Ripley's museum is a shrine to the strange and startling

October 16, 1994|By Karen Yoor | Karen Yoor,Special to The Sun

Fisherman's Wharf -- that San Francisco landmark where clanking cable cars seem to defy gravity, sleek, wet, sea lions bark lethargically, and sophisticated shops and galleries could make unbelieveable dents in credit cards -- harbors at least one unbelievable museum.

The aromas of fresh fish, sourdough bread and Italian cuisine escape from rows of restaurants overlooking Alcatraz across the San Francisco Bay. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, street vendors sell cracked-crab cocktails and other seafood specialties.

One museum along the wharf invites skeptics to "Believe it or not." At Ripley's, 11 galleries display bizarre booty primarily collected during its namesake's worldly wanderings.

A man with an insatiable curiosity, Robert Ripley traveled to nearly 200 countries, accumulating extraordinary souvenirs along the way to furnish and decorate his 29-room home, which he named BION as an acronym for Believe It Or Not. Those who knew him proclaimed that the strangest object in the collection was Ripley himself.

China, particularly, intrigued him so much that for a while he changed his signature to Rip Li. He ate, dressed and entertained like a Chinese.

Ripley, an eccentric sports artist and cartoonist who had a habit of drawing upside down, sold his first cartoon at age 14. The drawing of young women washing clothes carried this caption: "The village belles were slowly wringing."

His 1918 cartoon titled "Believe It Or Not" touched off a lifetime of daily depictions of unusual scenes from his global roaming. Often called a liar, Ripley insisted that fact is stranger than

fiction and invited folks to view his collections and BION.

Although Ripley died in 1949, his legacy lives on in 20 Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museums around the world. Originally called odditoriums, Ripley's museums can be found as far afield as Korea, Australia, England and Denmark.

While a few exhibits are common to all, the contents vary at each location. The displays skillfully blend the strange, the startling and the striking. Today, books, magazines and videos help keep the legend alive.

Art made entirely from media as diverse as postage stamps and brown paper bags -- a portrait of Lincoln is made from 2,400 pennies -- adorn the walls of the San Francisco museum. The cable car, symbol of San Francisco, has the distinction of being America's only moving monument. Ripley's has an 8-foot model constructed entirely of wooden matchsticks -- 270,836 of them.

At Ripley's, tombstone epitaphs show that some die laughing -- or try to. On an atheist's grave marker: "All dressed up and nowhere to go." Another reads, "I expected this but not so soon." And the all-time realist -- "This one's on me."

After believing it or not, it's back to other offerings on the wharf. At Pier 39, a half-hour multimedia presentation, the San Francisco Experience, gives the highlights of the city's history, including a simulated earthquake. Sightseeing tours of the bay and/or Alcatraz depart from Pier 39 as well. At the Aquatic Park at Hyde Street Pier, landlubbers can get their sea legs by visiting the floating ship museum.

IF YOU GO . . .

Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, 175 Jefferson St., in San Francisco, is open daily. Call (415) 771-6188.

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