Submitted for a town's consideration: Can a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Museum, a chain that proudly boasts such exhibits as the Eight-Legged Pig and a cinematic homage to the world's fattest man, tastefully coexist in the historic Colonial capital of Williamsburg, with its reverential tributes to Virginia's--yeah, the nation's--Founding Fathers?
Or, put another way: Why not be able to walk through a revered town where, in one day, you could stand on the hallowed floor of the House of Burgesses where Patrick Henry delivered his stirring orations and then, minutes later, find yourself staring at an attraction known simply as Shrunken Human Head, which in another age was severed from an unlucky warrior and boiled down to the size of a man's fist by the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador?
Ripley's wants to build a museum in Williamsburg--an "Odditorium," in Ripleyese. Aghast civic leaders--too polite to say how truly aghast they are--have welcomed the idea in much the same way they might have greeted a redcoat at the Boston Tea Party.
With a thumbs-down from the city's architectural guardians, a quiet guerrilla battle is brewing: Call it the Freakish vs. the Sacred.
Virginia has been through such preservation tussles before, most notably when Disney's "imagineers" attempted to plop a history theme park within cannonball range of the Manassas battlefield a few years ago. In the end, like Robert E. Lee, Mickey Mouse surrendered. Will Ripley's be next?
"We've faced a little resistance there in Williamsburg," conceded Norm Deska, executive vice president of attractions for Ripley's Entertainment Inc. As understatements go, that's like saying Gen. Cornwallis ran into a little trouble from Washington down the road at Yorktown.
Williamsburg's response to Ripley's desire has thus far been a muted disdain, which, if unchanged, means that Williamsburg might never see the incomparable, the living, the "unbelievable but true" creature known as Two-Headed Calf.
No joke. Both of the creature's heads eat simultaneously and voraciously. Is Two-Headed any less interesting, wonder its supporters, than Patrick Henry's quill? Had Two-Headed Calf been part of the flock in 18th-century Williamsburg, might it have done twice the work of those mere one-headed sheep employed to munch the royal governor's lawn down to a neat trim?
Two-Headed Calf currently resides in the San Francisco franchise of Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, one of 26 Ripley's museums in 11 countries. "Unusual," said Chips Houghland, a member of the Williamsburg City Council, about Two-Headed Calf in particular and the Ripley's chain in general.
Houghland and his council colleagues appointed the seven-member Architectural Review Board of Williamsburg, which recently turned down Ripley's original proposal on the grounds that the architectural plans for the museum were, in Houghland's words, "too imitative" of the town's 88 original Colonial structures and "too inappropriately aggressive." Whatever that means, it's clear that Christopher Wren, the architectural genius behind the College of William & Mary, would not approve.
Ripley's Deska wonders whether the talk of architectural concerns, in a part of town zoned for waffle houses and side-by-side motels, is simply a legal guise for Williamsburg to reject a museum that traffics in the titillatingly weird.
"No, we're not allowed under law to legislate taste," Houghland said. But he makes no effort to hide his disregard for Ripley's and welcomes word that the company might abandon Williamsburg for nearby York County.
"We've invited the Ripley's people to try again with us," he said. "But they'll probably be taking their feast and their Two-Headed Calf to a place where there are no architectural restrictions."
Houghland isn't through. "Actually," he said, "we might prefer to have Ripley's not in York County but in Washington, D.C., where two-headed calves are often found."
Whatever. The idea is just too "unusual" for Williamsburg, he said.
The publicity department of Ripley's has another word for it. It prefers "grotesque," as in: "The 8-Legged Pig is a GROTESQUE FREAK OF NATURE."
"Grotesque" is good, in the Ripley's view of things. "A lot of our approaches are extreme on purpose because they're marketing tools designed to draw attention to ourselves," said the Florida-based Deska. "Sure, there's some carny and honky-tonk to what we do. Not everybody can be the Smithsonian."
Deska likes to think of Ripley's as a mainstream attraction. One of its museums is in San Antonio, across the street from the Alamo. "We do what we do," Deska said. "But we're about more than two-headed calves. People see we're fun. We'd be good in Virginia."
While promoting his company's display of shrunken human torsos, the African Hate God voodoo doll and films featuring oddities such as a 1,400-pound man, Deska said Ripley's is committed to furthering a community's enlightenment. "Look," he said, "we have a gun that John Wilkes Booth used on the night he killed Abraham Lincoln."
"No, not the gun, but the other gun, the one he dropped when he was running out of Ford's Theatre," Deska said.
Nobody in Williamsburg sounds particularly impressed. The nation's high-powered preservationist community is aligning against Two-Headed Calf. "It'd be a degrading experience to see Williamsburg have to put up with Ripley's," said Lisa Burcham of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"Their architectural plans tell me the Two-Headed Calf might be going . . . someplace else," said council member Houghland.