Thursday, August 13, 2009
The new Ripley's Believe It or Not! book was just published and is filled with bizarre, interesting and unbelievable facts. We speak to the vice president of Ripley Entertainment Publishing and Communications about the new book.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. It calls itself an incredible, crazy book. It's the sixth and newest installment of the bestselling series, Ripley's Believe It or Not, called "Seeing is Believing." And from the moving eye on the cover to the centerfold gallery of old sideshow pictures, this book is dedicated to living up to its name. How is it that in this day when it seems that there's nothing left to shock us, Ripley's keeps on going with its amazing facts and images? Why are we so endlessly fascinated with the unusual and the bizarre? And is there anything from San Diego included in the book? To answer these and many other questions, I'd like to welcome my guest, Tim O'Brien, vice president of Ripley Entertainment Publishing and Communication. Tim, welcome to These Days.
TIM O'BRIEN (Vice President, Ripley Entertainment Publishing and Communication): Ah, thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let's start off with something local that is in the book. Tell us about the tribute to the inauguration of Barack Obama at Legoland.
O'BRIEN: Well, it was a little inauguration. What they had were – up at Legoland, they had the – a thousand little Lego people all surrounding a little White House made out of Lego and a little four-inch tall Barack Obama. And all those found – And this just happened this past January. And they had the inauguration right there, so…
CAVANAUGH: I heard that there were little Lego port-a-potties.
O'BRIEN: Yep, and people were actually lined up out in front of those, so it was very realistic. I don't know.
CAVANAUGH: That's great. And then also from San Diego in the new Ripley's Believe It Or Not book, there's an article – a little item about a couple in Cuyamaca who built an unusual house after they were burned out twice in a wildfire.
O'BRIEN: Oh, yeah, that's a sad story but, you know, it is a Believe It Or Not in itself. They – Skip and Linda Miller had two houses destroyed within a four year period by the wildfires. And they obviously loved their location because they built yet a third time but they partially buried the house and made what was standing above ground out of concrete and fire-resistant materials. So I guess they have to adapt to the community but it's an unusual looking house but it's quite safe from what I hear.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. Well, Tim, describe how this new Ripley book is set up. It's got that moving eye on the cover. What does it look like inside?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, if you just sit the book down it'll follow you out of the room.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, it will.
O'BRIEN: That's the cool part. Yeah, it's -- You know, we like to do on our books like we do on our museums, we like the experience to actually begin before you either go through the front door or open a book or whatever. It's – So it's a 3-D holographic cover. But inside, you know, most of your listeners probably remember Ripley books as they were growing up going to the book fairs at school, the little pen and ink drawings in the little paperback books. But six years ago we created these oversized books. They're coffee table size books. Each has twenty-five to twenty-six hundred Believe It Or Nots in it. And more than 500 color photographs. And, I mean, this particular book, I think the photographs really make the book because it's one thing to hear something but to see it in a full-page, full-color photo is quite – is quite cool. But the book is set up in different chapters. We go everywhere from, you know, the basic strange-but-true and the body oddities to fantastic foods and some stuff on travel, how people get to and from, crazy creatures, animals, feats, extreme Earth, which has got some amazing photography in it and, you know, we just have a lot of fun. We want to make sure—I know it's trite but we want to make sure that there's something in there for everyone whether you like the really gross stuff or if you like the more educational and scientific stuff. Well, we have it. And one thing we've done this year, Maureen, is…
CAVANAUGH: I was going to talk about that, is the website, yeah.
O'BRIEN: Yeah, is a – The thing we've heard in the past was people saying, okay, this is cool but I've Googled it, I can't find more stuff on it. I went to You Tube, I can't find stuff on it. So what we've done this year is some of our major stories we have put like little icons and it tells you to go to our website where you'll find more information. So like the – the Devil's Swimming Pool, which is at the very top of the Victoria Falls, is a place where you can lay there in nice, serene water while the water gushes around you and you're right on the edge of this 200 foot tall waterfalls, which is awesome. And it's a – But we have a picture of that and there's a little icon so you go to Ripleybooks.com and on there you'll see actual video of that…
CAVANAUGH: Wow, that's great.
O'BRIEN: …as well as additional photos. So we wanted to provide, one, more information and, two, to start a lot of more interactive like most people want anymore.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, you mentioned those little pen and ink drawings, the little Ripley's Believe It Or Not books and, of course, this started as a newspaper column with – there was an actual Ripley.
O'BRIEN: Yeah, a lot of people are really surprised about that.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder though, is the original Believe It Or Not title, was that because some of the information in the old days just was not true?
O'BRIEN: No. And, you know, and that's one cool – I'm glad you brought that up, too, because Ripley himself said there's – truth is stranger than fiction.
O'BRIEN: So he wanted to make sure that everything he represented, everything he presented, was genuine and real, the real thing. So all through the years he did that and then we, as caretakers of the brand today, go to a lot of expense every year with DNA testing and Photoshop breakdown and – just to make sure that the stuff that we have is real as well. But what Ripley did, he came up with the term 'believe it or not.' Not is this real or is it fake, but his whole concept was this is real and you can believe it or not.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. I'm speaking with Tim O'Brien. He is Vice President of Ripley Entertainment Publishing and Communication. We're talking about the new Ripley Believe It Or Not book called "Seeing Is Believing." And I'm wondering, Tim, there are so many crazy items in this book, do you have your particular favorites?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, I – Well, that's like asking me which child I like the best. But – But, yeah, I like a bunch of different things there. We've got a cute picture of a four-eared cat. It's…
CAVANAUGH: I saw that, yes.
O'BRIEN: And he looks like the little devil. This cute little perky kitten face looking at you with four ears. You know, and the second pair of ears looks like little devils. But different things, just really simple little things like in Austria, the monks make cheese over there. And what they do is, they play Gregorian chants where they're making the cheese in hopes that it will help stimulate the microorganisms. That makes them grow quicker. And ever since they started doing that, they've won awards for their cheese. Believe it or not. And…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's great. You know, there are – there have always been the Ripley Believe It Or Not stories that are actually pretty hard to take, the people who are – have unusual faces or terribly ugly bugs or – Why do you think so many people are fascinated by these bizarre stories?
O'BRIEN: Curiosity. I mean, how many times did your mother say when you went by something, don't look at that. Or, don't look at that person. Or go by an accident on the highway and you know you're not supposed to look but you do. And that's exactly the same thing that happens to us today. I mean, the curiosity is just awesome. You know, Ripley himself, back in 1929, in his very first book, said I don't have any idea if I'm going to be able to do anymore books because I've got so much stuff in here, I don't know if I can find that many believe it or nots. And we've been putting out books ever since. And we still sit around the table and decide which ones we can't put in the book each year. I mean, the stuff is just awesome and people's – people cannot be satiated enough with the curiosity that we throw out there, even in the time with the computers, the internet, and everything, the TV shows, people still want to turn to Ripley to find the weird. It's – And I'm not complaining. I love it.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of criteria do you have for what gets in the book and what doesn't?
O'BRIEN: What gets in the book and what gets on our TV shows and in our museums and so forth, basically it has to be real and it has to be, you know, very genuine, just not something really, really hokey. But it also has to be family oriented. We take pride in the fact that, you know, all 30 of our Believe It Or Not museums are very family oriented, although there's some real edgy stuff in some of them and some stuff, like you said, isn't really pleasant to look at or to read. But that's basically it. I mean, we'll take anything from, you know, a potato chip that looks like Mother Teresa to one of the items that we were featuring in this new book is a scale model, a one-tenth scale model of the spaceship Columbia, the space shuttle.
O'BRIEN: And it's made out of 600,000 wooden matchsticks. And it is a piece of art that you would love to see. It's – Actually, it's 12 feet long and the wheels turn, the big bay opens, the crane comes out, you look in the window, you see the panel, the seats. I mean, some guy took 22 years to create this.
CAVANAUGH: That is – that is truly, truly amazing. You know, there's a lot in Ripley's that's very much like the Guinness Book of World Records. Do you feel like you're in competition with them?
O'BRIEN: Well, no. Well, same company owns us both.
O'BRIEN: I'll pref…
CAVANAUGH: That's why.
O'BRIEN: I need to preface it with that so, you know, but what doesn't go in one pocket will go in the other. But, yes. Yes, we are in competition with them, specifically about the books. But what – the big difference between the Guinness books and the Believe It Or Not books is the fact that people really try to get into the Guinness book. They practice, they know they're going to do this, they're going to hold their breath the longest, they're going to run the quickest or whatever. But most of the people that we have in our Ripley's books are there because of what they do or who they are. You know, it's hard to believe that, you know, like the guy that made the space shuttle, spent 22 years. He obviously was not trying to do that just to get into Ripley's.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Yes. No, you have to have another motivation for that, yes.
O'BRIEN: Yeah, and people that we feature and items that we feature usually are motivated by something other than the fact that they – the people want to see their face and their name in print. As a matter of fact, some people we do get the items from but they don't want to be associated. No, I did this for fun. Or, this is the collection that my husband had for years. You know, I don't want it anymore, my husband's dead, go ahead and take it but don't give us any credit, just let other people enjoy it.
CAVANAUGH: Finally, I want – I would like you to tell us more about another item in the book from San Diego. It's a special device that's used by scientists at Scripps Institute of Oceanography (sic) and it really is spectacular.
O'BRIEN: Yeah, it's called FLIP, F-l-i-p, which stands for the Floating Instrument Platform, and it's 355 foot long, which is longer than a football field, if you want to picture it that. And what they do, the scientist takes it – they take it out to where they want to do research and then they start sinking one end of it and what happens is that the one end goes down and forms a platform on the bottom of the ocean and the other end, when it sits upright, is actually a living headquarters for the people. And they go ahead and do their – It's five stories tall, the area that they live in. And they have boats, and they do everything right off of that – right off of FLIP then when they're ready to come home again, they start pumping the water out, the boat rights itself and they chug on home.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I wonder how many submissions you get a year. Do you know?
O'BRIEN: Oh, we get a good hundred, hundred and fifty still every week.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow.
O'BRIEN: For our – Because we're still doing the cartoon and we're still doing the books and we're putting out three different books this year, and we're opening four new museums before – by this time next year. So we're in constant need of a lot of good stuff. And we're lucky because it just keeps coming to us. But we have a – On our Ripleybooks.com website, there's a little banner there you can click on and it's 'send us your stuff.' And so if anybody has anything, any stories, any pictures, any video, whatever they want to share with us, that's the way to do it. And then we'll look at it and then we'll get back to you.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us today, Tim.
O'BRIEN: Hey, it – I love to talk about Ripley.
CAVANAUGH: Tim O'Brien is Vice President of Ripley Entertainment Publishing and Communication. And we have been talking about the newest installment of Ripley's Believe It Or Not big book. It's called "Seeing Is Believing." And I want to remind everyone that you can continue the conversations that you hear on These Days, you can continue them online. Post your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays. And stay with us for hour two in just a few minutes.