Thomas Alexander (T. Alec) Rigby was an adventurous entrepreneur, and an entrepreneurial adventurer, who traversed the seas of commerce with the same derring-do he used to skipper his beloved sailboats.
For more than 20 years, he owned Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a business that capitalizes on public fascination with oddities. Ripley books and syndicated newspaper cartoons are filled with strange facts and stories, such as that of the woman who ran 365 marathons in the same number of days, or the man who walked backward around the world with the aid of a mirror.
Ripley Odditoriums, the company’s version of museums, are filled with the bizarre, the wondrous and the just plain icky. A shrunken head, a medieval wrist-crusher and a cosmonaut’s urine-collection bag are among thousands of rarities on display in Ripley museums around the world. The public is free to believe in their authenticity, or not.
Under Mr. Rigby’s guidance, Robert Ripley’s initial cartoon, drawn in 1919, became an empire.
Mr. Rigby was born on April 6, 1928, in St. Catharines, Ont. He was the eldest of three children, and only son born to Thomas and Jean Rigby. Thomas Rigby owned a construction business and lumberyard. He was sufficiently prosperous to send his son, from 1940 to 1944, to Ridley College, a private boys’ school in St. Catharines. For his final year of high school, the teen attended St. Catharines Collegiate.
Alec Rigby sailed with his family and excelled at hockey and football in school, but these were leisure activities. The young man was impatient for the real world, where he could establish himself. University was not his calling. He had ambition, a flair for business and energy to burn. His sister Caroline Rigby said, “He just wanted to get on with things.”
After graduating, he trained as a deep-sea diver and worked on salvage. A man of medium height with a powerful build, he then hitchhiked across Canada, living and working with native communities while earning a living as a lumberjack.
In his early 20s, Mr. Rigby married Joan Stewart, a farm girl from the Niagara area. He bought a Texaco station near the QEW and, like many station owners of the day, displayed his name proudly above the door. His wife initially assisted as a cashier, but the arrival of four children – Jill, Tom, Penny and Sally – soon necessitated she stay at home.
Public attractions fascinated him, and he decided to build a swimming pool for families. But any old pool wouldn’t do: In a hint of things to come, he decided it had to be the biggest in the world.
Sportsland Park, built in the early 1960s at Highways 400 and 7, boasted a pool that was Olympic size in width and many times Olympic-sized in length. It was so big, and could contain so many swimmers, that lifeguards patrolled its perimeter on horseback. Mr. Rigby purchased a miniature railway from Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and added it to the gigantic watery attraction. Families flocked to partake of the park’s pleasures, but Mr. Rigby wasn’t content. He wanted even bigger, even better.
An irresistible opportunity presented itself in 1959. John Arthur, a New York impresario and Broadway financier who owned Ripley’s at the time, put out word that Ripley’s franchises were available. Two Ripley Odditoriums already existed in New York and in St. Augustine, Fla. Fascinated by Ripley cartoons as a child, Mr. Rigby sold Sportsland and bought in. His first Odditorium opened in Niagara Falls at the beginning of 1963. Crowds lined up to get in. Mr. Arthur and Mr. Rigby opened two further Odditoriums, one in Chicago and one in San Francisco. By 1969, Mr. Rigby had bought Mr. Arthur out, becoming sole owner of the Ripley’s business. That same year, he moved company headquarters from New York to Toronto.
In the early 1970s, in order to raise funds for the purchase of more Ripley locations, Mr. Rigby took the company public. Under his direction, the number of Ripley museums increased from four to nine. Shortly thereafter Mr. Rigby, impatient with being accountable to shareholders, purchased their shares back. By 1976, he was once again sole owner.