ripleyComing to PBS’s American Experience tomorrow, Tuesday, January 6: RIPLEY: BELIEVE IT OR NOT

Cathleen O’Connell’s biography of the man behind the popular curiosity empire makes its broadcast debut tomorrow evening.

LeRoy Robert Ripley became one of the wealthiest men during the Great Depression when he transitioned from newspaper sports cartoonist to America’s guide to random factoids, faraway cultures, and curious oddities – or “curi-oddities,” as the man liked to call them. Starting through his newspaper column, his “Believe It or Not!” series of cartoons eventually spanned books, radio shows, film, and even early television – and that was just in his lifetime. After his death in 1949, the franchise continued, spawning a tourist-friendly museum chain on four continents. O’Connell’s watchable but workmanlike profile reveals how an athletic, buck-toothed young man from Santa Rosa CA built an entertainment empire and became an unlikely celebrity. His round the world explorations of remote in the search to uncover exotic subjects for his cartoon strip allowed readers to travel vicariously through his exploits at a time when international travel was a privilege of the very few, while newspaper contests allowed his fans to submit their own peculiar feats for a chance to be immortalized by Ripley in print and gain their pre-Warhol fifteen minutes of fame. O’Connell posits Ripley’s spotlighting of the odd and obscure as a precursor of sorts to YouTube, which seems like an unnecessary stretch, the point being sufficiently made that he found a way to popularize a palatable version of the carnival freak show, essentially, for general audiences via the various mass media available in his time. Most interesting here are excerpts from Ripley’s early forays into radio and television, all the more fascinating in showing how awkward he was at being a showman, despite his success.

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