Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
July 27, 2010
San Francisco’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium had its grand-reopening at Fisherman’s Wharf on Monday. Nestled among souvenir shops and tourist restaurants, Ripley’s has been a Bay area sideshow for decades. The attraction’s collection and decor reboot promised to offer heightened interactivity, along with all the wonders today’s discerning freakniks really care about.
It’s obvious that Ripley’s designers carefully balance a brand legacy of exhibiting museum-style artifacts with the modern multitasker’s ache for twitchy diversion.
On the interactivity front, the new museum showcases many animated contraptions, a Mirror Maze, a Kaleidoscope passageway, and a disorienting rotating tunnel of light. These lead to more sedate, moody exhibit spaces, where glass cabinets are filled with rare objects and mounted creatures, explained with Ripley’s signature hand-lettered cartoons.
Every Ripley’s shares certain surefire items — the Robert Wadlow giant statue, the goofy guy who unhinges his jaw and pulls it over his nose, the exotic, distended hoop-necked woman. The animatronic freak band at the entrance matched the one we saw at another Ripley’s in Myrtle Beach, SC earlier this year.
Some are well-done reproductions of artifacts, such as the leg-bone of Civil War General Sickles (and are labeled as such), usually if the Believe It or Not story behind it is just too good to pass up….
However, each Ripley’s always presents unique, one-of-a-kind items from their collection, often of special interest in a particular city. We still object — in principle — to a corporation scooping up lone treasures in small towns and putting them in one place. But many of those items might otherwise disappear, and the Ripley’s chain certainly puts curiosities to work, back among the admission-paying public.
Here are three we especially liked in the renovated attraction:
Quake-Squashed Car of Lucky Buck When the 1989 San Francisco earthquake caused the double-deck I-880 freeway to collapse, it was grim for anyone in the pancaked vehicles caught underneath. But 90 hours after the quake, Buck Helm was pulled out alive, conscious and able to wave. The 57-year old “Lucky Buck” was hospitalized for 29 days before respiratory failure occurred and he died.
His crushed silver Chevy Sprint is a prize exhibit on the second floor at Ripley’s. We recall seeing it down here before, but now the whole Loma Prieta 7.1 shaker has been boiled down to this iconic not-quite death trap.
Fiji Island Mermaid The classic sideshow freak, aka Feejee Mermaid or Merman, is behind glass, one of only two said to be originals from P.T. Barnum’s circus. It’s large when compared to fiji mermaids we’ve seen in other collections (though the Merman at Arkansas Alligator Farm is equal or bigger). The Ripley’s sign makes the case that the half-fish, half-monkey creature was “The Greatest Hoax.”
We don’t know what they’re talking about….
Matchstick Space Shuttle A centerpiece of the new “Space Room” at Ripley’s is this excruciatingly detailed replica of a space shuttle made from ordinary wooden matchsticks. It took creator Ken Applegate, Clearwater, FL, nearly 10 years to design and 12 years to build.
We were told that the room was built around it, so this is one exhibit that probably won’t be on the Ripley’s traveling circuit.
The attraction opening was attended by assorted VIPs; former SF mayor Willie Brown Jr cut the ribbon. Moon walking astronaut hero Buzz Aldrin was a late cancellation at the festivities, due to ill health. We’d hoped to see him trying his hand at the laser shooting gallery, or admiring the two-headed weasels.
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