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Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! was based on the syndicated newspaper feature created in 1918 by Robert L Ripley, who was fascinated by man-eating clams, fish that swam backwards, and a statue embellished with the sculptor’s own hair, teeth and nails.
The newspaper feature became a popular radio series, before transferring to television in 1949 with Robert L Ripley himself hosting.
On 27 May 1949, less than three months after the series began, Ripley died suddenly. The series continued, hosted by ‘guest custodians’ until Robert St John became permanent host in July 1949.
The program left the air briefly at the end of the year and returned in January 1950 as a dramatic series loosely based on Ripley’s stories.
Each week a guest cast enacted one of his remarkable true tales, usually one involving murder, romance, or both.
32 years after the original television run of Believe It or Not, the series returned with Jack Palance as host. The show continued in the grand tradition, offering up such wonders as a man who kept a cow in his Manhattan apartment, the skeleton of the queen of Portugal, albino gorillas, Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, drive-in funerals, a museum of torture in Peru, secret weapons of World War II and the Texas millionairess who specified in her will that she be buried in her Ferrari, wearing her sexiest nightgown.
Palance and his cohost, Catherine Shirriff – later replaced by Palance’s daughter Holly, and eventually Marie Osmond – were often seen on location marvelling over the bizarre phenomena they uncovered. Palance loved to skulk about in ruins and add a sinister tone to his narration of the stories.
Some features, though, were lighter, such as the first showing of a long-lost production number featuring young Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley that had been cut from the 1939 movie classic The Wizard of Oz.
Others were up-to-date, including wonders of outer space and zero-gravity life aboard the Skylab space station.
Robert L Ripley
Robert St John