In the ballroom of a Beverly Hills hotel, Canadian Edward Meyer points to a glass case that is set on a podium. It contains what seems to be a tiny doll head with a tuft of hair.
“That’s a genuine shrunken head from the 1920s,” he says.
The head looks like a plastic Troll, the kind your kid would pick up as a prize from Chuck E. Cheese. He then points to a silver object with a round hole and a blade beside it. It looks like a garden variety cigar slicer.
“That’s a New Guinea finger chopper. It’s for those who are widowed. You chop off your finger so people will know you’ve lost your husband. You wear the finger as a necklace.”
Meyer is not a modern day Hannibal Lecter. He is the vice-president of exhibits and archives for Orlando-based Ripley’s Believe It or Not! And nothing says Ripley’s like a shrunken head with a matching finger chopper.
On Tuesday, Jan. 6 at 9 p.m., the PBS series American Experience is showcasing the life of Robert Ripley, the cartoonist who rose to fame during the Great Depression by travelling the world and curating the strange by featuring it in his “Odditorium.”
Perhaps more astonishing for some is not that finger choppers exist, but that the company is Canadian-owned.
Ripley himself might have put it this way:
Believe it or not: Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is a Canadian company, purchased by Vancouver billionaire Jimmy Pattison for a reported $6 million in 1985. The headquarters were in Toronto with a head office on Yonge St. The offices have since moved to Orlando, but the company remains Canadian. Strange, but true!
While many fans know about the life of Walt Disney, Ripley’s life is more obscure. But it is equally interesting and worthy of more than the mere 60 minutes dedicated to him in this fascinating but brief documentary written, produced and directed by veteran documentary-maker Cathleen O’Connell. It just begs for a big screen treatment.
Born in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1890, Ripley was a skinny, bucktoothed kid who would become one of the richest men in the country.
He had a cartoon published in Life magazine when he was a teenager and eventually became a sports cartoonist in New York at the Globe And Commercial Advertiser. He created the popular “Believe it or Not!” cartoons at the Globe. Simon & Schuster published a Believe it or Not! book and Ripley had a syndicated column in Hearst newspapers. (The Toronto Star was the first foreign newspaper to carry the column in the 1930s.)
Ripley’s appeal was that he was part hayseed and part world traveller. He was a regular guy who spoke to Middle America. He would send back cartoons of his travels to India and China, which would be devoured by fans back in America. He was a blogger before blogs were invented.
And while newspapers and television today struggle to figure out their place in social media, Ripley was the first to figure out how to leverage different platforms in a major way.
Along with his columns and books, Ripley had a string of exhibit halls, and a radio and television show so that the audience could feel, touch, read and see the oddities he collected.
“Ripley was the first true multimedia mogul of the 20th century,” argues documentary producer Mark Samels.
His success gave him immense wealth, including raking in half a million dollars a year during the Depression. He lived in a 27-room mansion decorated with Chinese antiques, would frequently dress in Asian garments, and dated a string of actresses and models.
Still, he could also be intolerant.
“He was well travelled like your weird uncle would travel,” says historian Allan Holtz. “He could be the ugly American tourist who wouldn’t learn a few phrases of the language. He just spoke louder.”
Ripley died young, succumbing to a heart attack in 1949 at the age of 58.
The brand was eventually acquired by Pattison, the third richest man in Canada according to Forbes, with a net worth of $7 billion (U.S.).
Pattison grew the company, expanding it globally and moving into unexpected venues such as aquariums.
The Toronto Ripley’s Aquarium, for example, is one of the most successful attractions in the Ripley empire, with major lineups during the summer.
“Getting into the aquarium business may have seemed removed from what we were doing, but it is about entertainment and education, and appealing to tourists,” says Meyer. “We’re in the business of entertaining, so as long as the business does it in an educational way, we can capitalize on the name.”
The documentary meanwhile, may go some way to reviving the Ripley brand, which has been perceived as something of a second-rate Disney.
“He didn’t really ever disappear. He just fell off the radar,” says Meyer. “Most people don’t know that he was a real person. But just like there was a Walt Disney, there was a Robert Ripley. And he was just as interesting as anything in his exhibits.”