Thursday, June 18, 2009

Believe It or Not ("Proudly freaking out families for over 90 years")

I'm happy to acknowledge that there are many readers of The Wall Street Journal who cannot abide by the fluff-articles. They're just in it for the earnings reports and an editorial page that balances out The New York Times.

Not me!

I'm in it - to the tune of $90/year for an online subscription - for articles like the one that appeared the other day on the problems that the expanding Ripley's Believe It or Not empire is having coming up with enough oddities to fill their odditoria (my plural of their word).

Apparently someone who spent 34 years of his life constructing a model of San Francisco is not willing to let it go for the measly $40K that Ripley's got on offer.

If I were the SF toothpick artist, I might be willing to take the $40K - even if it probably represents something less than the minimum wage for his efforts.

After all, there's no doubt someone else out there with a one-of-a-kind A-exhibit item who is willing to sell.

As was the guy who made a portrait of President Obama out of nearly 13,000 gumballs, on display in the Times Square Ripley's Odditorium, along with:

...locks of hair that belonged to Elvis Presley, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and George Washington, Ripley's collection of Olympic torches, and animal oddities including a two-headed calf, a six-legged cow and an albino giraffe! ...Ripley's Times Square will appeal to man's basic curiosity and desire to know more about this world and New York City. (Info here taken from the Ripley's site.)

I do have beaucoup d' curiosity about the world and about NYC, but I'm not thinking that an albino giraffe does much to satisfy that curiosity.

The NYC Ripley's is one of:

...over 27 museums in 10 countries will amaze, astound, and even amuse you to laughter as you enjoy your tour.

Actually, I'm way too jaded for a lock of Elvis' hair and a collection of Olympic torches to amaze and astound me. And, believe it or not, those animal oddities are more likely to appall me than amuse me to laughter as I enjoy my tour. (Which, by the way, would cost about $27. Frankly, if I were in Times Square, I think I'd be more likely to be amazed, astounded, and amused to laughter in Toys 'R Us - and that would be for free. But this may just be a personal choice.)

I wouldn't mind seeing the replica of the Coliseum made out of 1,971 playing cards, but I believe that's in Branson, Missouri - a spot where I would bet my booties that I will never step toe for as long as I live, unless I get struck by lightning and wake up with a jones to hear Andy Williams or the Gatlin Brothers.

But back to The Journal, and their big news that the oddity business ain't all that easy, especially given Ripley's expansion plans. In 2010 - recession be damned! -  South Korea, Bahrain, and Mexico will join the ranks of other civilized nations that have a Ripley's Museum of their own. Bangalore, India just got one, and if that doesn't tell us everything we need to know about globalization, I don't know what will.

One of the most sought after "A-list oddities" is the shrunken head.

Every Ripley's museum must have one, and private collectors still covet them, but so far as experts can tell, no one is still making them.

Supply and demand in action, ladies in gentlemen:

A shrunken head that in the early 1970's -  just about the time the fellow started making that toothpick replica of SF -  went for $500 to $5,000 will now run you $50,000.

"Today, you probably can't buy a fake one for $5,000,"  [Ripley's VP of exhibits Frederick Meyer] says. A high-quality shrunken head -- one used for authentic tribal purposes, with long hair and decorative elements -- now costs about $50,000.

One would think that, outlawed or not, that $50K price tag would get some tribes coming up with an authentic tribal purpose - like buying iPods and Coke Zero for everyone - that would put them to skinning, boiling, and curing heads of tribe members who died of natural causes, and adding them to the worldwide supply. (Economics being economics, this would, of course, drive down the price. Gosh, see how economics can screw up the work of even the most remote tribe out there.)

The price of heads is also driven up by private collectors.

"You could count the number of players on both hands in this country," says Jay Conrad, a retired roofing contractor in Lakeland, Tenn. He says he bought his first shrunken head in 1983 for $500 and has owned dozens over the years. "I'm interested in the dark side of human behavior," he says.

(For the record, I, too, am interested in the dark side of human behavior, which may or may not be reflected in my salt and pepper shaker collection.)

And can you imagine the approach line of a shrunken head collector?

Hey, babe, I'm a shrunken head player.

Deformed animals are also much in demand by Ripley's - every museum needs at least one.

Hard to believe that Ripley's relies on natural freak-of-nature animals, like the one in four million six-legged calf.  Seems like this would be a no-brainer for some mad scientist with time and agar on his hands.

Ripley's, by the way, hears from tons of folks trying to pitch their oddities as A-list worthy. As on American Idol, most end up disappointed:

Like a large-scale drawing of the Sultan of Oman made from a single, continuous line. It's one among many museum hopefuls detailed in a stack of papers in Mr. Meyer's office at Ripley's Orlando headquarters.

"A Ripley's customer doesn't care about the Sultan of Oman," Mr. Meyer says. "It's a C-plus, not an A. If it was Elvis, it might be an A."

Attention all continuous line drawers: you heard the man. (Tonight, I will try my hand at a continuous line drawing of Elvis in Jailhouse Rock. First, though, I will practice on a circle and a square.)

Sometimes Ripley's puts fakes on displays.

There are, after all, an estimated mere 10 authentic iron maidens - essential to any medieval torture display worth its salt -  in the whole, wide world. (Talk about things they aren't making anymore, this one's a:

...coffin-like medieval torture devices that killed people with inward-pointing iron spikes affixed to the interior walls.)

Ripley's has two real ones - I wonder what real means. One that's served its purpose?

Talk about something that's not going to amuse me to laughter.

Oddity creators and collectors out there?

You've got, Ripley's needs.

No comments: