Ripley’s and the Hyatt: A strange, cultural connection

Steven Backman with his Golden Gate Bridge Replica

HILLS NEWSPAPERS: April 27, 2012

“I have traveled in 201 countries, and the strangest thing I saw was man.” — Robert Ripley

Truer words were never spoken, to coin another phrase. During much of the 20th century, Robert Ripley roamed the planet, looking for oddities to include in his cartoon “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” To say he was eccentric was an understatement.

The Santa Rosa-born man was an oddity himself, sporting a coolie shirt with batwing tie and a pith helmet. His house was a zoo, with a 28-foot boa curled up in a cage and squirrels and chipmunks scampering about as he worked. Oh, and he had girlfriends — five or more at a time — under his roof.

Even Ripley’s death was bizarre. His heart simply gave out during the taping of his television show, at age 58. His legacy, however, lives on.

His daily cartoon is seen in some 200 newspapers worldwide, and Ripley’s attractions draw millions of visitors in 11 countries — and here in the Bay Area.

I had a chance to see several of Ripley’s exhibits the other night and meet a man Ripley would have appreciated, Steven Backman. Backman’s 13-foot replica of the Golden Gate Bridge is in Ripley’s San Francisco museum. He made it entirely out of toothpicks.

Why toothpicks? It all started when Backman was a child.

“I remember finding a box of toothpicks in the kitchen, and I made a little house. Then in the second grade, I made a DNA molecule out of toothpicks for a science project.”

Intime, he made more and more “little tributes,” as he calls them, including three toothpick Cable Cars and the Golden Gate Bridge made of 30,000 toothpicks (and lots of Elmer’s Glue).

The bridge can be seen free of charge this month at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, which has its own distinction of having the world’s largest atrium lobby. The 42,000-plus square foot lobby is the site of several San Francisco exhibits as part of the Hyatt Culture Club. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is the hotel’s cultural partner through June 30.

Along with the toothpick Golden Gate Bridge is a cable car crafted of matchsticks — almost 271,000 of them. It was made by Reg Pollard of Manchester, England, as a way to combat his arthritis. It took 940 hours to complete and is 8 feet long with several moving parts.

Like chicken wire? Australian artist Ivan Lovatt used the medium to sculpt characters in the world of rock music. His twisted wire portraits of Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana are another part of the Ripley’s exhibit in the Hyatt lobby.

When the exhibits return to Ripley’s, they’ll join thousands of strange and unusual treasures at what’s known as “the weirdest thing on the wharf.” Like Backman’s toothpick art, the oddities are a tribute to man’s impressive imagination.


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