Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not: Or how to find fun and profit in the grand tradition of gawking at people labeled different.

January 19, 2015


Like a lot of kids, I was a huge fan of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.”  Today it is easy to see just how much Ripley’s searches for curiosities around the world were actually exercises in exploiting and exhibiting the disabled, the stigmatized, and the exotic savage. In fact, I have often thought about the time Ripley’s column (and, many years later, in Ripley’s museum in midtown Manhattan)  featured the allegedly tallest person in the world. We would happily marvel and gawk, all while remaining clueless that what we were really seeing  was a man dealing with the serious and rare hormonal disorder Acromegaly, in which the pituitary gland produces an excess of growth hormone leading to increased bone size, substantial and abnormal increases in height, and excruciating joint, muscle and bone pain.

But this awareness came later, and I can’t wiggle out of the fact that I once found Ripley’s peculiarities  to be entertaining.

Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” was also especially exciting for me because my grandfather, sometime in the 1920s, had worked as an office boy for Ripley, a fact he recounted with enormous pride and a big smile. Many years later, when working as a summer camp counselor, I created and told a series of campfire and bedtime stories recounting my grandfather’s adventures traveling the world searching out the unusual for Ripley’s column. I probably told somewhere between 80 and 100 stories, which might, for example, have been an account of Papa swimming to the bottom of a crocodile infested lake near Tegucigalpa, dodging Piranhas, and grabbing the largest uncut diamond in the world from the mouth of a giant catfish.

Poor Papa. A guy who in those days probably had trouble coming up with the change to take the subway to Midtown Manhattan. No chance he was ever going to Tegucigalpa.

I share this because the PBS series American Experience is now streaming a documentary about the life of Robert Ripley. There was nothing particularly noble about Ripley. He was shy and awkward and very much a loner. He also, for all the acclaim that came his way and his considerable talent as a cartoonist, was completely reliant on a staff member behind-the-scenes, Mr. Pearlroth, who was never publicly acknowledged as the person who planned and researched almost all of what Ripley “discovered.”

But there is another reason that I recommend the documentary: It seems that every generation has its version of the circus freak show — books, shows, museums, newspapers, broadcasts, and other sites where people can stare at the unusual, at human bodies of shapes and sizes outside the boundaries of what is considered normal. Nothing hits the spot  quite as well as something or someone who — virtually tattooed with the  label  “peculiar,” someone consigned to loneliness on society’s margins — provides us with the opportunity to say out loud  what we already know but can never hear ourselves  say enough:

“Yes, I’m normal!  I really am normal.”

The film reminded me just how much this gawking that can seem at one moment so hilarious and entertaining is often revealed, years after the fact,  for just what it was, an exercise in ridicule in which self-proclaimed normal people label abnormal people and put them on display for profit, as if the exhibited person was not actually a living, breathing, fragile human being. The most recent generation of Ripley’s discoveries may not be quite so insensitive, but it’s not unfair to note that the whole enterprise essentially rests on gawking.

I may wish that people didn’t find pleasure by stigmatizing those labeled “peculiar,” but I’m afraid that every generation seems to have had its version of the sideshow, and – if you doubt it – check out any of the tabloid television talk shows that cynically transform the suffering of poor and stigmatized people into popular entertainment.

Who knew that those trashy talk-show shouting matches had such cultural significance and were actually doing so much more than simply staging fights between the two possible fathers of a child. In fact, they were contributing to what has been a timeless and historic tradition of ridiculing fragile human beings for substantial profit.

At least there’s one thing we won’t have to worry about: we won’t be the guy  who some time in the future shows up at the pearly gates and, when asked what he did during his life to show compassion for his fellow human beings, mumbles while trying to quickly sneak through the gate unnoticed:

“It’s really too hard to explain. Besides, Gabriel, there’s no way you’ve ever heard of something called the Jerry Springer Show, is there? Is there? Wait. Wait. You have seen it? Oh no, not the “Uncles who never shower before coming scantily clad to Thanksgiving dinner” episode? You did?

Wait. Where are you taking me?  No. Please. No. Hot weather gives me rashes.”




La Môme Piaf. Maintenant et pour toujours.

December 26, 2014


December 19, 2015 will be the centennial of Edith Piaf’s birth, although the details of the “Little Sparrow’s” life are shrouded in so much mystery that the precise date may or may not be accurate.

This definitely calls for a celebration.

La Môme Piaf.

Maintenant et pour toujours.



It Was Almost 50 Years Ago Today. Nothing Like it Before or Since. The Beatles at Dodger Stadium. August 28, 1966.

December 6, 2014

I have no idea why, sitting inside in the midst of  a typical cold, dreary, rainy vile New York/New Jersey  pre-winter (disgusting weather being the only aspect of life in my wonderful adopted east coast home to which this SoCal beach kid has never adjusted)  I flashed on a night almost 50 years ago at Dodger Stadium.

It was the warm southern California night of August 28, 1966, and my sister and I were in the stands watching The Beatles live in concert. The only video I could find of that event is this raggedy 8mm silent film taken by one of the concert-goers. Their excitement is evident in their inability to keep their hands still.

You will note in the brief film that the letters advertising the sponsoring LA radio station — KRLA — is more prominently visible than the group singing. This was in the day when radio stations were the make or break powerhouses that determined the fate of rock and roll acts.

If you ask my sister, I think she would agree that — while it was virtually impossible to hear the music — the excitement almost certainly represented the most visceral and intense experience we had had up to that point in our lives. I still have the program and ticket stub.

My sister may not remember this (I only did moments ago) but  our beyond-wonderful Mom surprised us with the tickets at least partially as a reward for a pretty difficult tonsillectomy I had undergone earlier that summer.

I’ll never, ever forget it.

This was the set-list.

Now, to share what a first-rate live Beatles concert was like in a non-stadium venue, look at this excerpt from a Paris concert, my fave of many that can now be found on YouTube.

All Hail Doreen Ketchens. She is amazing. A great musician, clarinetist, vocalist. Stunning.

December 3, 2014

Correction 12.11.14:  My earlier  post below revealed — I am embarrassed to say — my ignorance of the work of much admired, travelled, and honored  jazz clarinetist Doreen Ketchens.  I just had not heard of her.

But I have now and will be a permanent fan.


All I know is that her name might be Doreen and that she is a street musician in  NOLA.

Now I’m waiting for someone to tell me that she really is a famous performer who I simply don’t recognize.

It was 75 years ago yesterday

October 12, 2014

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the day the great Coleman Hawkins recorded his legendary version of Body and Soul.

Listen. Just amazing.

Marian Seldes 1928 – 2014

October 8, 2014


I wish I could remember where or when.

I can’t.

But sometime in the last 12 years, under circumstances I can’t recall, I found myself in a small room with several others preparing to listen as  Marian Seldes, the legendary actor who died earlier this week at the age of 86, recited a poem.

The first and only introductory words she spoke was the title: The Truly Great by Sir Stephen Spender.

And then she began. No commentary.

I was stunned. The poem has always been a favorite of mine, a classic panegyric ending with a soaring verse about those who, even during short lives, choose to live with fiery passion and leave us in awe of their courage and honor.

It was magic, and however in the world I found myself in that room, I will always be grateful.

And always will remember Marian Seldes as one who, as Spender wrote:


Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour


Marian Seldes. Dim the lights.

I love Wanda Sykes. I really love Wanda Sykes.

September 19, 2014



I have a confession.

People in my line of work spend a lot of time studying society and its institutions (in my case, the criminal justice system, traumatic violence, and mass media institutions) and often keep ourselves out of the analysis. Far too often, some of the great discussions I have had with my students at Hunter College have focused on their attitudes and their behavior as members of a global audience in the digital age.

But I’m an audience member too, and — like all audience members — I have personal tastes and preferences in media and culture, even tastes that lead me smack dab into 100 proof fandom.  And I mean heart quickening, wobbly-leg fandom that can border on lunacy.

The little compartment where my insane fan resides  is usually well guarded and secured with inhibitions and my basic shyness. But it is also one heck of a lively place, and where pretty much all my cynicism about the culture of celebrity goes down the drain, replaced by the same kind of uncritical adulation and infatuation that I sometimes have the nerve, the downright hypocrisy, to make fun of when I see it in other people.

So here goes nothing.

I love Wanda Sykes.

I love her gut splitting hilarity, her irreverence, her incredible personal courage, her love for her children and wife, her live standup performances so hilarious that they should come with the same warning about heart disease and pregnancy that you see on roller coasters, and the forthright and unique way she speaks about social justice issues.

I love Wanda Sykes.

I love the fearless and drop-dead funny performance she gave in front of President  Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner several years ago.

I love the occasional appearances she made on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, playing a character with an acutely tuned BS meter who almost immediately saw through all of Larry’s antics, including his occasional lapses into subtle and not-so-subtle racism.

I love how she fearlessly wades into the complicated and uncomfortable morass of the awkward relationships between whites and people of color.

But most of all, I love the pure physical feeling of laughing so hard that I completely lose control of so many of the restraints and inhibitions and neuroses that are part of who I am.

It is joyful. It is liberating. It makes me the kind of less intense, less clench-fisted, less judgmental person that I want to be.

So let me shout it to the heavens one more time:  I love Wanda Sykes.

And tonight I see her perform live. If I am somehow incapacitated, my classes will be canceled on Monday.


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