoming only the fifth artist to ever draw the Ripley cartoon.
2004 – Ripley Entertainment Inc. moved its corporate office to a new location in Orlando, Fla., combining the art department, the exhibit warehouse and administrative offices under one roof for the first time in the company’s history.
2005 – Ripley’s Old MacDonald’s Farm Mini-Golf and Super Fun Zone opened in Sevierville, Tenn.; new Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks opened in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, replacing an earlier waxworks that had operated for nearly 40 years; Ripley’s Believe It or Not! opened in Kuwait as the company’s first venture in the Middle East.
2006 – Believe It or Not museums opened in Williamsburg, Va. and Panama City Beach, Fla.; April, Great Wolf Lodge Water Park Resort in Niagara Falls, Canada opened as Ripley’s first venture into the hospitality industry. The wholly-owned Ripley lodge is, to date, the single largest Ripley investment, encompassing 406 hotel suites and 103,000 square feet of indoor water park fun!
2007 – June, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum made a triumphant return to New York City’s Times Square after an absence of 35 years; Ripley’s first Mirror Maze attraction opened in Grand Prairie, Texas.
2008 – January 1, Bob Masterson named chairman of Ripley Entertainment Inc. and Jim Pattison Jr. takes over as president.
2008 – Ripley’s entered India for the first time, opening a Believe It or Not!, a Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze and a Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks, in Bangalore; May, a new Ripley’s Believe It or Not! odditorium replaced the 20-year old museum in San Antonio, Texas, across from the Alamo; August, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and a Marvelous Mirror Maze opened in London, England at One Piccadilly Circus; Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Mazes opened in Gatlinburg, Tenn. and Myrtle Beach, S.C.; August 1 – 3, World famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids performed for the first time outside of their home waters in Florida in 61 years. Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach hosted the finned beauties for nine shows.
2009 – January, Ripley’s Impossible LaseRace opened at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum in Grand Prairie, Texas; February, “Babies” exhibit opens at Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach, S.C. for the remainder of 2009; February, “Lethal Weapons” exhibit opens at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tenn. for the remainder of 2009; February 28, 23 sword swallowers celebrate International Sword Swallowers Awareness Day at 8 Believe It or Not! Museums – New York City, London, Gatlinburg, Hollywood, Ocean City, Atlantic City, Niagara Falls, Canada and Orlando.
2009 – April 10, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum in Buena Park, Calif. closes after 20 years; May 1-3, Weeki Wachee Mermaids perform 9 shows at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
2009 – Ripley opens new LaseRace at New York City’s Believe It or Not! odditorium; Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks opens in Pattaya, Thailand; Ripley Radio – An On-Demand Oddcast, premieres in September marking the first time since 1947 that the Believe It or Not! brand had a presence on radio; Ripley’s Believe It or Not! opens in Veracruz, Mexico in December.
2010 – In January, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! re-opens in Surfers Paradise, South Queensland, Australia following a one and a half year closure for rebuilding of a totally new show; Lethal Weapons exhibit opens in Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach for remainder of 2010.
2010 – Ripley Entertainment Inc. purchases two of its successful franchises: Orlando, Fla., and Branson, Mo. in January; Ripley’s Penguin Playhouse opens at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tenn. in March; Ripley Entertainment Inc. purchases its two Copenhagen franchises, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the Guinness World Records Museum, along with two stand alone attractions – The Mystic Exploratorie and the Hans Christian Andersen’s Wonderful World in April.
2010 – Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze & Candy Factory and Ripley’s LaseRace opens in Ocean City, Md., on May 28. In early June, Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze & Candy Store opens in El Paso, marking Ripley Entertainment Inc.’s first foray into that city.
2010 – Following a six-month, $5 million renovation, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in San Francisco, Calif., opens on June 30, with its big grand re-opening party being held on July 26. In addition to the major renovation that resulted in nearly 90% of the exhibits being replaced, the company opens a Marvelous Mirror Maze & Candy and Toy Factory as part of the attraction.
2010 – The Weeki Wachee Mermaids perform 12 shows at each of the Ripley Aquariums. They return to Myrtle Beach for the third year, July 23-25; and to Gatlinburg for the second season, August 6-8.
2010 – In its first outing as a trade show exhibitor since 1999, Ripley Entertainment wins the “Image Award” for best booth at the Nov. 16-19 Attractions Expo of the International Assn. of Amusement Parks & Attractions (IAAPA) held in Orlando. At IAAPA, Ripley unveils new Believe It or Not! franchise opportunity, a new attractions concept for Guinness World Records, and a new wax figure of Erik Sprague, the Lizardman.
2010 – In December, Ripley’s Aquarium of The Smokies celebrates its 10th anniversary and Ripley Entertainment celebrates its 40th, in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The new franchised Ripley’s Believe It or Not! opens on Jeju Island, South Korea on Christmas Eve Day, December 24.
2011 – Following a successful three-year world tour, the two Ripley’s Fertility Statues are placed on permanent disply at the Orlando Believe It or Not! Odditorium. It was announced in February that Ripley Entertainment Inc. and Simon & Schuster, Inc. reached a sales and distribution agreement for Ripley’s large annual book to take effect in April. On February 26, more than 30 sword swallowers “drop” swords at 10 Believe It or Not! locations to celebrate the fifth annual Ripley’s sponsored World Sword Swallower’s Day.
2011- iSword, Ripley’s first-ever app, is released for the iPad and the iPhone in July. The oldest boxer to ever win a world championship, Bernard Hopkins spends two days in the Ripley art department having a wax figure created in July. The statue is presented at pre-fight activities in October prior to Hopkins defense of his title. The fight, officially named “Believe It or Not!: Bernard Hopkins Vs. Chad Dawson,” brings huge attention to the Ripley brand. Ripley’s acquires 97 pieces of the world’s largest collection of micro-sculptures by famed British artist Willard Wigan.
2011 – On July 8, Ripley Entertainment purchases its Key West Believe It or Not! Odditorium. On August, 17, plans to build Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada are officially announced at at press conference in Toronto. The $130 million family attraction will be built at the base of the CN Tower and is set to open in Summer 2013. On September 13, the eighth book in its new annual series, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Strikingly True,” is released. A press conference at Ripley’s art department on September 14, features Maria Jose Christerna, known as the Mexican Vampire Woman, as she prepares to have a wax figure created of herself.
2011 – Oct. 10, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! announces licensing agreement with American Gaming Systems to develop casino games. “Ripley’s Scream in the Dark” darkride opens at the Believe It or Not! in Pattaya, Thailand on October 29. All North American Believe It or Not! Odditoriums promote a nationwide “Gimme Five Food Drive” for Nov. 6-10. All who donate five non-perishable food items get into Odditoriums or $5. Seven tons of food is collected.
2012 – Ripley’s Believe It or Not! presents The Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show at The Ohio State University on January 12. “Perfect Predators: SHARKS,” opens at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Hollywood re-opens after major renovation on January 10. Boxer Bernard Hopkins is presented a personal wax figure for his trophy room during his birthday party in Philadelphia on January 17.
2012 – The Swarovski-covered Mini-Cooper car is lifted by crane out of the London Believe It or Not! Odditorium early in the morning of February 4 through a hole in the fifth floor roof. A Ferrari made of yarn was lifted back in to replace the Mini-Cooper that will be the centerpiece attraction at the new Baltimore Odditorium. On February 13, more than 1,000 people, from seven countries and 36 states gather at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! St. Augustine to renew their wedding vows. More than 30 sword swallowers gather at 12 Believe It or Not! Odditoriums to celebrate World Sword Swallower’s Day on February 25. “Dinosaurs – When Giants Ruled,” opens on March 30 at Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach.
2012- Robert Ripley is inducted into the Coney Island Sideshow Hall of Fame at Coney Island USA on April 13. Ripley Entertainment Inc. acquires the Panama City Beach, Fla. Believe It or Not! Odditorium and 3-D Theater at Panama from its franchisee on April 20. To officially announce the new Baltimore Believe It or Not! Odditorium, set to open in June, daredevil Nik Wallenda walks across the Baltimore Harbor on May 9, attracting 10,000 viewers lining the harbor and countless millions on live TV coverage.
2012 – Sultan Kosen, the world’s tallest man, helps Ripley launch its new Guinness World Records Attraction concept during the IAAPA Asian Expo in Hong Kong on June 5. Following a two-week soft opening, the Baltimore Believe It or Not! Odditorium officially opens on June 26 with a gala party. Ripley’s presents the “Summer Side Show” at Quassy Amusement Park for two weeks starting on July 9. Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach welcomes its 15th million visitor on July 25.
2012 – Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies welcomes its 15th million visitor on August 7. Ripley’s newest annual ”Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Download the Weird,” goes on sale September 11 and incorporates the latest in technology, allowing the Oddscan app to bring book items to life via video. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Orlando celebrates it’s 20th anniversary and Halloween with the first-ever Oddtoberfest on October 6. Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Times Square wins “Franchise of the Year” award from Ripley Entertainment on October 24.
2012 – Robert Masterson, who served as Ripley president for 20 years (1989-2009) and spent 36 years total with the company (1973-2009), is inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Assn. of Amusement Parks & Attractions (IAAPA) during its annual convention in Orlando on November 13.
<NYT_HEADLINE type=” ” version=”1.0″>O, Believers, Prepare to Be Amazed!
The Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditorium, which opened on 42nd Street in Manhattan, is “so entertaining and provocative that it’s worth special attention,” Edward Rothstein writes. More Photos >
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If you are tempted to say, “Now I’ve seen everything,” believe it or not, you haven’t, because you have yet to see a miniature sculpture of Babe Ruth created from used chewing gum (“ABC Sculpture” it’s called); shrunken heads of an infant, toddler and boy executed by a barbaric Ecuadorean tribe (“No Child Left Behind”); a four-legged chicken bred by a Romanian farmer to produce more drumsticks (“All Fowled Up”); and a fossilized walrus penis used in tribal warfare (“Male Sex Club”).
By the time you pass through all 17,000 square feet of this attraction — museum is too solemn a word — you still won’t be able to say, “Now I’ve seen everything” because (as a character in the film “Team America” points out) you won’t have seen a man eating his own head. But you will have been amazed at many things, and perhaps even cry aloud a few times, asserting how much easier it would be to choose the second alternative in this franchise’s title than the first. This feeling is particularly intense when you are looking at something real rather than a replica — a shrunken head instead of the ugliest woman, an instrument of medieval torture instead of a photograph of a mutant.
And yes, along with the fascination comes a kind of unease, a sense that one is perversely peeping at a natural world immodestly stripped of its decorousness, or gazing luridly at its oddest human inhabitants. Circuses used to have freak shows in which (one cringes to recall) malformed, grotesque and exotic humanity was paraded before paying crowds. The freakish breaks all rules; it seems beyond belief because it fails to make any sense; it upsets comforting notions. The freakish is the ultimate avant-garde, a finger in the eye of the buttoned-up bourgeois vision of ordered life, like a tattoo parlor in the midst of a holistic spa.
The voyeuristic sense of gaining entry to a forbidden, exotic and at times unsettling realm is something Ripley’s shares with a neighboring attraction on 42nd Street: Madame Tussauds. Waxworks, since their origins in the 18th century, have offered a similar window into the world of exceptions, violations, disruptions. Royalty, celebrity and criminality were the great wax subjects. Madame Tussaud (who gave the attraction its now-jettisoned apostrophe) even made wax models from guillotined heads during the Reign of Terror. Waxworks traditionally include a chamber of horrors, even this one, which is more haunted by the personas of J. Lo and Britney than anybody resembling Jack the Ripper. But more about Madame and her institution a little later.
Despite some flaws (and some editing errors in the labels), the new Ripley’s is so entertaining and provocative that it’s worth special attention. Ripley’s hasn’t had a presence in New York since it abandoned Times Square in 1972, when the neighborhood started to become a bit too much like the shadowy world of extravagant desire and freakishness portrayed within. Now, the Odditorium can more comfortably be the exception to the surroundings rather than an extension of it.
But it is still intent on channeling the cartoonist, columnist and amateur anthropologist Robert LeRoy Ripley, whom newspaper readers in 1936 named the most popular man in America. His life could be recounted in the style he perfected for his “Believe It or Not!” feature:
¶Ripley, who came to New York from San Francisco, tried out for the Giants in 1914 and was accepted! But he broke his pitching arm the very first game he played.
¶Ripley began his cartooning career chronicling sports statistics and records, but he got more mileage from noting bizarre achievements! One Toronto man he cited “ran 100 yards backwards in 14 seconds.”
¶Ripley’s feature became so successful that he traveled around the world adding to his collections from exotic locales. But he was terrified of the telephone!
¶For all his tireless energy, Ripley, in 1949 at the age of 55, suffered a fatal heart attack during a live broadcast of his television show … a show about the playing of taps at military funerals!
This was the man who, wearing a pith helmet, knickers and argyle socks, can be seen in videos at the Odditorium gleefully kicking up his heels with an African tribal dancer, or loading camels with memorabilia. His personal collections of beer steins, shrunken heads, tribal masks and “pranks of nature,” like a two-headed calf, are sampled here. They also form the foundation of the other Odditoriums now run by Ripley Entertainment, which continues to add to the oddities. The label style remains a cross between the Coney Island barker and the cultural anthropologist. We are told, for example, that not telling the truth was a capital offense in ancient China, and that violators were tied to a heated stove pipe. Ripley’s label reads: “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.”
O, Believers, Prepare to Be Amazed!// //
It might seem at first that Ripley, exploring the world just as its imperial empires were beginning to disintegrate and accumulating relics of premodern cultures, was condescending, mocking them with his exclamation points. But there is something refreshing about Ripley’s enthusiastic refusal to homogenize humanity’s extremes. And his gaze roamed across his own culture’s peculiarities too, treating them with the same amazement. Perhaps as a form of defense, the point is made explicit: Western viewers don’t have too much to feel superior about, at least here. While African women of the Sara tribe have stretched their lips out nine inches using clay discs, the modern American woman applies Botox with a hypodermic needle. While Padaung women of Burma stretch their necks with brass rings, Western women expand their breasts with silicone.
At any rate, the world is a strange place indeed, even if most of us don’t build a replica of the Spanish armada out of 250,000 matchsticks or find 20,179 four-leaf clovers, as two of Ripley’s contributors did.
If you need more convincing, simply walk a few steps east, to Madame Tussauds. At first there isn’t a hint of anything odd. The waxworks, which from its founder’s death in 1850 until 1970 was a purely British institution, has gone mass market. Tussauds is now part of Merlin Entertainments Group, with attractions in Amsterdam, London, New York, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Shanghai; in October one will open in Washington. And in the New York version, which claims 850,000 visitors a year, a huge model of the Hulk welcomes you, an “American Idol” room is a mini-theater, Johnny Depp promotes “Pirates of the Caribbean” and an overwrought presentation of Superman guides you to the gift shop. A good number of exhibitions like these are promotional partnerships with other entertainment companies.
So is this just a matter of seeing life-size versions of images already too much with us (and some far too dated as well)? Is this why up to $125,000 and six months of labor are spent on each wax reproduction, some of which also bear too vague a resemblance to the familiar images we know so well? But there is something else here too, even if in its current incarnation it all seems a bit denatured.
Until recently wax figures at Tussauds were mostly shown within tableaus, posed in historical dioramas, roped off from viewers. When I saw the Tussauds in London, decades ago, figures from history gathered for momentous events. When Madame Tussaud trained in 18th-century Paris, waxworks even served as a kind of molten ticker tape, their ever-changing scenes chronicling the French Revolution’s cataclysms.
But in the last generation the ropes have come down. The figures stand or sit among the visitors. They are touched, groped, posed with. They become part of environments: a Broadway opening-night party, a nightclub. One large gallery is reserved for serious celebrities and high achievers: Abe Lincoln, Gandhi, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, Bill Clinton and Albert Einstein literally rub shoulders with visiting schoolchildren and digital-camera-wielding tourists.
As in Ripley’s, history dissolves into sensation; here the thrill is celebrity. The close contact makes these figures seem familiar. They are placed on the same level as their visitors, who are even superior to them in lifelike qualities. But sometimes a wax figure looks out of those glass eyes with unusual intensity, or there is enough of a resemblance to remind the fleshy onlookers of something more mysterious in these curious figures, something existing beyond the wax.
Celebrity always involves a double move: an off-putting superiority felt through the intimacy of vulgar gossip. Here at Tussauds the figures are neither off-putting nor vulgar; they can neither be condescended to nor put on pedestals. Instead we find ourselves looking into fun-house mirrors and through odd lenses, that, believe it or not, disrupt the cool poise of celebrity and leave everything even stranger than it once was