RIPLEY: BELIEVE IT OR NOT
Starring Robert L. Ripley
Written and directed by Cathleen O’Connell
Odds are you’ll love exploring the extraordinary life of Robert L. Ripley in this 2015 documentary free on YouTube.
Born in 1890 in the “dirty frontier town” of Santa Rosa, young Ripley was a shy loner who loved drawing and used butcher paper on a chopping block for an easel. When a family friend secured Ripley a job at a San Francisco newspaper, Ripley worked as a sports cartoonist.
After losing that job, and one at another newspaper there, Ripley bought a one-way ticket to New York and earned enough as a sports cartoonist to reinvent himself from a bucktoothed stutterer to a snappy dresser and handball player. Believe it or not, Ripley was the New York City handball champ, and became the national teams champion, as well.
One fateful day when Ripley lacked copy for a deadline, he scraped together some illustrations for weird sports facts, calling it at first Champs or Chumps. Ten months later, he did it again, and this time called it Believe it Or Not.
When the newspaper decided to send Ripley on a four-month voyage around the globe, it changed his life. Ripley’s Ramble ‘Round the World showcased his drawings accompanying fascinating facts about the people and places that he saw. Featuring extremes in sports progressed into extremes in all areas.
Written, directed and produced by Cathleen O’Connell, this PBS documentary reveals the shocking truth that Ripley did not compile an “encyclopedia of one-of-a-kind wonders, arcane trivia, and homespun Americana” all by himself. His chief researcher and fact-checker, Norbert Pearlroth, worked six days a week scouring the New York City Library to secure Ripley with items to feature.
For example: St. Patrick wasn’t Catholic, he wasn’t a saint, he wasn’t Irish, and his name wasn’t Patrick.
Initially turning down a book deal from Simon and Schuster, Ripley later changed his mind and wound up with a New York Times bestseller. When Schuster sent a copy to William Randolph Hearst, Hearst hired Ripley at $100,000 a year, increasing Ripley’s income tenfold.
At a time when the world had 235 countries, Ripley visited 201, becoming the most traveled man of his day. Fascinated by the human and man-made extremes he encountered, Ripley always conveyed a respectful appreciation for people doing odd things. Newspaper contests inviting readers to submit strange facts for Ripley generated so much mail—up to 3,000 letters a day—the Post Office couldn’t keep up with it.
As writer Melissa Pritchard says, “It’s inexhaustible all the weirdness in the world, and I think he felt he was barely scratching the surface of it.”
Among the “curioddities”: A man who blows up a balloon with his eye, and a man who can turn his head around backwards and look down at his own spine.
Stewart Kirby writes for