Robert L. Ripley, Creator of "Believe it or Not!"

January 8, 2006

   He had two very different choices for careers: professional baseball or an artist. Robert L. Ripley chose baseball but after making his way up the ranks to semi-professional, he broke his arm.  Undeterred, he moved quickly to his second choice – cartooning. That twist of fate lead to the renowned "Ripley’s Believe It or Not!" and a fascinating life of world travel, fact-finding and fame.

    Robert Leroy Ripley was born in 1890 on Christmas Day in Santa Rosa, California. As a child, he was always a doodler and interested in sports, with dreams of being a big-league baseball player. Self-taught in art, his first drawing was published in Life Magazine in 1906 for the princely sum of $8. *(1) That same year, he was a semi-pro baseball pitcher, his big league goal almost in reach. Then, during his first game as a professional and with his dream about to come true, his arm was broken. Ripley’s baseball career was over.

    His arm may have been damaged but his drawing skill wasn’t. First, the San Francisco Bulletin hired Ripley as cartoonist for their sports section; he switched to the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after. In 1912, the young Ripley pulled up stakes, moved across the country and took a job cartooning for The New York Globe. On a slow news day in December 1918, the thoughtful cartoonist came up with the idea of detailed sports oddities. Sketching out several items in one panel, it was first titled “Champs and Chumps”. The editor did not like the title and changed it to the now familiar Believe It or Not!

    Gradually, Ripley changed the theme of the comic panel from sports items to include oddities, facts and weird happenings about everything under the sun. Ripley also used word puzzles, brain twisters and riddles as fillers and always made sure he could back up his “facts” one way or another.

    Believe It or Not! was an immediate success with fascinated readers. He received huge piles of fan mail and angry mail each week. “He never retracted a ‘fact’ and printed explanations went out with every panel. Some newspapers printed those as well, while others kept them on hand to refute angry readers,” noted Ron Goulart in his book, The Encyclopedia of American Comics. *(2)

   King Features Syndicate scooped up Believe It or Not! in 1929 for world-wide syndicated publication, earning Ripley a magnificent $100,000 a year for the panel alone. Before long, he was also earning income from participation in radio shows, lectures and museums. He used the success to travel the world, looking for “new and amazing facts” to put in the panel. Travelling somewhere in the world every year for 30 years, Ripley earned the title of “modern Marco Polo”, especially since he went to unseen, primitive areas of the Orient, China, India and Europe. Ripley was enamored with China and once said “If I could be reincarnated, I would return as a Chinese”. He brought home many strange items for his work, and he also collected many items for himself, filling his homes with treasures from around the world. But, “a colleague once said that 'the most curious object in the collection is probably Mr. Ripley himself.” *(3)

   The words “Believe It or Not” became common usage, such was the popularity of Ripley’s work. The panel was so well-enjoyed that it was reprinted in book form beginning in 1929. Ripley began radio broadcasts featuring Believe It or Not! and his travels in 1930, and would continue his radio presence for 18 years, occasionally broadcasting his oddities from unusual venues like snake pits or underwater. The radio show ended in 1948 to allow for the move to that new gizmo, television. (In 1948, according to Inventors.About.com, one million American homes had television sets.) Ripley toured widely, giving lectures and showing films of his travels and unusual findings to jam-packed delighted audiences.

Robert 1

   The first Odditorium opened in 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair. It attracted almost two million viewers. Permanent Odditoriums were built around the USA – now there are 29, in cities around the world and most featuring unique items not found in other Odditoriums.

    Television was the new frontier for Ripley and he began taping his own series in March 1949. While filming Episode 13, Ripley passed out and was taken to hospital. Sadly, he died on May 27th of a heart attack. Since the season was only half-completed, the taping was continued by host Robert St. John until the show ended in October, 1950. The television show was revived in 1982 with host Jack Palance (wonderful star of creepy movies), running until 1986. In 1999, Sony brought Ripley’s Believe It or Not! back to small-screen popularity with Dean Cain entertaining fans with the weird, unusual and unbelievable from the far corners of the world.

    The Ripley's Believe It or Not! comic panel continues to enchant readers under the United Media syndicate, now over 75 years in syndicated publication.  The present fascinating version is created by skilled cartoonist John Graziano.

    Ripley was known as a quirky man, a bachelor who dressed in colourful clothing, made lots of money and spent lots of money, and who overcame stuttering and shyness to become a beloved speaker on radio, television and in lecture halls. He received awards for his diverse work, such as an Honorary Degree from Darthmouth University and is known as the the first cartoonist to make a million dollars from his work. Married to a beauty queen named Beatrice Roberts in 1919, Ripley divorced in 1926 and never remarried. (Beatrice won Miss Manhattan in 1924 and Miss Greater New York in 1925.)

    After his death, Robert Leroy Ripley made his final trip back to Santa Rosa, California for burial. His ebullient spirit lives on through the Ripley Entertainment Company, carrying on Ripley’s life’s work of finding the strange and amazing. Enthralled audiences enjoy the thrills of the oddities in Ripley’s Odditoriums, Aquariums, Moving Theatres, Mini-golf and Haunted Adventures.

   Believe it or not…  Ripley had a large collection of cars, but never learned to drive.

   Believe it or not… the very talented Ripley drew all of his amazing cartoons upside down.

   Believe it or not… one of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz’ first cartoons appeared in a Ripley’s panel, a comic about how his real dog Sparky could eat sharp things like pins, razor blades and screws.

See the daily panel:
http://comics.com/comics/ripleys/index.html

Ripley’s main website:
http://www.ripleys.com/

Sources and more information about the charismatic Robert L. Ripley:
*(1) http://www.staugustine-ripleys.com/about/bio.php

*(2)The Encyclopedia of American Comics, 1897 to the Present, edited by Ron Goulart, Facts on File/Promised Land Productions 1990, Pages 26-27.

*(3) http://www.ripleysf.com/ripley/about/about.html

© Susanna McLeod 2006
TheCartoonists.ca