Remembering inventor and TV host Ron Popeil: NPR

Popeil, who passed away on July 28, was an infomercial pioneer whose products included Chop-O-Matic, Veg-O-Matic, Smokeless Ashtray and many other household gadgets. Originally released in 1993.



DAVE DAVIES, HTE:

It’s FRESH AIR.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

RON POPEIL: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to show you the best kitchen appliance ever made. It’s called Chop-O-Matic.

DAVIES: We will remember Ron Popeil, the inventor and pitchman behind the Chop-O-Matic, the Veg-O-Matic, the pocket fisherman Popeil, the smokeless ashtray, Mr. Microphone, Mince-O-Matic , Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator, Ronco Seal-A-Meal and many other seemingly miraculous household gadgets. He died last week at the age of 86. His career spanned decades and took off in the 1950s with the debut of television. Like any pitchman, his use of language and hyperbole was designed to attract the customer. One of his catchphrases was, but wait, there’s more. He was so ubiquitous that he was parodied in that 1976 “Saturday Night Live” skit by Dan Aykroyd.

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE TV SHOW, “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE”)

DAN AYKROYD: (As spokesperson) How many times has this happened to you? You have a bass. You are trying to find an exciting new way to prepare it for dinner. You can scale the sea bass, remove the tail, head and bones from the sea bass, and serve the fish just like you would any other fish dinner. But why bother now that you can use Rovco’s amazing new kitchen tool, the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76. Yes fish eaters, the days of troublesome chipping, gutting and cutting are over because Super Bass-O-Matic ’76 is the tool that lets you use the whole bass without waste of fish, without cutting or gutting on a scale. This is how it works. Catch a bass. Remove the hook. And drop the bass – it’s all bass – in the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76. Now adjust the control dial so that that bass is mixed just the way you like it.

(LAUGH)

DAVIES: Popeil got his start demonstrating products at flea markets and at Woolworth as a teenager in Chicago. One of these products, the Chop-O-Matic, was an invention of his father, Samuel. Ron Popeil then started his own business, Ronco, and became a multimillionaire. Terry spoke to him in 1993, when he wrote the book “Salesman Of The Century”. He told him what he would say to sell a product during one of his demonstrations.

(EXTRACT FROM ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

POPEIL: Most of the products were household item type products, like choppers, slicers and things of that nature. And I would normally say – if I used my slicer, I would say the slicer blade was so sharp you could slice an onion so thin it only had one side. Or when tomatoes got expensive in winter, you could slice a tomato so thinly that a tomato would last all winter. Or that knife was so sharp you could cut a cow in half – and it’s not a bull. Each demonstration, basically, showed the consumer the old-fashioned way of doing it. That we have a rusty old finger-trap in the house, I know you’re …

TERRY GROSS: Like, a cheese grater or something.

POPEIL: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

POPEIL: One of those old knuckle breakers – it was a stand-up type product – as opposed to using my particular product which did the same thing very easily, easy to clean. And the price was right.

GROSS: Okay. Now the second TV commercial you did was for the Chop-O-Matic. And, in fact, why don’t we hear the announcement?

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

POPEIL: If you want to chop up some celery broth – you know, for a soup, salad, or stuffing – instead of wasting time chopping celery with a knife like you usually would, just place your celery under the chopper. . With a few taps of the palm of one hand – see how easy it is? – just like bouncing a ball. And in seconds, your celery is chopped. Here’s a way to prepare a rushed dinner, to prepare mouth-watering hash browns. Simply place the potatoes on the chopper, a few taps, a few seconds and there you have your hash browns. They are ready for the pan. What could be simpler ? Of course, if you have an appetite for potato pancakes, you just have to keep tapping. I’m going to show you pancakes that are so thin they won’t crumble or be tasteless or chewy when you break them. And look how beautiful they are. You add an egg and an onion and fry them until golden brown. It is certainly a welcome sight for any hungry man.

GROSS: Now I have to say your voice in this commercial almost sounds like a circus barker.

POPEIL: Yes.

GROSS: There’s a certain type of melody – you know, the way you ask questions and then you answer them. Looks like you’re inviting people into the tent or something.

POPEIL: Well, when, in fact, you are demonstrating a product, you have so much to say. And people are in a hurry. Remember that the people who stopped to buy my product did not come to me, to buy the product. They were there to buy something else. What we had to do – or what I had to do was stop them, create interest and get them down in their purses or pockets and take the money out and buy a product that they had no interest in buying in the first place.

GROSS: What’s the most successful TV commercial you’ve ever done?

POPEIL: I think it’s misleading because of the medium. And that’s because of the infomercial business.

GROSS: Okay. Now, let’s put the infomercials aside. Which is the most successful?

POPEIL: So I should think we should talk about dollars or units …

GROSS: units, units.

POPEIL: … Because if you go back 40 years, then …

GROSS: You had me there. Units.

POPEIL: Units. Units, I would say Veg-O-Matic, then Mr. Microphone, then the Smokeless Ashtray, then the Ronco Clean Air Machine. These objects were big. Buttoneer was also a giant object. The problem with pimples is that they always fall off. The problem with pimples is that they always fall off. And when they do, don’t sow them the old fashioned way, with needle and thread, get a Buttoneer. New faster auto button makes a great Christmas, Dun, Dun-Dun, Dun gift.

(LAUGH)

GROSS: It’s part of your philosophy, isn’t it? – that each product must be the solution to a problem.

POPEIL: It is in most cases. There was one exception in my life, and that was Mr. Microphone.

GROSS: One of your inventions.

POPEIL: Yes.

GROSS: Actually, I want to take a break here and make an announcement from Mr. Microphone.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

POPEIL: Hey, this Christmas party is getting a little too quiet. I think it’s time to liven it up with my favorite Christmas present, Mr. Microphone. Hey, what is this? Well, you adjust the dial on your FM radio. And – test, test. Hey, I’m on the radio. I love it.

UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Vocals) Jingle bells, jingle bells …

POPEIL: These kids are having a fab time with Mr. Microphone, the wireless microphone that really puts your voice on the radio.

POPEIL: (singing) Oh, what a pleasure to ride on a sled open to a horse (scatter).

There are no fixing wires, so you are free to move around. Broadcast on any FM car radio. Hey, handsome. We will come back to pick you up later.

GROSS: Now, that hey, handsome – were you funny or serious there? Did you really expect people to go on a cruise with their Mr. Microphone, picking up girls?

POPEIL: I thought it would be used for this purpose. And I thought people would find it very, very unique and remember it. And I was right.

DAVIES: Inventor and television pitchman Ron Popeil spoke to Terry Gross in 1993. He died on July 28. He was 86 years old. On Monday’s show, Terry chats with Cecily Strong. She is nominated for an Emmy for her work on “Saturday Night Live”. Now she is starring in a new series called “Schmigadoon!” – a satire in love with classic Broadway musicals. She and Keegan-Michael Key play a couple who cross a bridge and find themselves trapped in a small town in an earlier era, where life is a musical. Hope you can join us.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ORCHESTRA METROPOLE AND “SCENIC RAILWAY (1962)” BY JAN STULEN “)

The executive producer of DAVIES: FRESH AIR is Danny Miller. Our Technical Director and Engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional technical support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock runs the show. For Terry Gross, I am Dave Davies.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ORCHESTRA METROPOLE AND “SCENIC RAILWAY (1962)” BY JAN STULEN “)

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