Who doesn’t like to shop?
Well, for Edward Meyer, VP of Exhibits and Archives for Ripley Entertainment – traveling, shopping and collecting unusual artifacts for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! odditoriums and books is his job!
What is the most weird item Edward has ever collected? How does he choose which items to purchase? What is the story behind the two-trunked elephant??
Find out in this interview!
I’m with Edward Meyer here at Ripley’s Entertainment headquarters. Edward, can you please tell me about yourself and what you are doing at Ripley’s?
I’ve been with the company for 38 years. I was hired as a summer student to catalog the famous Ripley’s Believe It or Not! newspaper cartoon. We still produce that cartoon. It’s in its 98th year. It’s the oldest continuous newspaper feature in the world.
It is the cornerstone of everything Ripley Entertainment does. It’s a small part, but everything is built on that foundation. Today, 38 years later I am still one of the main editors of that cartoon. I no longer catalog it. I no longer write it. At one point I was writing the cartoon myself. Today we’ve got five or six people involved in it, doing what I used to do by myself. 1985 I had already been with the company for seven years, but in 1985 the company changed ownership. It went from an individual named Alec Rigby to an individual who owns many, many companies named Jim Pattison Sr., out of Vancouver, Canada. At that point, all of our museums – and there was only eight – were the collection of Robert Ripley, the cartoonist who traveled throughout the 1920’s, throughout the 1930’s, into the ’40’s and was called the world’s biggest liar. People didn’t believe what he was drawing in his cartoons. He started collecting artifacts in order to prove what he was drawing in the cartoons. Then he got enough that people said, “Well, take them out of your house and make a museum.” In his time, there was six different museums. By the time I come along, all of the things – he’s long dead, died in 1949 – his estate was auctioned. A gentleman named John Arthur bought as much as he could afford at the estate auction and basically started the company as we know it today. He built a couple more museums in the 1950s into the 1960s. In the 1960s, the ownership changed again and became Canadian. Alec Rigby bought it and moved it from New York City where it had always been, to Toronto, Canada and that’s basically where I come in. I’m from Toronto and still a Canadian citizen today.
We had eight museums when Jim Pattison bought us from Alec Rigby. One of the first things he said was, “Why don’t you franchise?” Collectively we said we can’t. We don’t have enough stuff. The Ripley collection is large but it’s still finite. We’ve used it all. We’ve filled up eight museums worth. He said, “Well, why don’t you buy more stuff?” I’d already been with the company seven years, but I got elected to be the guy to go buy more stuff. For the last 31 years I’ve traveled around the world, somewhat like Robert Ripley, but I don’t draw the cartoon, trying to collect the things that are interesting for our books, for our cartoon, and ultimately for our auditoriums. We don’t use the word museum too often. We go with Odditorium, a word that Ripley himself coined. I’m involved in many, many facets of the company. I researched for the television shows, I’m part of the design team, I’m part of the research team, but my main function is I shop. I buy stuff.
That’s the best job in the world, right?
I get told I have the best job in the world a lot. I don’t quite believe it. It’s a good job, but I’m not sure it’s the world’s best. I get to shop with someone else’s money, which is some fun. I get to travel, which is also some fun. The key is, I get to meet wonderful people. This morning before you came in, I’m dealing with a person online and in the past history it made a gum wrapper chain for our company. A gum wrapper chain is a minor, almost insignificant exhibit in our collection, but the people that make it – this lady sold us this gum wrapper chain in 1968. More than 40 years ago and she’s still very proud that she has something in a museum. She’s contacting me 44 years later just to make sure we still have it, where is it now because it moved three or four times. She last saw it in Florida, but she was in St. Augustine recently and it’s not there so, that compelled her to write to where it is. It turns out right now it’s in Louisville, Kentucky. Which is one of our more interesting projects right now.
In the last couple years we’ve expanded outside of our own auditoriums, that we are leasing our exhibitory, our collection to other museums and coming up with very thematic shows. In this case, we have a display in the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in Louisville, Kentucky. The focus is Ripley’s interest in baseball. We have weird baseball exhibits. We have some generic stuff. We tell the story of Robert Ripley. We have some original art, but the real focus is baseball and specifically in the case of the gum wrapper chain, tie it all together, we have a display within the exhibit that is food that you might eat at a baseball game. I.E., hot dogs, licorice, popcorn, peanuts, gum. That’s why her gum wrapper chain is here. The people is really what turns me on and is what makes the company unique, that we get the deal with individuals that have a passion for what they do. Whether it’s a gum wrapper chain, or behind you here we’ve got oil paintings by a lady with no arms or legs – she paints with the brush in her mouth. The talent, the drive that makes people do things. The human accomplishment, that’s what Ripley’s is all about.
I imagine you see amazing art work and what not. What is your criterion in deciding that’s something that can fit a Ripley collection and that’s something that’s nice, but may not fit your messaging?
There’s not many rules. We’re pretty liberal people when it comes to that.
It’s got to be true. That’s the first and foremost thing. We’re not trying to fool anybody and we don’t want anybody to try and fool us. It’s a real shrunken head. It’s a real two-headed cow, it’s a real shrunken head from Ecuador, South America. Whatever, it’s got to be real. It’s not a replica, it’s not a fabrication. We can talk about wax figures separately, but the core of our collection is real artifacts that you can’t see anywhere else. That’s first and foremost.
Second, we want it to be unbelievable. Something that you won’t see anywhere else that you’re going to go, “Wow. I’ve never heard of that. I’ve never seen one. Maybe I saw it on television but, oh, my goodness. I’m seeing it in the flesh!” When the opportunity arrives, I’m not only seeing it again, but maybe get to touch it. The tactile sense that a museum should have. Open up the brain so, everybody has a good feeling that they’ve learned something in a fun environment.
Unbelievable, untrue. I don’t go into aliens too often. We are very much a family business so, we’ve got guidelines towards sexuality and religion. We try very hard not to offend people. That’s probably the basis of it. We want to teach. I see myself as a teacher. We want to teach, but in a fun way. I’ve used it too many times myself, but the word “edutainment”. Whoever came up with that word knew Ripley’s. You should go through a Ripley’s show or Ripley book and have a wonderful sense of having learned something without having to have sat and studied. You had fun while you learned it. Fun is a very important word around here.
Between all the things that you saw around the world, what is the most odd thing or the most surprising thing that you experienced?
I have several favorites. I have the things that I personally think are the best things I’ve ever bought. I have historical pieces that I think are the most important thing I’ve ever bought. Then of course, there’s things that are just plain weird that are the weirdest things I’ve ever bought. I’ll go all three of those subjects. I personally really like miniatures. The smaller it is, the more unbelievable it is to me. How does someone paint on the head of a pin? How does someone write the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice? Those are my personal favorites. In the museum environment, maybe half the people miss them. They’re too small. You don’t even see it. To me, that’s the “wow” factor. Oh, my God, someone actually wrote the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice.
We have an artist in Birmingham, England. His name is Willard Wigan. Willard is dysfunctional, dyslexic, cannot write his own name. He’s operating at the level at about a ten year old yet, he can carve items, sculptures in the eye of a needle or pin. It’s not just boxers on the head of pin. It’s Muhammad Ali fighting Sonny Liston in 1964. It’s Betty Boop, it’s Super Man, it’s Beauty and the Beast. Instantly recognizable characters under the magnifying glass. Naked eye you don’t see a thing. It’s the pin. 4,000 magnification, it comes to life. One of the best is Muhammad Ali being topical this week, with his recent passing. Muhammad Ali fighting Sonny Liston on the head of a pin. The referee is there as well and there’s the whole boxing ring. The ropes on the ring are made from spider webs. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. That’s number one. The most amazing, Willard Wigan’s.
historical. I’m most proud of having 16 pieces, 160 feet of the Berlin Wall. We had one of my associates following it very carefully in November of 1989 and said, “This thing is coming down. We should get a piece for our museum.” A group of us flew over and we were sitting there chipping pieces, my fists, the size of a rock. It suddenly occurred to us that, why not get the biggest piece we can get? Everybody’s taking little pieces and putting them in their pocket. Pretty soon there isn’t going to be a big piece. We ended up buying 16 ten-foot sections, 160 feet of the Berlin Wall. I believe it’s more than Berlin has at this point. It’s certainly the biggest single collection in the world. For the most part, I hand-picked the pieces we got. I got ones that had great graffiti or a nice picture, or a message or something. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. Standing there, I am of distant German background. I had no real connection to the country or the wall, but it was the most emotional thing I was ever involved in. The touching, the walking through the hole that no one had been able to do, people had just been going back and forth, putting your hand on it, crying, the whole thing affected me. Today wherever we are, 27 years later I still get emotional about the Berlin Wall and I’m so glad that our company saved that part of history. That’s what I think Ripley’s is at its best. When we preserve history. We have other great historical pieces. We have stuff from George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, World War II, but the Berlin Wall was in my lifetime and I directly associated with it. That’s the most proud of.
Then the weirdest and this is the hardest, or at least people think it’s the hardest because that’s what we really deal in. Yes, we have history. Yes, we have art. Yes, we have science, but we’re known as being the keepers of the weird. We have a two-trunked African elephant. Bound to be the only one in the world. You’re not going to find another one. We have a large collection of animal oddities, “freaks”, if you will. Typically, they’re domestic animals – cows, pigs, chickens. Things that are born on the farm, the farmer is there, and calls Ripley’s. “Oh, my God. I had a two-headed cow born on my farm last night.” To find animal oddities in the wild is very, very rare. It’s survival of the fittest. If they’ve got a deformity, they get eaten. Simple as that so, very, very rare to have any kind of animal oddity from the wild. Obviously, to have the biggest animal there is, an elephant, is a one in a zillion percentage.
The back story, which I think is at least as good as the elephant itself is we were in Africa trying to track down an albino giraffe. We had been told there was a white giraffe. We were searching for the giraffe, which we ended up getting as well. It was a very productive trip. We get a phone call saying forget the giraffe, we found something even more amazing. I’m sitting there going, “What can be more amazing than a white giraffe?” A two-trunked elephant. Both trunks. One on top of the other as opposed to side by side. Both over five and a half feet long, fully functional, roughly three feet around. They’re not little stubs. They’re fully grown trunks on a four year old African elephant bigger than a car. It’s the complete opposite of the Willard Wigan’s that I started here. No one misses the elephant in your museum. Holy smokes, it takes up a whole room, sort of thing. That is typically what I would say is the weirdest thing I bought. I bought lots of other weird things though. I’m the only guy that can say he’s bought a bellybutton lint collection. I’ve bought things made out of matchsticks. I’ve bought things made out of spider webs. You come through our front office, we’ve got a dress in our office right now made out of cobwebs and its got a big tarantula on the back. I wouldn’t buy it, I wouldn’t wear it, but it’s a great Ripley’s museum piece.
You touched upon that topic, but how much of your exhibitions come from people?
Everything. It literally depends on how you define it. We buy things at auctions. We buy things at antique stores. We buy things off the Internet. Ultimately, the best stuff finds us. We’re out there looking, but 98 years we’ve been in this business. I mentioned the farmer with the two-headed cow. I mentioned the lady with the gum wrapper chain. If they have something that they think is weird and belongs in Ripley’s, we’re the first people they phone. Some of them still ask for Mr. Ripley who’s been dead for 60 years. “Mr. Ripley, you’re not going to believe what just happened on my farm! I got a two-headed cow!” In a perfect world I’d be out there traveling even more, looking. The computer revolutionized the way I do business. I still travel more than the average person by quite a bit, but not as much as some people think I do because the stuff comes in my mail. Every day I open up that computer, I’ve got somebody offering me something. I love coming to work because every day is a new day. One day I might be getting a two-headed cow, the next day I might be getting a shrunken head, the next day I might be getting the Berlin Wall. I never know what’s going to come up on my computer.
Obviously, social media plays a big part in that. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat is the latest thing our company’s doing. People want their 15 minutes of fame. If Ripley’s can give it to them – and in this case specifically, Edward Meyer as the guy that’s going to buy the thing from them, they want to talk to me. They want to connect and go, “Dear Mr. Ripley, I’ve got the world’s longest gum wrapper chain. Is that something you would put in your museum?” Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Then we’ve got the three levels. If there’s nothing to buy it doesn’t mean we can’t put the story in the book or in the cartoon. If there’s no picture and we can’t put it in the book well, we can still draw it for the cartoon. There’s nothing that’s too insignificant. If you’ve got something weird, we hope you contact Ripley’s Believe It or Not!.
What was the most challenging item for you to acquire?
The biggest challenge is size. It’s big. There are things that I can’t buy because of the price, but I don’t get too frustrated about those. Usually, well okay, it’s just too expensive. You’ve got to walk sometimes. When we can’t buy something because of the size, I get frustrated. A museum should have a gallery that’s big enough to put a tyrannosaurus rex in it or an elephant, whatever it is. That really irks me. Single example. This is a few years ago, I’ll go back even further. In our museum in St. Augustine, Florida, it’s the only place where we’ve actually got a big garden. We have displays that are outside in St. Augustine. Typically, they’re really big things that wouldn’t fit inside. We can at least house them. We have a redwood tree. Somebody actually hollowed out this tree and lived in it as a house. It’s one of my favorite exhibits. I love the thing. I had a chance to buy a second one. A little bit different, but more or less, a big tree that somebody was living in and I was very excited. I loved the first one, I never thought I’d see a second one. Here it is.
It was up in Pennsylvania near the Pocono’s. We had been back and forth on the computer and on the phone several times. I finally said, I’ve got to go see the thing. Got on the plane and went. It had never come up in a dozen conversations that the thing was mounted to the trailer. We had measured it to the inch to make sure this thing would fit based on it. Turned out the trailer was another eight feet and the two were together. It was eight feet too big. I was literally down to measuring to the inch, where I could fit this, what doors it could go through, what doors it couldn’t go. I get up there and go, what’s this? I just didn’t expect it, caught totally off guard. We ended up not buying it after a lot of negotiation, a lot of work, and the trip. It costs money to get on the plane. I think it ended up being four feet too big, mounted on a trailer that I could not separate it from. It had been built on that trailer and that’s the only way it was going to move. Beautiful piece. Four rooms, carved out of a big wine barrel basically. It wasn’t one solid tree like the one in St. Augustine. They had made a replica of a wine barrel into a house and had lived in it for several years. They lived in Australia, New Zealand, and Pennsylvania. They moved the thing to three different places and had lived in it three generations of the family for 50 years. Very cool piece. Size is the number one.
Literally just yesterday, we have a regular Monday design meeting and one guy, it’s all in jest but we all know the joke. He just said, “Oh, and don’t go for the world’s biggest because it just causes grief.” The design people and our buildings because sometimes we get to start from scratch and sometimes we don’t. We have an existing building. They’re not meant to have the world’s biggest barbed wire ball or the world’s biggest red tree, or even the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall is more weight than physical size, but there’s places we can’t display stuff because we can’t get it in the door.
What I noticed is through your different locations is sometimes you try to make some of the exhibitions connected to the place and I really like that.
I’m really in favor of that and as a company we’ve sort of waffled. Some years we do it, some years we don’t. Up and down. I firmly believe that most of your people are tourists. They come to – I’m going to use New Orleans as a sample because that’s one that we really did a big New Orleans park – but people come to New Orleans, they expect to learn something about New Orleans. We’re always going to have a little bit of China because there’s a core Chinese collection within Ripley’s. Ripley loved China. Putting our Chinese exhibits in China doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Putting our Chinese exhibits in New Orleans, maybe, but the people in New Orleans would really rather learn about food, jazz, Mardi Gras, Indians, Mississippi River, etcetera. Niagara Falls is another one. We have a good Niagara Falls collection because people want to learn about the Falls. It depends on what we have obviously. We have to have enough to make a display. I as a curator, try very hard to have something local in every show. Sometimes it’s really obvious, sometimes it’s not so obvious, but it’s always in the back of my head that this would work better here than here.
Edward, thank you so much for this interview.
You’re welcome. Thanks for your interest.
It was a real pleasure speaking with Edward, learning about his amazing adventures and stories. Best job in the world? You decide! (it sure sounds like it!).
For more information about Ripley’s Believe It or Not! odditoriums check out their site at: