Still Slicing & Dicing : He’s the king of the Pocket Fisherman, Veg-O-Matic and hair in a can. But wait! There’s more! For one time only, Ron Popeil--the force behind Ronco --pitches his autobiography.
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For four decades, Popeil has sliced, diced and Mr. Microphoned his way across American TV screens. He’s unleashed such products as the Veg-O-Matic, the Pocket Fisherman, Hula Ho (the weeder with a wiggle) and GLH spray-on hair.
He’s endured such setbacks as spoofs by “Saturday Night Live” and a plunge into bankruptcy.
And now, at age 60, he’s back. This time he’s peddling a new invention: his autobiography.
To Popeil, “The Salesman of the Century” (Delacorte Press) is an American success story--the account of a college dropout who overcame adversity and sold (so far) more than $1 billion in goods.
But it’s also a fairy tale gone awry. Between the lines is the story of an affection-starved youth who discovered that the only way he could relate to people was by selling them stuff.
The visit begins on a secluded street in Beverly Hills, inside a house with 500 bottles of olive oil in the windowsills and a bank of food dehydrators humming in the garage.
The premises are guarded by an electronic gate, security cameras and a dog named Pasta. This is the heart of Popeil’s infomercial empire, Ronco Inc. Here, products are tested and TV spots taped.
The house is also something of a shrine to his merchandise. An Inside the Shell Egg Scrambler rests on a kitchen counter. A redesigned Pocket Fisherman is draped across a table. And two Automatic Pasta Makers squat near a smoke-belching mystery device that seems destined to go back to the drawing board.
Across the room: a gallery of family photos and a pair of books containing toasts to the Ronco legacy--Bill Geist’s essay collection “Monster Trucks & Hair-in-a-Can” and a best-of “Saturday Night Live” compilation with a script and photo of Dan Aykroyd’s brilliant Bass-O-Matic ad.
In the middle of it all, lounging on the couch, is the guru of gadgets himself, Ronald Martin Popeil.
Speaking in his trademark hypnotic voice, the one that causes credit cards to twitch in their owners’ wallets, the Bronx-born hawker reminisces about his achievements.
“I think I’ve fulfilled the American Dream,” he declares.
And it’s hard not to believe him at first: A personal fortune in “the double-digit millions.” A 28-year-old model as his new bride. Homes in Las Vegas and Southern California. Even an art exhibit that displayed his products as pop culture icons.
But behind the glamour is a painful past.
Although humorist Geist likes to imagine one of Popeil’s ancestors “in the back of a Conestoga wagon as it rolled across the prairies demonstrating an early kitchen gadget that sliced tomatoes evenly! perfectly! every time!” the reality is far darker.
Popeil wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth--or even a Ginsu knife.
At age 3, his parents divorced and essentially abandoned him. Exiled to an Upstate New York boarding school, he didn’t see them for years.
When he was about 8, his paternal grandparents took him in, but life remained miserable, he says. The old couple fought constantly, served meals made from chicken feet and showed Popeil little affection.
It wasn’t until they moved from Miami to Chicago--where his father manufactured kitchenware--that Popeil found salvation. There, he stumbled upon Maxwell Street, the gritty equivalent of a modern-day flea market. At 16, he joined the rough-and-tumble collection of street vendors and thieves who unloaded merchandise there.
He purchased a bunch of gizmos from his dad (their relationship was “strictly business,” Popeil says) and dove into the maelstrom.
“I pushed. I yelled. I hawked,” he recalls. “And it worked.”
But there was more to Maxwell Street than money. “I had lived for 16 years in homes without love,” he writes. “Now I had finally found a form of affection, and a human connection, through sales.”
Within a few years, the “affection” was rolling in. After quitting the University of Illinois (where the stress of studying landed him in a hospital with migraines), he took his talent to state and county fairs.
“He’d work all day and then fish at night,” says longtime pal Marty Lescht, a Chicago interior architect who hung out with Popeil after college. “He’d come back with bags of money and we’d stay up till 2 or 3 a.m. frying fish and counting cash.”
Popeil claims he cleared $1,000 a week, a gold mine by 1950s standards.
Then he discovered late-night television. And thus began a parade of products still seared into public consciousness:
Chop-O-Matics and Dial-O-Matics (“You can slice a tomato so thin it only has one side!”).
Buttoneers and Smokeless Ashtrays (the first contraption he invented himself instead of buying from his dad).
Feather Touch Knives (“So sharp they could shave the eyebrows off a New Jersey mosquito!”) and Food Dehydrators.
Plus . . . Mr. Microphone and Mr. Dentist (an electric tooth polisher Popeil also demonstrated on his dog). Miracle Broom and Ornamental Ice (frozen sculptures that form in your freezer). And Kitchen Magician and canned hair (motto: “Gone today, hair tomorrow”).
Ronco also churned out dozens of “Top 20 Hits” LPs and, incongruously, tons of pantyhose. At one point, nearly 60% of the company’s business was in run-resistant nylons, which Popeil subjected to a battery of tortures on TV.
By the early 1970s, Ronco was cruising up the American Stock Exchange. And Popeil, the man who one reporter said could sell fingernail polish to the Venus de Milo, was a jet-setting millionaire.
But his family life was a wreck.
In 1974, Popeil’s stepmother, Eloise, was convicted of trying to have Popeil’s father murdered (although news clips didn’t say whether she asked the hit men to slice and dice him).
Then, after she served a 19-month sentence, the elder Popeil remarried her.
Ron’s domestic situation wasn’t notably better. Although buddy Lescht says Popeil is devoted to his youngest daughter and old friends, his obsession with work took a toll: at home (he’s currently on wife No. 4), with friends (he struggled to name even two in a recent interview) and at play (movies and books are out of the question and he’s never once used the tennis court or pool at his Beverly Hills house).
He also has trouble sleeping--too many worries about business--and forgets such things as the last name of his personal assistant.
This might explain why the section in his book on “Marriage and Family” is barely three pages long.
Popeil admits that he’s been a lousy husband and mediocre dad, but says he’s trying to break the pattern with his youngest daughter, Lauren, 12 (his two other children are adults).
“I’m a much better father [now],” he writes.
But during a November visit to Los Angeles, Popeil concedes he hasn’t seen Lauren in 1 1/2 months.
“I’m doing the best I can,” he explains. “But me living in Las Vegas and her in Colorado [his ex-wife just moved there from L.A.] is not really conducive to a great relationship.”
Couldn’t he quit to make more time for her?
Popeil sighs. Part of his reluctance to take that step, he says, is his Depression-era upbringing: “We’re all driven by our pasts, and my past says you never know.”
But it’s more than a fear of going broke. It’s also the lesson of Maxwell Street.
“I like the idea that people ask me for my autograph [and] say they can’t wait for my next product,” he says. “It’s far different from the first 16 years of my life when there was no communication. [And] I’ll be a little unhappy [when it ends].”
(Isn’t this article amazing? But wait! There’s more!)
In 1984, Ronco began a new chapter--Chapter 11.
Popeil blames the bankruptcy on his bank: A new management team came in and wouldn’t extend his $15-million loan. Other observers suggest he got pummeled by the competition for his CleanAire Machine.
Popeil played the national anthem and signed off the air.
During his TV hiatus, he worked on several unusual projects. One was a videotape device that projected subliminal self-help messages onto home TV screens. The other was a computer handwriting analysis program that rated couples’ compatibility.
He says he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars perfecting the gadgets, but decided against marketing them for fear that skepticism about their scientific validity would undermine the reputation of his other products.
Popeil also got into the casino business. He was recruited to the board of directors of Las Vegas’ Mirage Hotel by owner Steve Wynn, a compulsive gambler’s son who is slowly losing his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa (a disease that is one of Popeil’s few philanthropic causes).
In the early ‘90s, Popeil launched his television comeback, blitzing cable stations with infomercials for electric food dehydrators, pasta makers and aerosol hair.
He says he made more money than ever.
And now there’s Ron Popeil the book (he originally wanted to title it “As Seen On TV”). Half the text is tips for other inventors. Popeil has always been a magnet for strange ideas (his cousin once proposed a combination denture washer and milkshake maker), but most of his gadgets are either self-created or improvements on existing patents.
The book also recounts Popeil’s life story, but to mixed reviews.
“Not a bad read,” says Fortune magazine, “as long as you don’t mind the endless and unbridled self-promotion.”
But Popeil isn’t big on introspection.
During interviews, he shifts uncomfortably when the questions turn personal. Get him talking about merchandise, however, and he’s on his feet, hands in the air, voice beckoning. Heck, he even starts pitching products that don’t actually exist.
The listener instinctively reaches for the remote control. But it’s useless. In Infomercial Hell, there are no other channels.
And it seems clear Popeil isn’t going away any time soon.
He says he’s trying to cut a deal that would allow him to sell his company but keep a hand in creating and selling its products.
If negotiations fall through, he muses momentarily, he might simply retire. But seconds later, he’s back to discussing future gadgets and saying it would be “a sin” to quit with “so many irons in the fire.”
“You’re always going to see Ronco or Popeil in the marketplace,” he concludes. “I’ll never stop.”
Operators are standing by. . . .