Believe It Or Not
1930 - 1948
Robert LeRoy Ripley, on the hunt for weird wonder stories.
Ripley's cartooning career read like one of the unbelievable stories he collected. He started out as a twenty-year-old illustrator drawing panels for the San Francisco Bulletin in 1909. Ten years later, he started drawing a panel of sports oddities, and from there he moved on to specializing in strange happenings in general (Dunning, 77). In 1929, a collection of his cartoons was published in book form. He started working for King Features and within a year he was making $100,000. His staff and media reach grew, including print, radio, movies, and eventually, television. He employed numerous researchers to compile odd-ball facts, secretaries to answer the mail, and even a ghost cartoonist to fill in for when he was too busy (Paul Frehm, who continued drawing the feature for decades after Ripley's death).
Ripley's radio debut was shaky at best. He suffered from mic fright and a stutter. In one of the first broadcasts, he shook so much that he dropped the script and nearly knocked the microphone into the audience while trying to retrieve it (Dunning, 77).
Ripley's stories were especially interesting because they sounded like fiction, but they were supposedly factual. (If they were exaggerated slightly for dramatic effect, Ripley could always fall back on the "or not" portion of his program title.) Listeners felt they were not only being entertained, but they were being educated as well, hearing actual news, history, and entertainment simultaneously. Adding musical interludes and dramatic radio skits that reenacted the stories behind the strange facts Ripley reported on was a turning point in the program. That formula is credited to Douglas F. Storer, producer of the B.A. Rolfe's Saturday night variety program (which added Ripley to its show in 1933). Storer realized that if he could cut back on Ripley's on-air time, and focus more attention on the stories themselves, the production would come across a lot more polished. And it did. The skits featured professional actors who often used ethnic dialects to better reflect the country in which the story took place. Ripley was still the star, introducing and concluding each story with added details and specifics, but shortening his segments left the audience wanting more of him and allowed the announcer to build up each appearance with hyperbole like "And now ladies and gentlemen, here he is, that quick quizzing quizmaster of quirks, with his quiver of quality quips, believe it or not, Bob Ripley!"
Ripley also had a generic-sounding partner join him during his on-air bits. The character acted as a proxy for the audience, asking the obvious questions like "is it really true?" His professional acting made Ripley's amateur readings sound even more contrived, and the "casual banter" rarely seemed natural at all. But Ripley, shy to the end, would often nervously laugh as he engaged in this phony repartee, and it always seemed to work in spite of itself. (Ripley was said to blush a lot during the performances as well.)
Another gimmick the show employed was bringing special guests (some would call them, "freaks") on the show to provide proof of the strange tales Ripley chronicled. A single show might trot out several of these people in fast succession, as the Nov. 3, 1935 show did when they introduced an amputee who played the piano with his elbows, another man who spoke with an artificial voice box, and a third gentleman who tap danced with a peg leg. All three demonstrated their unusual talents to the live audience.
What weird wonders the wandering wizard of wild and wacky wisdom couldn't bring to his microphone, he instead took his mic into the field to find, making Ripley a trailblazer in the use of live remotes. He traveled to other countries like Australia and performed in Sydney, or he interviewed his special guests using short wave radio, as he did with Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, the aviator who flew from California to Ireland (Dunning, 78). Ripley claimed to be the first person to broadcast mid ocean, and he was probably the last one to descend into a pit of live rattlesnakes with a snake handler. (He beat a speedy retreat when the power failed and the pit went dark, inspiring the snake handler to ad-lib one of the few lines not in the script: "Lets get the hell out of here!" (Dunning, 78)).
Although the subject matter was often oddball trivia about other countries and cultures, it also delved into deeper, stranger happenings, including curses that came true, or dark chapters in history, for example, women being burned at the stake for the terrible crime of (gasp!) curling another woman's hair. That particular skit was quite chilling, describing the grim details of the execution and climaxing with the blood-curding scream of the victim as she was engulfed in flames. By packaging such gruesome scenes between catchy musical segments and arcane historical facts, Believe It Or Not was able to combine comedy, music, and horror all into one seamless program.
Ripley himself was extremely eccentric. He had an almost superstitious fear of the telephone. He dressed in colorful clothing and lived a flamboyant life. He believed smoking and playing cards were evil, yet he was a heavy drinker and notorious skirt chaser, at times housing up to five or more live-in girlfriends at a time. He kept a 28-foot boa constrictor as a pet and let squirrels and chipmunks run around him while he drew. He couldn't swim, but purchased a Chinese Junk. He didn't drive, but collected cars. Ripley died in 1949 while shooting the 13th episode of his new television series. The segment was about death rituals in the military. As the bugle played Taps, Ripley passed out and couldn't continue the show. He was taken to the hospital and died three days later from heart attack at age 58.
Believe It Or Not stories took days to research, hours to illustrate, minutes to perform on the air, and mere seconds to forget. But it was addictive entertainment none-the-less, and that's what sponsors wanted in order to showcase their products. And so Believe It Or Not carried on for nearly two decades, varying in format from 15 to 30 minutes. There was even a one minute version that ran decades later, using an announcer who would speed read his unbelievable tale. The cartoon panels carried on even longer, celebrating their 90th anniversary in continuous publication in 2008. Meanwhile, the Believe It Or Not franchise has grown well beyond cartoon panels radio shows. It was one of the first programs on television, it spawned a series of comic books, and it even became a chain of tourist museums / haunted attractions across the America. An entire multi-million dollar industry was inspired by a shy, stuttering, buck-toothed cartoonist who liked to collect and illustrate oddball trivia from around the world... believe it or not!
The Typical Introduction:
Announcer: "Believe it or not!"
(SFX: Short Music build up.)
Announcer: "The Baker's Broadcast, brought to you in behalf of the 30,000 bakers of the United States and Canada, with Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra, and believe it or not, Robert Ripley!"
(SFX: Music piece.)
(SFX: Live audience applause.)
Announcer: "For twenty years, in 181 different countries, he has carried on his endless search for strange facts, and strange people. Tonight he brings you another amazing chapter from his collection of the incredible. Believe it or not, Robert Ripley!"
(SFX: Live audience applause.)
Ripley: "Greetings everybody."
Ozzie: "Hello Bob."
Ripley: "Hello Ozzie."
Ozzie: "Well Bob, what subject are you going to talk on tonight?"
Ripley: "We've talked on so many things, but tonight I've selected something different. I'm going to talk about man's oldest and best friend, the dog. Believe it or not, the only animal that has followed man all over the face of the earth, is the dog... and his fleas."
Ozzie: "I get it. The dog followed man, and fleas followed the dog."
Ripley: "Everybody loves dogs, Ozzie, and there're many reasons why they should. An excellent example is Barry, a magnificent Saint Bernard, the most famous of all dogs."
Ozzie: "Who's Barry, Bob?"
Ripley: "Barry lives with the Saint Bernard monks, in a lonely monastery in the Alps. On forty different occasions, this grand animal, all alone, struggled through terrific snow storms and rescued lost travelers. Barry rescued forty lives. But the forty-first man he tried to rescue, killed him."
Ozzie: "Killed him, why?"
Ripley: "The unfortunately traveler was delirious from exhaustion. When Barry found his way through the snow to his side, bringing him brandy and food, the man thought the dog was trying to attack him, and stabbed him. But the people of Switzerland have not forgotten Barry. Today, in the museum of Burns, is the body of this noble dog, preserved for posterity, as a shining example of courage and faith."
Ozzie: "There's no doubt Bob, that the dogs are the royalty of the animal kingdom."
Ripley: "Royalty, I should say so. Not many years ago, a dog was actually made a king in Ethiopia. Clad in royal robes, a crown upon his head, this dog sat on this throne and received the adoration of his subjects. He ruled in true dog fashion. He signified approval by wagging his tail, and his disapproval by barking. And a growl condemned a man to prison or death. A real royal dictator. And when King Edward the Seventh died, his little wire haired terrier was given the position of honor beside the royal casket. And during the funeral procession, he walked before nine kings and princes from all over the world. You see, there is one story of a dog that had touched me deeply, maybe because the incident occurred in a little town called Ripley, believe it or not, in Tennessee."
Ozzie: "What happened there, Bob?"
Ripley: "Two years ago, in this little town, a old hermit named John Hendrix died, and his only mourner was his little terrier, Fox. After Hendrix was buried by his neighbor, the little dog refused to eat or drink, and in a few days, he completely disappeared. A neighbor suspected that Fox was looking for his master, and to his amazement, he found that the little terrier had dug a hole six feet deep in the cemetery, and was lying dead on the coffin of the only person that he ever loved. Dead of a broken heart. And so the grave was covered a second time, and the two pals slumber on, undisturbed."
Hear it now, FREE!
(Was originally courtesy of Tennessee Bills OTR - but defunct as of 6/17/13)
The 1 minute version (a more modern series) (Defunct as of 6/17/13.)
The 15 minute version. (Defunct as of 6/17/13.)
(30 minute version courtesy of OTR CAT.net)
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