Only 90 miles away from Cuba lies one of Florida’s most majestic treasures, Key West. The island city, also known as the continental US’s southernmost point, is part of the Florida Keys archipelago. While the island is home to beautiful coral reefs, pastel-painted quaint houses, incredible diving and snorkeling, Key West has other ‘delicacies’ that make it a quirky city.
Ernest Hemingway’s energy and presence can still be felt throughout Key West. His famous home is open to the public. Visitors can take tours of the house and even his studio, where he spent most of his time working.
Hemingway loved to sail his boat and fish the Gulf Stream, but did you know he also had a rare artifact that Ripley’s Believe It or Not! couldn’t help but obtain? The famed author was a fan of shrunken heads and had a Jivaro shrunken female torso! Believe it or not, it is one of only four known to exist, Ripley’s owning two.
The shrunken head has become iconic for Ripley’s, and it’s been a part of our collection from day one. We’d have to thank our greatest standing vendor H. M. (Herman Mark) Lissauer, who passed away in 2014, for supplying us with some astounding ethnographic exhibits from the deepest corners of the globe.
The Jivaro Indians were known for their head-shrinking skills. They called it tsantsa. The heads were not only trophies, but were considered influential as they were kept to help warriors become stronger because the spirit of their enemy was trapped and ultimately conquered by their tribe.
Ripley Florida History
During the winter of 1946, Robert Ripley took his Chinese Junk, Mon Lei, from Mamaroneck, New York, to Tampa, Florida. He considered it his three-month snowbird vacation.
Ripley had the Mon Lei refurbished, with a new engine and improved look. Since Chinese belief says spirits of dragons propel boats, Ripley had the vessel painted with eyes, teeth and whiskers. He removed the lifting rudder and tiller, replacing them with a wheelhouse and wheel steering. To scare evil spirits, Ripley placed a yin and yang flag upon the Mon Lei.
“He made several stops before getting to Florida but then parked it in Miami,” said Edward Meyer, VP Exhibits & Archives. “He was in Key West between Christmas and New Years with the boat docked at Mallory Square. He made several public appearances in town, and recorded a radio show from the ship parked at Mallory.”
Ripley traveled deep into the Everglades to film Seminole Indians on the Mon Lei and even held weddings on it for some of his closest friends.
Ripley’s Key West Odditorium
Our first Key West Odditorium opened in August of 2002, staying open for ten years. This original franchise location was inside of a converted Vaudeville theater. The company bought back the Odditorium and moved locations—rather a historic theater, now a bank converted nightclub. Keeping true to this history, you’ll find a nightclub vibe throughout the Odditorium’s design. Different from any of our other locations, there’s nonmuseum lighting, chromatic bar railings, a reflection pool that—we kid you not—glitters and an outdoor balcony. It screams Duval Street!
Above Ripley’s Key West Odditorium, you’ll find a topless bar. Next door a biker pub. Centralized in the town’s lively downtown, Duval Street is where we call home!
While hurricane Irma might have crashed its way through Florida, it never tore us apart. If anything, the storm taught us that life is short, and we should learn to let loose and be grateful for what we have.
Growing up in Florida, my family took me across the U.S. and overseas, but one of my fondest memories was going to Key West as a child every summer. I remember this is where my grandfather taught me to fish, where my mother instructed me to pose in the same direction of the sea breeze so I could get the right wind in my hair, where my grandmother taught me to cook and where I fell in love with horror stories when I was taken to see Robert the Enchanted Doll. It’s an island where I felt connected to the universe, soaking up that salty gulf water, spending hours outside Hemingway’s house writing short stories and poems. I made an effort to come once a year for relaxation, for getting down with Fantasy Fest and getting weird at Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
The weird hasn’t stopped since Irma’s quick visit. If you haven’t noticed, she checked out and you should be checking in! #KeysStrong