Once upon a time in Japan there lived a sculptor known only as Mafakichi. One day, Mafakichi discovered he was dying of tuberculosis and turned his thoughts to what he might bequeath to the woman he loved. He decided to do a fullsized sculpture of himself—and the result, after months of labor, not only bore a striking resemblance to its creator, but the thousands of pieces of wood were so perfectly fitted that the joints were undetectable. Finally, Mafakichi added some personal touches. He cut off his hair and stuck it on the statue’s head. He pulled out his fingernails and applied them to the carved fingers. He pulled out his teeth and embedded them in the wooden gums. Then, two things went wrong. Mafakichi’s girlfriend didn’t want the statue—and he got better, spending the rest of his life eating soft foods and harboring a certain resentment.
Mafakichi’s hairy handiwork stands in a Buena Park, Calif., museum—one of 21 owned or franchised by Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, the world’s most famous freak show and, believe it or not, the world’s longest continuously running (75 years) syndicated newspaper cartoon. (“Dainty Doris, a 1,300-lb. Holstein cow in King Township, Ont., can ski downhill!”) In the 1920s and 1930s, before TV stripped the physical world of its mystery, Californian Robert LeRoy Ripley’s pith-helmeted quest for the bizarre made him an international celebrity. He died in New York City in 1949, after suffering a heart attack while filming a TV series’ 13th episode—on death rituals. Since 1985, the company has been owned by Vancouver businessman Jimmy Pattison, and this year it is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ripley’s birth at a time when the world has found new ways to feed its fascination with the weird, warped and wonderful.
Ripley’s is a strange anachronism in itself. Its cartoons are still syndicated in 179 newspapers in 42 countries, and its exhibits are on display in museums from Seoul to Copenhagen—including one in Niagara Falls, Ont., and another in Cavendish, P.E.I. The challenge for Ripley’s is how to persuade the public to view Amazonian shrunken heads and twoheaded calves when it is already overdosing on more sensational offerings from other media. There is the computer-generated science fiction of movies and TV. There are supermarket tabloids shouting:
“New NASA photo proves humans lived on Mars!” And there are syndicated talk shows that trot out oddballs live and in color: on a Sally Jessy Raphaël program, a circus performer lifted bricks suspended from chains attached to his nipples. Oprah and Geraldo and the rest also quench the public’s thirst for another sort of exhibitionism—not physical, but emotional—airing a parade of incestuous lovers, cultists, Peeping Toms and porn stars.
Against such lurid competition, Ripley’s fights on its own terms. “The business we’re in is primarily tourist attractions,” says Ripley’s president Robert Masterson, 46, a Chicago-born Vietnam veteran. “We don’t use that baby-in-the-bottle stuff because people are more sensitive now than they were in the 1930s. I don’t think we use human deformities at all. We concentrate on things like the forger who went to prison and spent 20 years trying to carve the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, failed eight times and on the ninth time succeeded and then died. We iw do some things in wax figures, like the man Ripley met who had a horn in his head, but we don’t do anything that says, ‘Here’s the human peanut bom with no arms and legs and can tie his shoes with his teeth.’ ” Pattison, whose 46 enterprises include everything from car-leasing to electrical signs, will not say exactly how well Ripley’s is doing, but he does note that the 21 museums are 14 more than the outfit had when he took over. The company, whose head office resided quietly in Toronto for the past 24 years, moved last month to Orlando, Fla.— closer to more Ripley’s attractions. “The museums are the heart of the company,” says Pattison, 64. Did he buy the business because of fond childhood memories of Ripley’s? “No, I just used to read the cartoons. But, you know, everywhere you go you mn into somebody saying, ‘Believe it or not’—it’s become part of the language.”
In the interminable search for the fascinating but inoffensive, Ripley’s globally foraging agents add as many as 1,200 items a year to a warehouse stockpile in St. Augustine, Fla. For John Turner, who lives in the village of Heddonon-the-Wall in northern England, foraging is a full-time job. Ex-Royal Marine Commando and ex-coal miner, Turner, 64, is Ripley’s curator of artifacts. “This week, I bought a Beijing rickshaw from the 1930s,” he said. “We suspect Ripley may have ridden in it. I bought three hats that Naga Amazon warriors wear. They make these hats from coconut fibres and human hair. I also bought a palm tree root in the shape of a monster’s head.”
But collecting for Ripley’s has a downside. “Once I shipped over to Jacksonville some full-sized animals—elephants, camels, gorillas—made from straw and chicken wire,” Turner said. “Amazing they were. But the U.S. department of agriculture made us bum them because they contained seeds. That was very disappointing.” Last year, Turner travelled 30,000 km in Britain alone, and the hunt goes on. “People still like nostalgic entertainment, they like the unbelievable things.”
At the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in Niagara
WORLD’S BIGGEST BROOM-, CARROT HAND (BELOW): BELIEVE IT OR NOT HAS BECOME PART OF THE LANGUAGE' Falls, 1,100 people pay $7 ($3.40 for kids) for a taste of that nostalgic entertainment on an average summer day. Most of the exhibits are in glass-fronted, illuminated wall recesses—human hair jewelry, an 1830 tooth extractor, a saber-toothed rabbit. There is a depiction of some Mexicans who employed a magnifying glass and a razor blade to make clothes for fleas—shirts, trousers, even hats. There is a videotape of Robert Wadlow, purported to have been the world’s tallest man at eight feet, 11 inches. “There’s a guy hanging in there,” says Elaine Abbott, a customer from Trenton, Ont., pointing over her shoulder. ‘When you look at one side, you see him and when you look at the other, all you see are his clothes.” Says ticket seller Carrie Harbour: “I have to call 911 quite often. Someone almost had a heart attack in the video games room and a pregnant woman felt faint.”
Video games room ? Yes, in a room at the end of the winding corridor, Ripley’s embraces the enemy: “Final Fight,” “Ikari Warriors,” “Robocop” and ‘Terminator 2.” Believe it.
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