One of OTR's most curious oddities was a network series based upon a popular daily cartoon and the self-made man who created it. Much of what Robert L. Ripley told the public about himself was pure invention. He claimed various dates of birth, 1891, 1892, and finally settled on 1893, which appears on his tombstone. Actually he was born in December 1890, in Santa Rosa, California. His name was not Robert L. Ripley-it was Leroy Ripley. He started signing his cartoons "Bob" or "Robert" in 1913 while he was sports cartoonist for the New York Globe; management insisted that "Leroy" was not athletic enough. Ripley referred to his excellent education but in real life he was a high school drop-out. He usually passed himself off as a confirmed bachelor, conveniently forgetting his one brief marriage to beauty queen Beatrice Roberts. Ripley boasted of the 200 countries he'd visited but among his doubtful entries were: Garden of Eden, Channel Islands, Sicily, Tangier, and Sark. Finally, he implied that only he drew his daily cartoon, but he used several artists (including a 12 year old Charles Schulz, later of "Peanuts" fame) to assist him on this syndicated strip.
But for all his mis-information about himself, he tried to be scrupulously accurate in all the curiosities that appeared in his strip. "Rip", as he liked to be called, insisted on written proof for every item. But for most of his world-wide items, the "proof" was in a foreign language, and unless you could read 14 languages, as Ripley's ace researcher, Norbert Pealroth, did-you had to accept Rip's claims.
He is certainly the only man in history to begin his upward career as a combination baseball-pitcher-and-sports-cartoonist, who would later become a nationally syndicated writer and artist, world traveler, lecturer, best-selling author, radio performer, and millionaire whose estate would oversee a chain of museums and a syndicated TV series.
Ripley would be an unlikely candidate for success in any endeavor. This shy. stuttering, buck-toothed fellow wore such outlandish clothing that his friend, "Bugs" Baer, described Ripley's attire as resembling "a paint factory that got hit by lightning." But he achieved fame and prosperity beyond any logical expectation. His "Believe It Or Not" syndication was carried by over 300 newspapers in 33 countries with an estimated readership of 80 mil- lion.
Ripley's books, mostly reprints of data that appeared in cartoons, were best-sellers. He lectured to large audiences throughout the English speaking world, appeared in over two dozen short films, and was the star of his own radio show from 1930 to 1948. Ripley literally made, and spent, millions. Howver his physical condition, assailed by drinking binges and small strokes, deteriorated as he entered his fifties. In 1949, shortly after beginning his weekly TV show, he died of a heart attack. But even his final resting place acknowledged his love of oddities; he is buried in Santa Rosa, California in the Odd Fellows Cemetery.
So how did this humble teenaged boy, making $8 a week in 1909 as a sports artist for the San Francisco Bulletin, parlay his skills into earnings of over a half-million a year? One turning point occurred in 1918. when as an artist for the New York Globe, he was at a loss to fill his deadline for his allotted space so he just grabbed a few unusual items about sports and drew pictures of the winner of a backward race, a broadjump on ice, etc. The readership response was so favorable that the Globe had him repeat it on a weekly basis. Later Ripley would claim that he had christened the strip "Believe It Or Not" but subsequent research reflects that it was actually titled "Champs and Chumps" for the first year. The strip was a so-so success, and when the Globe folded in 1923. 'Believe It Or Not" and Ripley were picked up by the New York Evening News. For the next five years, Rip continued to draw "Believe It Or Not" which had since been expanded to all sorts of oddities, not just sporting ones. During that period, he also wrote three sports books (on handball, travel, and boxing) but their sales were quite modest. However in 1929, Simon and Schuster published his fourth book, "Believe It Or Not" and lightning finally struck! Although the book was merely a collection of the unusual facts, descriptions, and puzzles that had previously appeared in his cartoons, the volume was a runaway best-seller.
Certainly part of the successful launching of this book was due to the tremendous publicity generated by Ripley's item a few months earlier which claimed that Charles Lindbergh was the 67th man to make a non-stop flight over the Atlantic. Nearly 175,000 irate letters and telegrams poured into Ripley's Fr office, in defense of America's aviator hero. But Ripley prevailed. Unknown to most of the world, a two man British airplane made the Atlantic crossing in 1919. and that same year, an English dirigible flew it with a crew of 31 men. In 1924 a German dirigible repeated the Atlantic flight with its crew of 33.
The tremendous success of the 1929 book prompted William Randolph Hearst to sign Ripley for his syndicated King Features which paid Rip a handsome $ 100,000 a year. From that point, Ripley's fortunes escalated. Warner Brothers paid him $ 350,000 to make a series of short film features. And in April 1930, under the sponsorship of Colonial Beacon Oil Company, "Believe It Or Not" came to network radio.
This radio series would last until 1948, although it had several different names (Esso Hour, Bakers Broadcast, and Romance, Rhythm and Ripley) and various formats. The show, at different times, was on NBC, CBS, and Mutual and was either 15 or 30 minutes in length.
Approximately 25 transcriptions have survived to the present day and are in trading currency among OTR collectors. So, by listening to several shows spanning the years, one can hear Ripley slowly improve his microphone technique. In the early 30s, Rip was so nervous he frequently dropped his script or tripped over the microphone stand, and he tended to stutter and lose his place on the page. Doug Storer, who produced the program in those years, recalled how Ripley would have to down a belt of gin be fore he could face the live audience at his microphone.
But, by the 40s, Rip had lost most of his nervousness and even his stutter was disappearing. Of Course, the show changed over the years, with fewer items of the truly-weird and more emphasis on guests with real entertainment values. For example, a typical show in the mid-30s had an interview with a hapless survivor rendered nearly blind and deaf by a dynamite explosion, followed by a guest who spoke a total gibberish which he called Backward-English. Contrast that with a program from 1940 when half the show was devoted to a comedy routine by F. Chase Taylor, whose "Believe It Or Not" was the fact that he became Col. Stoopnagle by accident when he and Budd Hulick had to ad-lib for a half-hour when a network line failed in Buffalo.
For all its folksy, but strange, content and its unlikely host, "Believe It Or Not" was a popular radio series for almost 20 years. It had no trouble attracting sponsors and over two decades, they included: Royal Crown Cola, United Bakers of America, General Foods and Pall Mall Cigarettes.
To back up a moment, we can explore another phase of Ripley's success. In 1933 Rip got into the museum business by mounting a large collection of his unusual items into an exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair which he termed an "Odditorium." It was basically a collection of freaks: one man swallowed and regurgitated a live mouse, another man lifted weights attached to his eyelids, while a third one pounded nails into his nose. The money flowing into the ticket booth convinced Rip WILL to open an odditorium in other cities. Long after Ripley's death, the museums continue to pack 'em in; today there are 21 "odditoriums" located throughout the U.S., including ones in Hollywood, Key West, and Grand Prairie, Texas. There are overseas museums too, with one to soon open in Jakarata. Indonesia.
Ripley's radio program ended in 1948, chiefly because he had moved the show to the television studio, however that TV series ended in 1949 with his death. But television is still mining Ripley gold today; there is a syndicated "Believe It Or Not" program you can catch on cable TV. It starts with an old video clip of Ripley proclaiming the title and then switches to host, Jack Palance, assisted by his daughter, Holly Palance.
This syndicated series is sub-titled "The strange, the bizarre, the unexpected" and is filled with filmed oddities from around the world. Various episodes have included: mating practices of Peruvian beetles, a re-enactment of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud, the birth of a kangeroo, and a Filipino who plays music on wet leaves. Rip's old drawings are not neglected and two or three of them appear in each one-hour program, with Palance off-camera intoning the text. It's a safe bet that Ripley and his "Believe It Or Not" will always be with us in some form. Long after his OTR popularity has disappeared, he lives on, in his museums and his television cable shows.