Believe It : Ripley's Museum of the Seemingly Impossible Opens Today in Buena Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, step right up. A veritable warehouse of side show freakishness and oddities, Orange County's first Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, opens today in a converted pet store on Beach Boulevard.

Want to see a man swallow a whole lemon? It's right there on a video screen. How about a stuffed model of a two-headed calf, an eight-legged pig, a man born with double pupils or a model of the late Liberace, complete with piano, made of brown paper bags from an A&P; supermarket?

They are all contained in the museum, the 14th of its kind in the world built around the collections and discoveries of comic strip cartoonist Robert L. Ripley. The museum was built under license of the Ripley's organization in Toronto, which supplied many of the artifacts from a Florida warehouse.

The museum is the latest addition to Orange County's tourist lineup. While the museum is not in the league of Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and the newly opened Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, owner Ronald M. Fong says he hopes Ripley's can draw up to 300,000 visitors--adults paying $6.50 each and children $3.25--during the first year of operation.

But it may not get off to the quickest of starts. The opening is coming on the tail end of the tourist season--an odd time to open a museum of oddities.

It wasn't planned that way. Construction delays prevented a planned July 4 opening, pushing back the debut to the end of summer--when the tourist torrent has turned to a trickle. Fong has said he is not discouraged, however, since the summer trade this year was particularly slow across Southern California.

Fong, who owns the Movieland Wax Museum across the street and a San Francisco Wax Museum, said he believes the new $900,000 exhibit will appeal to the gawker in all of us.

"It's human curiosity," he said. "They'll be able to see things they never heard of."

Or maybe never wanted to hear of. Some of the exhibits are, well, not for the squeamish.

One video screen displays a man who eats lighted cigarettes. It also shows a woman with a knack for stacking double-edged razor blades in her mouth.

In developing the museum, Fong has employed some of the same techniques that made the Movieland museum a model for realism in static displays. The various rooms are built into sets, or environments, in which the visitors feel as though they are entering a forbidden tomb or clamoring through a twisting tunnel during an earthquake. Fong said he designed the exhibits himself.

Many of the exhibits use wax figures. The 15 wax creations range from dwarfs to the 8-foot, 11-inch Robert Wadlow, the tallest man known to have ever lived. Eleven video screens tell some of the stories of exhibits as part of a joint promotion with Pioneer Electronics Inc.

For a little historical trivia, a special display shows off the crushed Chevrolet Sprint in which 57-year-old Buck Helm survived for four days on the collapsed Nimitz Freeway after the San Francisco earthquake last year. The car, no more than 3 feet tall, rests on a bed of newspaper clippings concerning the earthquake. Helm died after his rescue from the freeway, and the car was donated by his family.

Fong said the exhibit was mostly completed two weeks ago, but crews have remained working feverishly on the Spanish-style exterior. On Wednesday, workers were hastily laying sod and patching the stucco.

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