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Happy Birthday, Ron Popeil, Entrepreneur and Infomercial Pitchman

May 03, 2010
by Anne Szustek
“America’s Inventor,” and “Sultan of ‘Set It and Forget It’” are just two of the many titles bestowed upon entrepreneur Ron Popeil. Known to insomniacs across America as the mind behind such products as the Pocket Fisherman and the Showtime Rotisserie, his key role in the establishment of home shopping has ensconced him in the pop culture canon.

Ron Popeil’s Early Days

Ronald M. Popeil was born into a dysfunctional family on May 3, 1935, in the Bronx, New York. His parents divorced and left him when he was 3 years old and he was sent to a boarding school in upstate New York.

Popeil’s paternal grandparents took him to live with them when he was 8; according to Entrepreneur magazine, life with them was also rocky. Popeil and his family moved from Miami to Chicago, where he reconnected with his father and his uncles, who worked at a kitchen supply factory in the city.

The future TV pitchman’s knack for selling gadgets shone through when he started selling his father’s products on Chicago’s Maxwell Street, at the time a rough block full of street hawkers.

Watching the locals ply their wares inspired Popeil. “I can do what they’re doing,” Popeil would later write in his autobiography. “I was stuffing money into my pockets ... Through sales, I could escape from poverty and the miserable existence I had with my grandparents.”

Popeil’s Notable Accomplishments

Popeil matriculated at the University of Illinois but dropped out after a year and a half to promote his father’s kitchen goods at a Chicago Woolworth’s store. He earned approximately $1,000 a week, eight times the average weekly U.S. salary at the time.

He founded his company, Ronco, short for Ron’s Company, in 1958. As Popeil’s career in sales was just getting underway, so was the medium of television. The young businessman saw the opportunities afforded by the airwaves, and in 1963, taped his first commercial for a Tampa TV station.

His first item was a hose attachment he called the Ronco Spray Gun. The product and ad were instant successes, marking the beginning of the direct-response ad era. His next “as seen on TV” item, the Veg-O-Matic, would secure Popeil’s salesman star status. In 1969, Popeil took Ronco public, and became a multimillionaire.

From then on, the infomercials just kept coming. Spots for the likes of Ronco’s Mr. Microphone, Pocket Fisherman, the Dial-O-Matic and the Buttoneer (a device for reattaching buttons), became a mainstay for America’s late-night TV audiences during the 1970s and 1980s.

But Wait—There’s More!

Ronco went bankrupt in 1987 when it was unable to repay a loan. But Popeil’s business acumen was still standing by, and he reclaimed his throne as infomercial king with the Ronco Food Dehydrator in 1990, selling more than $150 million worth of the item in one year.

During the 1990s, the infomercial became a cultish pop culture phenomenon and Ronco’s late-night pitches held their own. Among the Popeil products to hit the airwaves during the 1990s were GLH-9, a special Ronco formulation of spray-on hair, and a pasta maker.

The infomercial evolved into a de facto form of entertainment at least partially because of Popeil’s camera presence, backed up by his enthusiasm and confidence in his products. Phrases coined by Popeil—“operators are standing by” and “but wait: there’s more!”—are engrained into the American lexicon. Popeil’s products and infomercials have also been extensively parodied on “The Simpsons.”

But satirists can laugh all they want. One of his later inventions, Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, which has the tagline “Set It and Forget It,” had generated over $1 billion in sales by October 2005, according to BusinessWeek. Popeil sold Ronco in 2005 in a reverse merger to Denver holding company Fi-Tek VII for $55 million, and the pitchman went into semi-retirement.

Ronco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 2007, remerging some two months later as a restructured company called “The New Ronco.” Popeil urges fans to stay tuned: “You’re always going to see Ronco or Popeil in the marketplace,” he told Entrepreneur magazine. “I’ll never stop.”

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