Leroy Ripley was born Christmas Day, December 25, 1890, in Santa Rosa, California. His parents were Isaac Ripley and the former Lillie Belle Yocka. The oldest of three children, his father died in 1905 and Leroy dropped out of Santa Rosa High School. Leroy played for a semi-pro baseball team in his native Santa Rosa before moving to the big city to play for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1906. He also began selling his first cartoon work at this time for money. Leroy was given a job as cartoonist for the San Francisco Bulletin (later for the San Francisco Chronicle. He quit baseball briefly in 1908 to draw cartoons for Life magazine and to stay in Santa Rosa to care for his mother and young brother, Doug.
In 1912, he left San Francisco to move to New York to work for the New York Globe (where he had was also a sports writer) and to try out for the New York Giants, but he injured himself during the tryouts in early 1913. He took his first trip to Europe in 1914. He married his wife, Beatrice Roberts, in 1919 (they were divorced in 1926 and had no children). Later that year, on December 19, his first regular cartoon strip, Chumps and Champs, first appeared in the Globe, which became very famous throughout the country.
He hired an agent who said that his given name, Leroy, sounded too feminine, so he added the first name Robert. In most public venues, he was called Bob, but in private and among his closest friends, he was Rip.
Rip traveled all over the world to find information on weird sports for his cartoon column. In 1929, William Randolph Hearst commissioned him to create a new column, Ripley's Believe It or Not. This opened a whole new empire.
In his November 3, 1929, column, Rip wrote that the United States had no national anthem. He liked the idea of having John Philip Sousa's stirring march, The Stars and Stripes Forever, serve in that capacity. However, President Herbert Hoover, who was a regular Believe It or Not reader, suggested that The Star Spangled Banner (by Francis Scott Key) be used, with the tune of an old English drinking song. Of course, when Congress approved Hoover's wishes in 1930, the fact that the American national anthem was an old English drinking song was also mentioned in Rip's column.
Later in 1930, he began his radio show, which was nothing like the later television shows. It was more of a variety show which featured lots of music (either B.A. Rolfe or Ozzie Nelson leading the orchestra) with songs sung by a pretty girl (either "lovely" Linda Lee or Ozzie's girlfriend, and later wife, Harriet Hilliard). But it did give lots of information about strange facts, complete with sounds, remote broadcasts, and interviews. The program began on CBS in 1930. There are only about 50 episodes left of the series, which lasted until Rip's death. It had a variety of sponsors: Post Huskies (similar to Wheaties, endorsed by Lou Gehrig, a frequent guest of the show); the Bakers' Union; Royal Crown Cola (interesting in that while the drink was only sold in the South at that time, the show was performed in New York City... the bottles of RC which were used for the show were hauled in from Maryland); Fleischmann's Yeast; Post 40% Bran Flakes; Pall Mall cigarettes; Philco Electronics; and many were sustaining.
After taking a trip to Asia in 1932, Rip opened his first "odditorium" in Chicago at the Century of Progress International Exhibition (Chicago World's Fair). This was his first of many which would be seen around the world. Unlike most museums, the odditoriums were a display of ideas, not actual exhibits, although, most of the things shown in Chicago were real.
In 1932, he published the first cartoons of a little boy from his home town of Santa Rosa, California, about a beagle dog. That boy was Charles M. Schulz (1920-2000), best known for his strip, Peanuts.
Rip was seen in a number of motion pictures produced by Warner Brothers/Vitaphone in the early 1930s.
A collector of all kinds of "junk," including a Chinese junk, it was said by his ex-wife, "either the junk goes or I go." She went.
In 1949, Rip began a syndicated television series, which was filmed at his mansion on Long Island. While he was working on his thirteenth episode, he succumbed to a heart attack. He was reporting on the history of "Taps," the bugle call used at military funerals. It was May 29, 1949. Rip had been lying about his age all those years, telling people he was born in 1893. So when his death announcement came out in newspapers the following day, his age was listed as 55. He was 59.
Death has not diminished Rip's popularity. Rip's personal files of odd trivia have not yet been exhausted, although new information is being gathered by the organization that still puts out his comic strip every day in newspapers all over the world.
There have been other TV series, the latest from a few years ago with actor Dean Cain as host.