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Ron Popeil: Pioneer of The Infomercial: 1935-2021

Oh Boy! This is really Throwback Thursday. But do you remember as vividly as I do growing up watching the oddball yet endearingly hypnotic commercials for such products as the Veg-O-Matic and the Pocket Fisherman? How about the Smokeless Ashtray, the Cap Snaffler and the Inside-the-Egg Scrambler? These sound like the sort of items given as Christmas gifts by characters in a Dr. Seuss book, but in actuality, they were inventions pitched on television by the king of commercials, pioneer Ron Popeil. At one point I couldn't walk into the kitchen of any friend's house without seeing one of his gadgets on their kitchen counters. And if I saw a gadget that my parents hadn't bought, I wanted to know why not! I mean, come on, how could my mom cut vegetables in uniform pieces without the Veg-O-Matic? Ron Popeil passed away this week and I am comforted to know that it was "sudden and peaceful" at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to his family.  

Ron Popeil was born on May 3rd, 1935, in New York City. His father was an inventor of kitchen gadgets, and by the age of 13, young Ronald was working in his father's factory in Chicago. By age 16, he was a salesman in flea markets, and only a year later, he had a stand at a Woolworth store in Chicago where—as noted in his official biography—he “hawked his gadgets six days a week, 12 hours each day.” The first ad featuring Popeil aired in 1959, where he was joined by his partner at the time, Mel Korey, to present the Ronco Chop-O-Matic.  

I fondly remember Popeil hawking his various products in that breathless, fast-paced voice, and truthfully, most of his claims were too good to be true. But I fell for them, as did many others, resulting in some of the products ending up sitting unused on the kitchen counter. It's not that they didn't work, they did, but so did a plain kitchen knife or some of the other gizmos. But I was still drawn to the television when a new Ronco or Popeil invention was unveiled. It was all done in good humor. And he had a genius for marketing names like the Kitchen Magician or Mr. Microphone. He even marketed the Hair in a Can Spray. The zippy catchphrases “As seen on TV” and “But wait, there’s more!” were coined by Popeil's ads, which were cheerfully sent up by countless comedians, such as Dan Aykroyd in his classic 1976 "Saturday Night Live" sketch where he advertises the "Bass-o-Matic." 

The irony that characterized Popeil's tongue-in-cheek work made him a beloved guest on "The Tonight Show" and "Late Show with David Letterman." His Ronco Records albums, which compiled hit songs that famously scrolled up the screen in his advertisements, also became the fodder for parody on "Saturday Night Live" in Eddie Murphy's 1981 sketch, "Buckwheat Sings." His schtick was a joke his viewers were invited to be in on, which is what makes his legacy of showmanship unparalleled in the realm of late night infomercials.  

I didn't realize how much of an influence Ron Popeil and his products and commercials had on me until I read that he passed away. I hope he lived a very happy life and I extend my condolences to his wife Robin, daughters Kathryn, Shannon, Lauren, Contessa and Valentina, and grandchildren Rachel, Isabella, Nicole and Asher.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 22nd year.

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