Ron Popeil, 1935-2021

The longtime TV pitchman is gone.

WaPo (“Ron Popeil, inventor, pitchman and TV infomercial star, dies at 86“):

Inventor, TV pitchman and salesman extraordinaire Ron Popeil became a familiar presence in America’s homes and imaginations by demonstrating products he persuaded viewers they couldn’t live without: the Veg-O-Matic, the Pocket Fisherman, spray-on hair, and especially the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ countertop oven.

“Isn’t that amazing?” he would say, first as a street hawker and store demonstrator and later in late-night TV commercials and half-hour infomercials, which he helped develop into a hybrid form of entertainment and commerce.

“You can slice a tomato so thin it only has one side!” he exclaimed about his Six Star Plus knives, which stayed sharp after cutting through shoe leather and pieces of wood. “Now how much would you pay?” he would say.

Mr. Popeil (pronounced poh-PEEL), whose Ronco brand of products became staples of postwar households and who infused pop culture with phrases such as “No muss, no fuss,” “But wait, there’s more” and “Set it and forget it,” died July 28 at a Los Angeles hospital. He was 86.

The death was confirmed by a spokesman, Eric Ortner, who said he had a “sudden medical emergency” but did not cite a specific cause.

His products were mocked for being cheap and poorly made, and Mr. Popeil was the subject of mockery himself — most memorably by Dan Aykroyd on a 1976 episode of “Saturday Night Live,” when he dropped a whole fish into a “Bass-O-Matic” and blended it into a piscine smoothie.

Mr. Popeil took the humor in stride, played along with talk-show hosts and saw any kind of publicity as free advertising for his products. He began as a teenage salesman, setting up a stand on a sidewalk flea market in Chicago, where he sold kitchen gadgets — the Chop-O-Matic and Veg-O-Matic, among them — invented by his father.

“I saw all these people selling products, pocketing money, making sales, and my mind went racing,” Mr. Popeil said in a 1995 autobiography, “The Salesman of the Century,” written with Jefferson Graham. “I can do what they’re doing, I thought. But I can do it better than they can.”

Each morning, he bought 50 pounds of onions, carrots and cabbages as well as 100 pounds of potatoes and, by the end of a 12-hour day, had sliced and diced through all of them, keeping up a steady patter all the while.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am going to show you the greatest kitchen appliance ever made,” he would say. Then: “All your onions chopped to perfection without shedding a single tear.”

Mr. Popeil was 16 when a Chicago newspaper called him “a silver-tongued orator.” Two years later, he was demonstrating products at a Woolworth’s store, sometimes clearing as much as $1,000 a week.

“He was mesmerizing,” Mel Korey, who later became a business partner, told the New Yorker in 2000. “There were secretaries who would take their lunch break at Woolworth’s to watch him because he was so good-looking.”

He knew just when to start asking onlookers to reach for their wallets — what street sellers call “the turn.” But before he sold to everyone, thus dispersing the crowd, Mr. Popeil would say, “But wait, there’s more,” drawing even more people to his spiel.

He was soon traveling to state fairs around the country, and in 1956 he made his first television commercial, a 3½-minute spot for the Chop-O-Matic, which some observers have called one of the first infomercials.

In 1964, Mr. Popeil and Korey started Ronco, taking advantage of television advertising. Mr. Popeil refined some of the items developed by his father and uncles, who were in the same business, and began to invent his own.

Over the next few years, he began to market the Smokeless Ashtray, Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman (a miniature fishing rod and reel), Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler, Popeil’s Pasta & Sausage Maker, and the Buttoneer (“The problem with buttons is they always fall off.”).

He invented Popeil’s Electric Food Dehydrator for making banana chips, dried apples and beef jerky — “I love beef jerky, but you can’t find good homemade beef jerky,” he said by way of explanation. He sold more than $100 million worth of the machine in two years.

His GLH Formula Number 9 Hair System — often called hair in a can — covered bald spots with a powder that could be combed into the surrounding hair. (Mr. Popeil gladly turned around to show his own bald spot to demonstrate how it worked.)

“People always ask me, ‘Ron, where did you get that name GLH?’ ” he told the New Yorker. “I made it up. Great-Looking-Hair.”

For those of a certain age, Popeil’s ads were a fixture. I don’t know that my folks bought any of the aforementioned products but am pretty sure they bought some Ronco crap.

Update from Steven:

When I heard of Popeil’s passing, I meant to post the following, which seemed a fitting tribute (and Popeil’s daughter sang backup on the track):

FILED UNDER: Obituaries
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    I’m not a believer in an afterlife, but wouldn’t it be cool if we somehow heard his booming voice from the Great Beyond…”But wait, there’s MORE!”

    7
  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Mikey:
    Fuq…you beat me to it…

  3. Kathy says:

    For those of a certain age, Popeil’s ads were a fixture. I don’t know that my folks bought any of the aforementioned products but am pretty sure they bought some Ronco crap.

    I wonder how much of the products he sold were used more than a few times.

    In the 90s, infomercials and even short 1 minute ads for these miracle products became popular here. My parents did buy some things.

    Now, they work as advertised, but they are nowhere near as convenient as they seem. There was an electric peeler I recall well. It worked perfectly, and it did remove almost only skin and not flesh from, say, a potato or an apple. But it was slower than the old-fashioned peeler, which you still had to use on potatoes anyway for the parts where the miracle electric peeler couldn’t get.

    The latest craze is ceramic cookware. Far less stuff sticks to it than even Teflon, sure, but only for a while. After using the pans for a few months, things begin to stick to them. They’re nice, but not worth the extra money they cost.

    3
  4. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Kathy:

    The latest craze is ceramic cookware.

    That’s a new thing?

    We’ve been using corningware for at least half a century. 🙂 It’s perfect for casseroles. Wouldn’t use it on the stove top, though. That’s the domain of cast iron.

    1
  5. Mu Yixiao says:

    “Is it just that easy? Yes, it’s just that easy!”

    (I think that was him, too)

  6. Kathy says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Not new. Just the latest craze. before then it was mattresses, which are also not new.

    1
  7. Kingdaddy says:

    My favorite Popeil moment had nothing to do with him. In an issue of an independent comic book, The Badger, the insane hero — martial artist with multiple personality disorder — wielded a Popeil Pocket Fisherman as a weapon. Good times.

    4
  8. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    You read The Badger??

    Wow. Love the Badger (and I remember that bit).

    And, of course, I have every issue of Nexus–including the original with the soundtrack.

    2
  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    Damn, and I never bought that Ronco Add-an-Inch ruler. Popeil’s commercials were usually better than the TV shows he sponsored.

  10. senyordave says:

    My personal favorite was GLH, which stood for Great Looking Hair.
    Here is the real ad:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlbuUiWnlJc
    here he is on Conan O’Brien’s show:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlbuUiWnlJc
    Funny thing is that it actually looks like it might work, but I wonder if it came in any colors other than jet black.

    2
  11. de stijl says:

    @Kathy:
    @Mu Yixiao:

    Wait! What?

    Ceramic mattresses?

    Mattress before last a Tempurpedic. Cost a fortune but I was flush and rash. Seriously? $1500 for a fucking mattress? A slab of dense foam?

    It was pretty sweet though once it got up to my joint. Great for sleeping and the occasional bow chicka wow wow.

    Sucker weighed a ton.

    One thing I learned the hard way was only buy stuff that fits into the service elevator space dimensions.

    I bought a bad-ass modernist van de Rohe style couch that did not fit in the elevator so the door could close. Could not wedge it in any way.

    I was stymied. One of the delivery guys asked to look at the stairwell. Helpful dude – out of the box thinking. They eyeballed it and determined it could be done with effort. We arrived on a price for an above and beyond delivery service.

    Both guys were named Ignacio. The Nacho bros.

    I lived on the eleventh floor. Two floors in they stopped and took a breather. Thereafter it was a brief catch your breath stop every floor. Harder than they had imagined.

    In my head I was recalculating our bargained price.

    It took 40 minutes or so to get that stupid couch up to eleven.

    They both got $100 cash each for their service and extreme effort which was quadruple the originally bargained price. I paid them gladly. Worth every penny.

    Don’t buy stuff that will not fit into the service elevator!

    1
  12. Kathy says:

    @de stijl:

    Wait! What?

    Ceramic mattresses?

    They were developed for the Klingon market, but traditionalists think they’re too soft, and are now rebelling and yelling “Remain Klingon!”

    3
  13. Mu Yixiao says:

    @de stijl:

    One thing I learned the hard way was only buy stuff that fits into the service elevator space dimensions.

    I live in a 1920 Craftsman bungalow–with a narrow, closed staircase which includes a corner with a landing.

    I can fit a queen-sized mattress up the stairs–if it’s flexible enough. I had to buy a split box-spring for one bed (my bed has a wooden box under the mattress (built in-situ); I grew to love the plywood mattresses in China). I wouldn’t even attempt to get a sofa up there.

    1
  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Our family bought both a Veg-O-Matic and a Chop-O-Matic and the problem is as you describe–okay product but not useful enough for everyday use. Our Chop-O had the additional problem of being difficult to disassemble so you could clean it (a lot of miscellaneous crap ends up near the top of the mechanism) and having blades that didn’t stay sharp very long. In Korea, I bought a mandoline (the kitchen tool not the musical instrument) that was far more useful than either Popeil product. Alas, it was in the box that I shipped that never made it back to the states.

    2
  15. Kingdaddy says:

    @Mu Yixiao: Badger was a fun read. Remember Sister Twister, the transsexual Nazi nun?

    2
  16. @Kingdaddy: @Mu Yixiao: I still have most (all?) of the Badger run around here. And I really loved Nexus.

    2
  17. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I’ve an electric slicer/grater called a salad shooter. I use it to chop cabbage, and to grate carrots. It is a time saver, I use it every week, but a bit of a pain to clean. It can be taken apart easily, but then you find lots of carrot bits all over the thing. It’s not a big deal, but I wouldn’t want to wash it every day.

  18. de stijl says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    A mandoline is where new sous chefs lose a portion of their fingertips. Use the holder thingie!

    One time I was tending to a guy who had just cut off a healthy portion of his finger. Bent over. Vomited. Wiped my mouth. Went back to bandaging. I was calling out to someone behind my shoulder “Yo! Do we need to call 911? He’s bleeding pretty bad.”

    Later I had to mop up his blood and my vomit.

    I apologize if you got a pizza from us that night. It was rushed, slipshod, and likely tainted a bit by a needle drug addict’s blood. We meant well.

    Thought I was the coolest kid in school but a few months later I cut almost the entire fleshy bit of my left thumb in an onion cross-cut gone seriously awry.

    I gouged the interior of my thumbnail with the knife edge. I could see the nick it made for months. Creeped me out.

  19. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It got to be a thing at my local comic store (where visits are often years apart) that Bruce would see me and straight after saying hello, tell me if there was any new Nexus out (I’ve got all the cross overs)

    @Kingdaddy:

    I didn’t read the entire run of Badger, just the first couple years (and the Nexus crossovers).

    I was 16 and taking a college-level art class and found out that Les Dorcheid (the colorist on Badger) was in the class. I got Issue #2 signed by him. Unfortunately during a down-turn I sold off my collection, and that was part of it.

    2
  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @de stijl: Been there, done that. Recently, in fact. I’ve become really good at doing direct pressure on and bandaging of finger tips. 😛

  21. dazedandconfused says:

    @Mikey:
    “But wait, there’s no more!” should be etched on his tombstone.

    1
  22. de stijl says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Sounds like a good story.

    Please tell if you want to.

  23. liberal capitalist says:

    This guy gets notice.

    Senator Carl Levin’s passing gets nothing?

    https://prospect.org/power/legacy-carl-levin/

  24. Richard Gardner says:

    Back around 1994 when I was the Nav/Ops on USS Michigan SSBN-727 we had Ron Popeil onboard as a member of the Naval League for a VIP Cruise out of Honolulu.. The guy was great, showed off his bald spot coverage from a spray can. In person, he was a presence.

    1
  25. James Joyner says:

    @liberal capitalist: I just didn’t have anything to say about his passing. As your 2014 link makes clear, Levin hasn’t been in the Senate for quite some time now and he never made that much of an impression on me.

  26. DrDaveT says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    In Korea, I bought a mandoline (the kitchen tool not the musical instrument) that was far more useful than either Popeil product. Alas, it was in the box that I shipped that never made it back to the states.

    I own two mandolines* — an expensive French stainless steel one, and a cheapo plastic one from the grocery store with 2-sided ceramic blades. The steel one is hard to use and harder to clean. The cheap plastic one is among the most useful gadgets in my kitchen, and I use it all the time.

    *Four, if you count the two stringed instruments.

  27. DrDaveT says:

    @de stijl:

    Thought I was the coolest kid in school but a few months later I cut almost the entire fleshy bit of my left thumb in an onion cross-cut gone seriously awry.

    You should love this poem. I certainly do.

    Cut, by Sylvia Plath
    https://allpoetry.com/poem/8498445-Cut-by-Sylvia-Plath