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Freakish Things Are on the Way, Believe It or Not

April 29, 1990|CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENA PARK — Believe it or not, the newest tourist attraction in Orange County this summer will not be another Splash Mountain or Boomerang.

It will be a nine-foot-long mural of the Last Supper fashioned from pieces of burnt toast. And a coat of armor made of coconut fiber, and a stuffed two-headed calf and wine made out of mice fetuses.

These are some of the 200 items that will be displayed in a former pet store that is being converted into the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum across the street from the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park.

The list of items in the collection sound like they came right off the cover of a supermarket tabloid. But Ronald M. Fong, owner of Movieland and the new Ripley's, says he thinks the exhibit will appeal to simple human curiosity.

"It's just that natural instinct to believe it or not. It's in all of us," Fong said.

Ripley's, which is set to open July 4, will share some similarities to Movieland. Visitors will wander through a maze of exhibits, including about 30 wax figures--like the tallest man who ever lived and a dwarf who inhabited a bird cage.

"Ripley's is a place where you can see things that you can't see anywhere else," said Bob Masterson, general manager of Ripley's at its main office in Toronto.

In an age where it can cost millions of dollars to build an amusement ride, the new museum is being done on a tight budget. Fong said he has engineered the entire deal, from creation of the wax figures to lease of the building, for $750,000 by using his own Movieland craftsmen and technicians.

Under the franchising arrangement, Fong will pay royalties to Ripley's in return for loan of the exhibits and use of the name.

"We can do it cheaper because we do everything ourselves," Fong said, adding the normal cost has been halved. The museum will probably have an admission price of $6.95 for adults, he said.

Masterson said the Buena Park display will be one of 10 Ripley's museums in the nation and 14 in the world. Situated in the heart of Orange County's tourist district, he said he hopes the new museum will draw throngs from nearby Movieland, Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland.

He said the company scouted the area as a site for a new museum for nearly two decades, but it was not until Fong came along that Ripley's had a suitable franchisee.

"We're a growth-oriented company to begin with, very visible in our market," Masterson said. "We have always wanted to be in each major city in America. We want to go into an area where people are traveling, having a good time, generally on vacation and looking for something to do with their time. You can't go into a shopping center. You want people who are in the market for leisure activities."

Ripley's is also hoping to establish new museums in New York and Chicago. The company previously operated museums in both cities but pulled out when the areas in which they were situated decayed.

Masterson said Ripley's has enough artifacts to stock several more museums from its 1,000-square-foot warehouse in St. Augustine, Fla., where the company's first permanent museum was founded in 1950.

The museums are based on the collection of explorer Robert Ripley, who wandered the world looking for the weird and wonderful, morbid and macabre. His fame grew through his Believe It or Not! comic strip, which he wrote until his death in 1949, and still runs in about 200 North American newspapers.

Every museum has its own unique collection. Masterson said all the items are authentic, and even the wax figures are exact replicas of unusual people.

Fong has been promised displays ranging from a Sasquatch "Bigfoot" footprint to money made out of an elephant's tail.

Fong's museum will have what Masterson says he considers to be the company's single best exhibit: a wooden statue that a Japanese artist carved of himself to give to his girlfriend in the belief that he was about to die of tuberculosis. He gave the statue his own hair, teeth and fingernails. After the work was complete--or so the story goes--the artist found out that he wasn't going to die after all.

And, Masterson added, the Buena Park museum will have no \o7 ordinary \f7 shrunken head, but "the only known shrunken head of a Chinese man," reportedly the involuntary donation of a missionary who did not get friendly enough with the natives.

To give the museum a little local flavor, Fong said he plans to include an exhibit of Hollywood memorabilia, including Maxwell Smart's shoe phone and the deadly flying derby of James Bond's nemesis Odd Job.

The items will be grouped into different sections of the museum under such headings as the "Asian Arts Gallery" and "Pain and Death." The stuffed two-headed calf and a wax likeness of the world's tallest man are destined for the "Freaks of Nature" area.

The display will also include a letter written on a pea pod and tapestries made from dryer lint. There is even a New Guinean prophylactic, although its resting place is yet to be determined.

"I'm still trying to decide how to display that," Fong said.

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