We have all encountered Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in some form or another— whether you’ve gone to a Ripley’s Odditorium or you read a Ripley’s book or you played a round of Ripley’s mini-golf. This vast empire was all started by one man: an American cartoonist named Robert Ripley.
It takes a unique mind to think up the bizarre and wacky world that Ripley created. Keep reading to learn how this man became a success story for the ages, smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression.
He Was Born On Christmas Day
Robert Ripley was born on December 25th, 1890 in Santa Rosa, California. He was a cartoonist, an anthropologist, and an entrepreneur. He’s best known for creating Ripley’s Believe It or Not! which was a cartoon series in a newspaper before it became a radio show and then a television show.
Robert Ripley sold his first cartoon to Life magazine in 1908. His life was a series of successes from that point on.
He Was Almost A Professional Baseball Player
Robert Ripley played baseball in high school. In fact, in 1906, he was a semi-professional while still in school. In 1908, he quit baseball for a brief time so he could be better able to support his mother. Ripley actually tried out for the New York Giants on January 2nd, 1913, but he got injured soon after and that injury ended his baseball career.
Ripley maintained an interest in sports for the rest of his life and he featured amazing sports facts in his cartoons and shows.
How It All Started
In 1919, Robert Ripley married Beatrice Roberts. In 1922, he took a trip around the world and simultaneously wrote a travel journal. Travel became a topic that he explored in his cartoons after that.
Ripley became fascinated by foreign cultures and odd exotic rituals. In 1923, he hired a researcher who spoke many languages to be his assistant full-time. Up until 1926, Ripley’s cartoons were being featured in the New York Globe, but in 1926, his cartoons moved to the New York Post.
He Literally Wrote The Book On Handball
We already know that Ripley was quite the talented baseball player, but in 1925, Ripley focused on another sport altogether. The same year he published his travel journal, he also published a guide to the game of handball— a handball handbook, if you will.
Ripley became the New York State handball champion in 1926. He also later wrote a book on boxing. To call Ripley a versatile writer would be an understatement.
Ripley Has Strong Ties To Our National Anthem
Believe It or Not! Ripley’s cartoon series is sort of the reason why “The Star Spangled Banner” is America’s national anthem.
While “The Star Spangled Banner” was a song that was associated with American culture and patriotism, it wasn’t officially the country’s national anthem until 1931. In 1929, Ripley announced in a cartoon that America “has no national anthem.” The public read that statement and took their outrage straight to the president. President Herbert Hoover officially made the song the national anthem on March 3rd, 1931.
His Popularity Knew No Bounds
Ripley’s cartoon series accumulated more than 80 million readers worldwide. It was reported that Ripley got more fan mail than the President of the United States. By 1933, Ripley was voted the most popular man in America by The New York Times. He also received an honorary degree from Dartmouth College, and he visited 201 foreign countries.
Ripley’s popularity brought him more than honor. It also brought him a whole lot of money. He was able to buy homes in New York and Florida, but he always kept close ties to his home in Santa Rosa, California.
All About The Radio Show
In the 1930s, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon series turned into a Believe It or Not! radio show. The Hearst organization gave Ripley money to travel around the world and record his show. Some of the shows were recorded from underwater, from the sky, inside the Carlsbad Caverns, and at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
In 1948, the radio show came to an end, but it was replaced by a Believe it or Not! television series.
We Might Not Have Snoopy If Not For Ripley
Snoopy can trace his cartoon lineage to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang, sent Ripley a drawing of his dog, Spike. Schulz claimed that Spike was “a hunting dog who eats pins, tacks and razor blades.”
Ripley published the artwork and story, and that submission was actually Schulz’s first real publication. Spike later provided Schulz with the inspiration he needed to create Snoopy.
Robert Wasn’t Actually His Real First Name
Robert L. Ripley was actually born LeRoy Robert Ripley. When he started working as a cartoonist full-time, one of his editors suggested that he drop the “LeRoy” because it didn’t sound masculine enough.
Ripley must have agreed because he went by Robert L. Ripley from then on. Robert is now primarily known by his last name. His first and middle name don’t show up in any of the titles associated with his show, radio show, or cartoon.
His First Odditorium
Robert Ripley opened a temporary “Odditorium” which ran for two years at the Chicago World’s Fair. The Odditorium was so successful that Ripley decided to open a permanent one in Times Square in New York City.
Since then, Ripley’s empire has expanded. There are now 95 Ripley attractions in 10 different countries. Some of these attractions include Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditoriums, Guinness World Records Museums, and Louis Tussaud’s Wax Works. The Odditorium in Niagra Falls is the biggest one yet. At this location, visitors can see a rickshaw carved from jade and an actual piece of the Berlin Wall.
He Had A Lot Of Help Building His Empire
Ripley didn’t build his multi-million dollar empire all on his own. Ripley was quite charming and popular with women in his day. He was able to charm Hungarian antique dealer Ruth Ross (nicknamed “Oakie”) into helping him display and organize his expansive collection.
Together, Ripley and Oakie turned Ripley’s private island, Bion, into a private showcase. Ripley would show off his oddities displayed on Bion to all of his closest friends and family. When he was entertaining guests, he would often do so wearing traditional Chinese clothing because Chinese culture fascinated him so much.
The Ongoing Book Series
Simon & Schuster published Ripley’s first book, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in 1929. The first sold more than 500,000 copies and each book only cost $2.50. There were so many copies in circulation that a first edition Ripley’s book is only worth $50 today.
Simon & Schuster is still publishing Ripley’s Believe It or Not! books today, and you can find dozens of titles listed for sale on their website.
His Trademark Teeth
Ripley had dental surgery to fix his buckteeth in 1938. Before going under the knife, Ripley asked the dentist to avoid straightening his teeth too much.
Ripley’s buckteeth had become something of a trademark that he wasn’t willing to lose completely. They fit right in with the rest of Ripley’s oddities collection. Thankfully, the dentist left Ripley’s teeth a little bit wonky, so that he didn’t lose too much of his unmistakable look.
Could A Famous Looney Tunes Character Be Ripley Inspired?
In the 1930s, Looney Tunes introduced a cartoon character named “Egghead.” Egghead had buckteeth, an odd accent, and he appeared in “Believe It or Else” sketch. This led a lot of people to believe that Egghead was inspired by Robert Ripley.
Later, Egghead became the famous Looney Tunes character Elmer Fudd. Could Elmer Fudd’s appearance have been derived from Robert Ripley? Strange things happen when the cartoonist becomes the cartoon.
He Had Some Strange Animals On His Private Island
Ripley’s private island was called Bion, which is an acronym for “Believe It or Not.” Ripley kept several exotic pets on that island including a 28-foot boa constrictor named Gertie. He also raised Dalmatians and donated the puppies to various fire stations across America.
Even though Ripley had a private island and several boats, he actually couldn’t swim. Ripley bought his island (and the 28 room mansion on it) in In 1934 for $85,000.
This Man Traveled A Lot
Robert Ripley was definitely a globetrotter. He got his start by writing a travel journal and he never really stopped traveling after. Ripley was one of the most well-traveled men of his time. He got his passport stamped at 201 different countries. Just for reference, there were only 235 recognized countries at the time.
Basically, Ripley traveled the whole world. Even though Ripley was a traveler, he supposedly had a fear of flying. He didn’t let that fear hold him back, because he still logged at least 600,000 air miles over the course of his career.
More Money Than He Knew What To Do With
We already know that Robert Ripley made a lot of money, but how much money? Well, with the income from his cartoons, books, shows, and speaking engagements, Ripley’s annual salary matched that of some of the biggest Hollywood stars. Keep in mind that this was in the 1930s in the middle of the Great Depression.
Robert Ripley was making half a million dollars per year. Hollywood stars James Cagney and Gary Cooper earned $368,333 and $328,000 respectively.
The Grand Canyon Radio Show
In 1940, Ripley decided to broadcast an episode of his radio show from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Ripley couldn’t accomplish this all on his own, though. His guide couldn’t steer the boat and operate the radio machinery at the same time, so Ripley hired an amateur radio operator named Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater would later become a U.S. Senator, and he even ran for President in 1964. Ripley had friends in high places.
Ripley’s Dramatic Death
Robert Ripley almost died on television. He collapsed during the broadcast of an episode of his NBC television program on May 24th, 1949.
Three days later, on May 27th, he died of a massive heart attack. He was 58 years old at the time. Ripley was buried in his home town of Santa Rosa in the Oddfellows Lawn Cemetery. Robert Ripley is buried beside his parents, as per his wishes.
Robert Ripley’s Legacy
Even though Robert Ripley is no longer with us, his legacy and his good name live on to this day. The Jim Pattison Group now owns Ripley Entertainment. The Jim Pattison Group, the largest privately held company in Canada, has owned Ripley Entertainment since 1985.
They’ve maintained Robert Ripley’s fascination with curiosities, oddities, and anything unusual. You can still attend Ripley’s museums, watch Ripley programming, and buy Ripley books today.