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He’s the Sell-O-Matic King of Infomercials--and So Much More!

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For once, he is not on TV when he says it, that line usually belted out long after midnight on upper cable channels. It is, really, Ron Popeil’s mantra. “LOOK at this!” he resonates. “Isn’t this aMAZing?!”

He’s in a sweatsuit backstage at QVC, the cable home-shopping network, prepping for a 12-minute spot to unveil his newest innovation. But his mind is fixated momentarily on a previous Popeil product: GLH-9, better known as hair in a can.

Simply discussing it doesn’t do. He backs up, pate advancing upon a visitor’s nose, creating a one-person audience. And though his bald spot has been showcased repeatedly on the airwaves in recent years, the hovering head appears highly hirsute.

“See?” Popeil says, grinning maniacally. “See?!!”

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That face. That voice. Those cacophonous consonants. Everybody recognizes them, but it usually takes one product to trigger name recognition. Veg-O-Matic, perhaps, or Mr. Microphone. Food dehydrator. Smokeless ashtray. Or the most Popeilian of all: Pocket Fisherman.

For much of five decades, this caffeinated amalgam of Edison, Barnum and Horatio Alger--and the company he christened after himself, Ronco--has made the arenas of TV and sales more interesting places to visit.

Today, at the intersection of ingenuity, hucksterism and celebrity, Ronald M. Popeil, 62, is still directing the traffic.

He’s a barker (“Buy two or three--they REally DO make GREAT gifts.”). An inventor (an “innovator,” he says). A consummate businessman (he clawed back from bankruptcy and is now selling his company for $25 million). Even a pop song (“Mr. Popeil,” 1985, by Weird Al Yankovic). And he slaps his own name on every product.

But wait--there’s more.

His food dehydrator introduced beef jerky to the Zeitgeist. He has gotten generations of couch potatoes to buy everything from tapeless tape measures to bottle and jar cutters to, God help us, rhinestone and stud setters. And he’s back with his pasta maker, except now it makes sausage as well.

Never veering from the basic, homespun product demonstrations he honed in Chicago flea markets and dime stores in the 1950s, Popeil today is nothing less than the strand connecting an American archetype, the 19th century county fair salesman, with direct-response TV advertising and the infomercial itself.

His split personality helps him pull this off.

One is a dedicated, even obsessive, inventor and tinkerer. “I never let up,” that one says. “I’m always trying to make it better. And I can’t put my name on something I don’t believe in.”

The other, of course, is a salesman. “People,” that one says, “always want a bargain.”

*

Pieces of the Popeil personas:

He purports to have the world’s largest collection of olive oil--and has a computerized list he carries around to prove it.

He has a dog named Pasta--and a boat called the Popeil Pocket Fisherman.

When he does on-air demonstrations of his kitchen products, he shops for his own ingredients.

His stepmother once put out a contract on his father, got caught and served time. When she got out, his father married her again.

He lives in Las Vegas, where he sits on the board of directors of Mirage Resorts and is close friends with its chief, Steve Wynn.

He starts sentences like this: “When you discuss food dehydration with the average consumer . . .” And this: “OK, let’s extrude it . . .”

Finally, this unbelievable morsel: He has never said, “It slices! It dices!” on the air.

*

“Everyone likes cole slaw--everyone, that is, except for Mother. The reason she doesn’t like it is because she’s the one who’s got to make it on that old knuckle grater. And oh, the scrapes on her poor knuckles.”

--Ron Popeil, advertising the Chop-O-Matic, his father’s invention, late 1950s.

*

The words “Popeil” and “people” are nearly anagrams, and that’s fitting: If ever there was an advertising everyman, it is he.

His sincerity manages to entrance both the 70-year-old woman who grew up with the county fair and the twentysomethings who came of age on Pocket Fisherman ads and watch 4 a.m. food-dehydrator infomercials after drinking a few six-packs. And, of course, the people in between who both see the irony and like the product.

There is a reason. Before he ever stood before a camera, Ron Popeil did what he does best--in person. He won over crowds in the open-air markets of Chicago’s Maxwell Street, and later at Woolworth’s and on the county-fair circuit.

He’d rise before dawn, procure bushels of cabbages, potatoes, radishes and carrots, and set up his table. Barking from atop a crate, he diced and sliced vegetables and nipped and tucked his routine. And people bought; some weeks, he made $500.

Then he took to TV to sell, first, the Ronco Spray Gun--an invention of his late father, Sam Popeil, a distant man but a near-genius as well. Some of the son’s greatest sales successes--the Chop-O-Matic and the Pocket Fisherman among them--would come from his father’s inspirations.

Though they were never close--"He never told me he loved me,” Popeil says coldly--their mutual affection for making money and marketing ingenuity kept them intertwined. Father’s products and son’s slick shtick were perfect together.

“The only tears you’ll shed are tears of joy,” Popeil spieled in the early 1960s about the Veg-O-Matic’s onion-cutting proclivities.

Through the 1960s, Popeil evolved from salesman into innovator, and in 1969, Ronco went public.

The 1970s, the peak of Ronco Teleproducts Inc., brought Popeil to the apex of minor gadgetry. By this time, he was innovating or finding ways to improve most items himself. Every day, it seemed, he was filling needs that didn’t exist.

The commercials were as memorable as the products.

The cordless Mr. Microphone featured a curly-haired Willie Aames look-alike in a convertible booming his pickup line: “Hey, good looking, we’ll be back to pick YOU up later!” The Bottle and Jar Cutter capitalized on the newfound interest in recycling (“Hobby for Dad, craft for the kids--and a great gift for Mom!”). For the quintessential 1970s accouterment, the Rhinestone and Stud Setter, promised to “make an $8 pair of jeans worth up to $50!”

There was the odd misstep. Cellutrol didn’t really get rid of cellulite; the outside part of the Inside-Outside Window Washer tended to plummet to the ground. But somehow, Popeil saw then--and still sees today--all pieces of the cultural collage.

Popeil knows his approach can be perceived as kitschy. To him, it’s simply more publicity; he loved Dan Aykroyd’s “Bass-O-Matic” parody on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976 and allows filmmakers to use Ronco advertising however they see fit.

And really, when you’ve sold more than $1 billion worth of product in your career, who’s getting the last laugh?

“This is the ultimate late 20th-century guy,” says Robert Thompson, an associate professor of television at Syracuse University.

“What Henry Ford was to industrial strength and genius, Ron Popeil is to the next generation of American ingenuity,” Thompson says. “He’s figured out the very complex negotiations that go on between what American culture produces and how we consume it. People 100 years from now are going to be writing dissertations on him.”

*

In QVC’s sprawling warehouse-studio 25 miles west of Philadelphia, extrusion has begun.

On the dais-style stage, angel-hair pasta, wheat lasagna, spinach fettuccine, curry rigatoni and beet penne--resembling edible Play-Doh--all squeeze their way out of the New and Improved Popeil Automatic Pasta and Sausage Maker.

Popeil has been here since 7 a.m., and did grocery shopping before that.

Why? He doesn’t have to. QVC would sell his sausage maker without him, but he knows nobody can do it better than he can, and he realizes the cachet his personality brings.

Popeil likes control. He likes to do everything, but he also knows what he doesn’t know. He edits his infomercials, writes copy for his “operators standing by,” does his own demonstrations, makes out his own cue cards.

And besides, says the man who has spent hundreds of thousands on infomercials, QVC is “the only medium out there where the TV time is paid by them.”

QVC likes Popeil. His pasta maker debuted as its first million-dollar product--in 20 minutes--and the network has bought 2,000 pasta-sausage makers for this day’s spot. Though some of QVC’s hawker-guests are shepherded around like high school children on a field trip, he is given wide latitude.

“He has the greatest belief in his product of anyone I’ve ever worked with,” says Steve Bryant, host of QVC’s evening kitchen-appliance show. “One of the things that separates him from the rest: He never gives up.”

At 7:48 p.m., after the Juicelady Juicer woman is done, he spins into view. Item No. K40914 is ready to be sold. He looks up at the watching world and begins.

“A child!”

“Can make!”

“Homemade sausages!”

Blue oxford sleeves rolled above meaty forearms, he tosses fresh salmon chunks, dill, sesame seed, a touch of soy and some crushed red pepper into the hopper. He learned cooking from his grandmother and considers himself a kitchen mensch.

The salmon links are delectable, made from scratch in five minutes. You never sausage a thing. And, he hastens to add, you can also make bread with it if knead be.

After the spot ends--with Popeil wishing a phone-in customer well: “Happy spaghetti and sausage to ya. And you’re the proud owner of this great spatula"--he stalks the studio floor offering sausage nuggets to production assistants.

A visitor is surreptitiously scarfing samples of just-extruded raw pasta when Popeil bounds around a corner. “Hey--c’mon. Don’t eat that stuff,” he says, impatience battling amusement. ‘We’ll go OUT to eat.”

He begins to walk away, then stops in his tracks. The love of his product wins out. “Hmmm,” he says. “Probably not too bad that way, huh?”

*

“I believe this is your miracle.”

--Ron Popeil to Betty, an audience member with thinning hair, in GLH-9 infomercial.

*

Ron Popeil today is, in a business sense, a miracle as well.

Ronco Teleproducts Inc. went bankrupt in 1984 when a bank called in a loan unexpectedly and seized his inventory. Popeil, demoralized but undaunted, bought back the stock, rolled up his sleeves and returned to the county fairs. It was hard, he admits, after living so well so long.

For a time, his blip vanished from the radar.

But that’s not all. With Ron Popeil, it turns out, you get much, much more.

In 1989, he took an invention he dreamed up a decade earlier, the food dehydrator, and turned to a new medium that he nonetheless knew well: the infomercial, the ultimate video product demonstration.

Today, more than $150 million in dehydrators have sold. He followed that with GLH-9 and the pasta maker, now the pasta-sausage maker. And he talks, by the end of the year, of a machine to render home pizza making just as simple.

“I have enough money today,” he says. “But I can’t stop. If there’s a need for these things, I can’t help myself.”

At an age when most people are slowing down, Popeil is at the top of his form.

He is less single-minded about his work and is trying to make up for lost time with his older children. One, Shannon, stars with him in the new pasta-sausage maker infomercial.

He married his fourth wife last year. She is a model; he wants to cast her in an infomercial, but worries she’s too pretty to convey the “average consumer” feel. And he is delighting in bringing up his youngest daughter, Lauren, 14. She recently did a paper on him for school.

“I said, ‘Why are you writing about me?’ She said, ‘Because you take ideas and turn them into reality.’ ”

True, when Ronco is sold, Popeil won’t be running it daily. But he’ll continue to invent, innovate and dash around the country from workshop to home-shopping show to infomercial taping, making sure products are working and customers are satisfied.

Company heads have hawked products before--Victor Kiam, Frank Perdue, Lee Iacocca--but they seem above us. Ron Popeil is next to us in life’s trenches, sleeves rolled up, figuring stuff out.

*

One last pastiche from the Popeil panorama. After his second QVC spot of the day, the televangelist of inventiveness leans against a table and takes a bite of the sausage he just seared before America. He is, Popeil-like, cleaning up everything himself.

The back of his head, nine hours later, remains covered with what appears to be hair.

The cameras are off now, but the video age’s consummate peddler is still very much on--a compelling mix of sincerity, charisma and let-me-show-you-what’s-in-my-sample-case persuasiveness that never stops working on people with money in their pockets.

For America, he’s sure, the wurst is about to come.

“I create the category. I created the beef jerky category, I created the pasta-making category, and now I’ve created the sausage category,” he says. “And now the nation will be thinking about sausage.”

And when that sausage-minded America comes into being, the only tears Ron Popeil will shed will be tears of joy.


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