It's a compelling story, believe it or not


There are plenty of interesting stories on PBS' "American Experience," but the new Robert Ripley profile is one of my favorites. This is a downright compelling chunk of Americana; here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

Picture a modern
media star – smooth, slick and handsome, with strong voice and easy
manner.

Now meet the
opposite. As a California kid, Leroy Ripley showed no hints of
stardom.

He was “bucktoothed,
really a strange-looking dude,” said Neal Thompson, whose biography
is the core of a fascinating PBS film. He had little education and a
“sort of ordinariness.”

Then he
semi-transformed. He switched his name – Leroy Robert became Robert
Leroy – and spiffed up his attire. He was still shy and clumsy, but
he became a star of radio, TV, movies and more.

“He was kind of
this Everyman character,” Thompson said. “I think his fans were
drawn to that.”

He was a regular
guy, awed by an irregular world. His “Believe It or Not” features
showed:

-- Religious and
cultural customs -- men who walked on fire or held their arms aloft
for years.

-- Strange deeds,
from sword-swallowers to a guy descending a stairs on his head. “I
think it's the first time that 'American Experience' has had footage
of a woman eating a plate of razor blades,” filmmaker Cathleen
O'Connell said. There's also a guy swallowing a mouse.

-- Odd habits. One
woman, O'Connell said, crocheted a hat out of her own hair; another
“baked a certain number of pies every day for years.” These were
“everyday Americans who, during the Depression, (shared) their
ordinary wonderfulness.”

-- And mere quirks.
There was, for instance, a ham seller named Sam Heller.

All of this
fascinated Ripley, a self-made man. He was a fine athlete – a
baseball prospect and handball champion – and a good cartoonist;
his break came, however, when he changed his newspaper sports cartoon
to a daily “Belive It or Not” feature.

As his empire grew,
people compared him to the circus and sideshow king. “Ripley loved
P.T. Barnum, one of his heroes,” said Edward Meyer, who is in
charge of the Ripley exhibits and archives.

Still, Ripley
exposed Barnum's “Fiji mermaid” hoax, illustrating a key
difference: While Barnum lied consistently, Ripley – with the
exception of his age – stuck to the truth.

He had a master
fact-checker in Norbert Pearlroth, stationed at theNew York Public
Library. More verification came after he signed with the Hearst
newspaper syndicate. “They were calling him the biggest liar in the
world,” Meyer said. “He starts traveling with William Randolph
Hearst's (money). Hearst gives him the direction: 'Bring back stuff
to prove what you're writing about.'”

Ripley visited 201
countries. At first, the result (shrunken heads and such) were in his
home. In 1933, he created an “odditorium”; now there are 31 in
ten countries, with a collection of 30,000 artifacts.

That's 65 years
after Ripley's death (at 58, of a heart attack). At his peak, he had
80 million readers.

The guy with a poor
media presence had a hit radio show, some movie shorts and, briefly,
a TV show. He was a big-time star, believe it or not.

-- “Ripley:
Believe It or Not,” under the “American Experience” banner

-- 9 p.m. Tuesday,
PBS (check local listings)

-- Prime source is
Neal Thompson's “A Curious Man” (2013, Crown Publishing)

-- Current cartoons
and other information at www.ripleys.com