Ripley's museum gets family-friendly makeover
LOS ANGELES – A gruesome photo gallery of men and women impaled by arrows, augers and pipes is gone from the Ripley's Believe It or Not museum in Hollywood.
And don't expect to see any displays of medieval chastity belts or tongs used to torture victims of the Spanish Inquisition.
These and other macabre oddities have been replaced by such exhibits as a painting of Marilyn Monroe made entirely of candy, a mounted two-headed calf and the world's smallest drivable car.
It's all part of a new family-friendly look at 33 Ripley's Believe It or Not museums around the world. The Hollywood location shifted to less-creepy displays after a $3.5-million renovation that museum operators hope will draw huge crowds this summer.
"We really wanted to push this as a family place," said museum general manager Andrea Silverman, who estimates that the new exhibits have already increased attendance about 40 percent. "We wiped out the entire museum to bring in an entirely new show."
The makeover represents one of the final pieces in the overhaul of Hollywood Boulevard, a loud, colorful commercial district that has gone from downtrodden and scary in the 1970s and 1980s to glitzy and crowded today.
The boulevard, which draws an estimated 14 million visitors a year, has benefited from several multimillion-dollar projects over the last few years, starting with the 2001 completion of the $650-million Hollywood & Highland entertainment complex.
Since then, strong tourist demand has helped spur several other high-profile projects on Hollywood Boulevard, including the $55-million Madame Tussauds wax statue attraction in 2009, plus the Hard Rock Cafe and the $600-million W Hotel, both of which opened in 2010.
The Hollywood Wax Museum completed a renovation last year and the TCL Chinese Theater – formerly known as Grauman's Chinese – closed this month to complete a remodeling project to accommodate a 94-foot-wide IMAX screen.
The new shimmering facades and pricey tourist attractions represent a dramatic reversal for the boulevard, which was known in the 1970s and '80s as a haven for runaways, prostitutes and drug dealers.
"We've made considerable progress in upgrading the neighborhood," said Leron Gubler, president and chief executive of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "It's nice that businesses are reinvesting and upgrading."
The Ripley's museum has been at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue for 20 years, displaying the freakish and the morbid. Regular admission is $16.99 for adults, $8.99 for children.
Over the last few years, Silverman said, many parents had demanded refunds, saying the exhibits were not appropriate for children. The museum closed for 3 months late last year to install 350 new exhibits, including a new collection of Marilyn Monroe clothes and photos.
Silverman, who has managed the museum for five years, said she agreed with the call from her corporate bosses to remove many of the extreme exhibits. The Ripley's museums and aquariums are owned and operated by Florida-based Ripley's Entertainment, a subsidiary of Vancouver, Canada-based Jim Pattison Group.
Still, Silverman said she cherished many of the macabre exhibits and hated to store them away in a warehouse in Florida, including the skeleton of a two-headed baby.
"I was literally crying when I was packing it away," she said.
A few chilling curiosities remain on display, including a real shrunken human head and a sword used by the Japanese military to execute rebels and insurgents in the 1920s and '30s.
Some recent visitors to the museum – parents and children – say they have no problem with gruesome and freakish exhibits.
Jocelyn Diaz, a tourist from Guam who visited the museum with her husband, Ramon, and their two daughters, Beatrice, 13, and Jasmine, 11, said she would not demand a refund if her children saw photos of impaled people.
"They are intelligent enough to understand what is going on," she said of her daughters, adding that her 11-year-old's favorite display was a mounted one-eyed goat.
Other parents said exhibits such as the shrunken skull and the two-headed calf are appropriate only for kids older than 5 or 6.
"I have a 10-year-old grandson and I think he would love it," said Bettie Williams, a tourist from Birmingham, Ala.
Such reactions are good news for Silverman, who said she wants to retain a few extreme displays. For example, she was recently offered the remains of an eight-legged puppy.
"I can't wait to get it," she said. "That's my baby."