palanceripley

THE WAX CARTOONIST IN THE CHAPEL

Guess which of these men is fake. Hint: It’s the one whose smile actually seems genuine.

Between 1971 and 1998, Santa Rosa had a Ripley museum near downtown. No, it wasn’t one of the amusement halls as can be visited down on Fisherman’s Wharf, with its shrunken heads and other curiosities. This was a museum dedicated to the memory of Robert Ripley, whose popular “Believe it or Not!” syndicated cartoons made him a celebrity. He was also a Santa Rosa native and is buried in the Odd Fellows cemetery.

Despite his fame, it’s a bit of a puzzle why anyone would want to create a museum in his honor. A biography was published a few years ago which I reviewed here; Ripley, I wrote, was “a creepy, manipulative jerk that seemed to fundamentally dislike people, probably himself most of all.” He had few (if any) friends and when he died in 1949 he passed mostly unmourned, with hardly anyone turning out for his funeral other than immediate family.

Still, his was a household name even after death and Santa Rosa enthusiastically endorsed the idea of the museum. No surprise; after all, if this city is known for anything it’s for leeching off the names of famous people who lived here, so Robert Ripley slips in neatly post-Luther Burbank and pre-Charles Schulz.

A Ripley museum had been proposed twice while he was still alive, both times by Ripley himself. And he specified it had to be in a particular building – the Church From One Tree.

Portion of the "Believe it or Not!" cartoon published on Nov. 5, 1928
Portion of the “Believe it or Not!” cartoon published on Nov. 5, 1928
Even before Ripley was born in 1890, the church was a local landmark and a West Coast tourist attraction (see sidebar below). It was actually the First Baptist Church, located at the corner of Ross and B streets, and the Ripley family were members – well, his mother, at least. His father Isaac was among those who helped build it in 1873. The church gained much wider recognition when Ripley included it in one of his cartoons that appeared in newspapers everywhere.

Ripley’s first bid for the church came in 1940, when he wrote to the pastor and political leaders that he wished to buy it “to house the relics, records and mementoes of early California days” alongside his own “exhibits sufficient to make a complete and interesting museum.” (Decades later, Hugh Codding tried the same feint by claiming he planned to donate a museum to the Historical Society while just a ‚Äúremainder would be devoted” to his taxidermy collection, which ended up glomming most of the building.)


THE CHURCH BUILT FROM ONE TREE

Before the Ripley museum and even before Ripley’s Believe it or Not! cartoon with the church, it was a tourist attraction; by the turn of the century they had a gift shop selling souvenirs and postcards, such as the one seen below.

The original redwood tree was as tall as a 25 story building and was logged in 1873 by the Murphy Bros. company in Guerneville. Knowing they had an order for wood to be used in building a church from ground up, Rufus Murphy kept lumber cut from that tree separated. Only when the church was dedicated the following year did he reveal it all came from a single tree.

In the mid-1890s an article in Pacific Baptist magazine questioned the origin story. By then the church was so well known that disputing item was widely printed nationwide. To refute the charges, Santa Rosa attorney Thomas J. Butts, who had worked at the sawmill as a youth, published in 1900 an affidavit (reproduced at the end of this article) specifying all particulars related to the tree and the millwork, including names of all men involved. Butts wrote the Murphys decided to use the tree in order to promote California redwood as high quality lumber and also “as an advertisement for his mill,” which was then lagging behind its Guerneville competition as the #3 sawmill in the area.

churchpostcard1900

A year passed before it was agreed the city would buy the land and Ripley would move the church elsewhere. Gone was any mention of objects of historical interest; now the whole museum would be Ripley’s “curioddities” which the mayor gushed would make it “one of the principal tourist attractions in the state.” Ripley was expected to arrive here in a few days to seal the deal – but everyone forgot about it five days later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Ripley’s next bid came in 1947. Now it was proposed to be “a shrine in memory of the cartoonist’s mother” while “housing a museum of California pioneer life,” according to the Press Democrat, and moved to an undetermined city park. Robert L. Ripley died before this plan was seriously considered.

Anyone who lived in Santa Rosa during the mid-1950s will recall the next chapter of our story. The Baptists had outgrown the church and planned to build a new one at the corner of Sonoma Ave and Yulupa Ave (today it’s the New Vintage Church). The city, meanwhile, really, really, wanted the B and Ross street location for a new parking lot. Thus in 1956 it was agreed Santa Rosa would buy the property while the church would give away the building to any non-profit, non-sectarian group that vowed to preserve it (or any portion of it).

But this time there was no Robert Ripley ridin’ to the rescue – no group said, “yes, please, we’d like to move an 83 year-old building which is already known to have structural problems” and that the Baptists refused to consider offers from other churches certainly cut down on the already limited options. As time passed it increasingly looked like demolition was in store.

The city of Santa Rosa finally agreed to take the building, justifying the donation of a church because it was an historical monument and tourist attraction. There was still no firm decision on where to put it; the leading contender was Franklin Park, followed by Burbank Gardens, the Junior College and Juilliard Park. One letter-writer to the PD suggested leaving it where it was, just raising it and building a parking lot underneath.

Also, the city council said it would not use public money to pay the projected $13,500 moving costs (about $138k today). To its credit the Press Democrat spearheaded a major fundraising campaign, publishing dozens of stories about the effort and listing names of donors. The biggest single event was a gigantic rummage sale on the west side of Courthouse Square, where $3,300 was raised. Among items sold were women’s fur coats and an automobile; it was considered to be the largest event of its kind ever held in the North Bay.

An estimated 5,000 people attended the June 1, 1957 rummage sale to raise funds for moving the Church From One Tree. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
An estimated 5,000 people attended the June 1, 1957 rummage sale to raise funds for moving the Church From One Tree. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The rummage sale was held less than three weeks before an option would expire on a choice parcel adjacent to Juilliard Park, and the fund was still short. The PD redoubled its efforts by running coupons for 1,000 readers to send in one dollar to save the church, donor names to appear on a “permanent plaque”. It was a nail-biter, but the fund crossed the threshold a single day before the deadline. The building was moved to its present location (technically 492 Sonoma Avenue) during the autumn of 1957.

At the close of the 1960 Rose Festival there was an official dedication ceremony and about a hundred visitors per day stopped by during the monthlong open house. Then after that…zip. It was available for $5/day to educational or cultural groups, but if there were any events they weren’t publicized. The rest of the 1960s went by with hardly any mention of it in the papers aside from “on this day in the past” nostalgia items.

Come 1970, when the Church of One Tree was more likely the Church of Many Cobwebs for having sat undisturbed over a decade, someone recalled how Robert Ripley was hankering to use it as a museum. Santa Rosa was already Ripley-curious; in 1967 Ripley International Inc. opened its “Believe It Or Not” museum at Fisherman’s Wharf and the PD reported “plans are being made to bring part of the museum to Santa Rosa. It will be placed on display in a downtown location.” While that didn’t happen, a deal between the city and the corporation was made with remarkable speed, and by October 1970 it was settled the church would be rechristened as the “Robert L. Ripley Memorial Museum and Library.”

ripleycouponA group calling itself “Friends of Robert L. Ripley” was formed. Together with the Sonoma County Historical Society and Press Democrat, they declared “a worldwide search is underway for Ripley letters, cartoons and other items to display in the church,” the PD reported. For months the paper published the coupon shown at right to solicit donations.

Mementoes and ephemera trickled in but the gleanings were thin. Ripley’s nephews donated christmas cards received by his sister and snapshots of his homes. There were autographed copies of his cartoon books. Someone had letters an armless boy wrote to Ripley. There was a note sent to him by a Santa Rosa man asking why there was a Ripley street in town; Ripley replied it was named after himself (that was a lie – the street dates back at least to the 1870s).

Items loaned by Ripley Int’l were mostly photos of Ripley globetrotting or schmoozing with celebs in nightclubs. The museum borrowed a suitcase with stickers from all over the world, his pith helmet and the Chinese dressing gown and slippers he liked to wear while drawing. For some reason known only to himself, Ripley hung onto the front door from his childhood home at 117 Orchard street and now that was coming back to Santa Rosa, too.

And then there was the creepy wax figure of Ripley sitting at a drawing board.

It didn’t look much like him; as I wrote earlier, what defined his appearance were his buck teeth, which flipped outward in such a disturbing manner it appeared he was wearing something from a joke shop. The eyes and nose were also wrong and the real Ripley had a doughy face. In short, the wax model was extremely flattering to how he really looked. And then there was the bizarre expression, simultaneously wary and bemused.

The Ripley museum opened June 1971. What few photos can found of the interior shows the walls lined with standard museum display cases and blowups of some of his cartoon panels resting on easels. A panel told the history of the church. There were also some oddities on loan from the “Believe it or Not” collections including a fur-covered trout, a porcupine fish and a stuffed calf with two heads.

ripleyraccoon(LEFT: Crawford Brooks looks on as raccoon owner Drew Goetjen makes a paw print in front of the Ripley dummy. Press Democrat, Sept. 9 1971)

The museum had a promising start; in the first three months the Ripley museum drew over 5,000 visitors. Curator Crawford Brooks had a talent for dreaming up PR stunts, such as establishing the world’s only “museum pet register.” Brooks appeared on Johnny Carson in 1973 and a few years later several people who had been immortalized by Ripley were invited to the museum for a photo op. The star was Plennie Wingo, who walked from Santa Monica to Boston – backwards. (He made other backward treks in Europe and backwalked again from California to Texas.)

But there were also problems. Someone stole the left arm off the wax figure in 1972 and in 1974 two 16 year-olds broke in and ransacked the place, turning over display cases and pulling both arms off the Ripley figure after stripping it. (I am astonished those boys didn’t think to steal the head. All the young punks I knew when I was that age would have realized it was an opportunity for some truly epic prank.)

ripleyvandalized(RIGHT: Vandals disarmed the Robert Ripley wax model. Press Democrat, April 14 1974)

Attendance steadily dwindled over the following years. There was a call for volunteers to become docents but it appears no one wanted to. It was no longer open seven days a week, hours became restricted to midday and it was closed except during warm weather months. It wasn’t open at all for most of 1984 because repairs were being made after a fire damaged the steeple and roof. (It started on the outside wall by the men’s restroom and believed to have been arson, but never proven.) The interior and Ripley exhibits were unharmed, including the wax cartoonist.

By 1988 there was talk at City Hall about either moving the church again or kicking out the museum so it could be rented for weddings, concerts and such. City Manager Ken Blackman told City Council the building “will never amount to much” at that location, and $20k was approved for a consultant to study the issue (of course).

ripleypostcardIn fairness, some measure of those problems were the city’s fault – the place wasn’t easy for visitors to find. There was no signage and out-of-towners were given directions it was “across from Burbank Gardens” or “in Juilliard Park.” People were upset enough about this that they wrote letters to the Press Democrat once they were back home.

The Robert L. Ripley Memorial Museum and Library closed in 1997 or 1998. The exact date isn’t known because its closing wasn’t noted by the PD – it hadn’t been mentioned in the paper for years, in fact.

Moving the church – sans museum – came up again in 2001. (When it was being considered earlier, Gaye LeBaron’s city-hall-know-it-all, Sam the Shark, quipped they should just put the thing on rollers and start promoting it as the “Church Built on Four Wheels.”)

This time the proposal was to send it three blocks east to Rae Park as part of a new “Heritage Park” that would stretch from the Burbank Gardens to E street on the south side of Sonoma Ave. Also to be moved there was the Hoag house, which has since been demolished. The project received unanimous approval from the city Planning Commission but the estimated $1.5M price tag was too much for even our spendthrift City Council.

With the Church From One Tree about to celebrate its 150th birthday in 2023, the Old Dear is probably ready for another century-plus after recent major renovations to stabilize the structure and restore the stained glass windows. It can be rented via the Santa Rosa city website, which also has a very good virtual tour of the interior.

 

(TOP PHOTO: “Believe it or Not” TV shows have been a mainstay of the broadcast industry since 1949, when the earliest version was hosted by Ripley himself. This photo was from the 1981 revival on ABC, when host Jack Palance filmed a segment at the Santa Rosa museum. Palance is most remembered as the gangster or cowboy who killed someone and/or was killed himself in that movie you watched for a few minutes on TCM some time ago.)

 

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