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During the heyday of the comic strip Ripley's Believe It or Not! in the 1930s and '40s, many people who appeared in the illustrated feature--which began in 1918 as a collection of sports feats--"would leave word they wanted that mentioned in their obituary," says Mark Sloan, curator of the exhibit "Dear Mr. Ripley: Treasures From the Believe It or Not! Archive," now at the Harold Washington Library Center. "It's hard to imagine today what a big deal this was." When Sloan stumbled on Robert Ripley's archives in Toronto a few years ago, he found a trove of documents readers had sent to Ripley to prove their claims, some of them decidedly unofficial looking: "Things were written on banana leaves, aluminum foil, notarized by nuns." The exhibit includes some of these items as well as 126 photographs, including one of Charles Russel, an employee of a south-side lunchroom holding up his sister in one hand and 12 cups of coffee in the other--while on ice skates. Another photo shows local auto mechanic Joseph Steinlauf with one of his inventions: a bedroom bike. "Chicago was one of Ripley's major towns," says Sloan. "At the Century of Progress, his Odditorium was the most attended event there. And his cartoon, a high percentage of the people who ended up there were from the Chicago area. I don't know why. Maybe it's the cold--there's nothing else to do."

"Dear Mr. Ripley" continues at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, through January 9. Call 312-747-4050.

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