The ones we lost in 2021, in Chicago and beyond


Ron Popeil, who died in July at the age of 86, has perfected the art of tough selling, refusing to let go. He had such a knack for selling complete junk, it might as well have been called Hurricane Popeil. Yet he was not a town crier. He even sold some nice things that lasted longer than anyone might have expected. He had a gigantic head and a smile that seemed a little too broad, and for generations who fell asleep in front of the TV, Ron Popeil was the face you woke up at 3 a.m. If he looked like the archetype of an overly smooth TV pitchman, that’s because that archetype was Ron Popeil. He claimed to have invented the infomercial, and who doubted it? Between Ronco, his company, and Popeil Bros, his father’s company, their creations are legion: Mr. Microphone, Pocket Fisherman, Ronco Chop-O-Matic (one of the first successes, in the 50s), Veg-O- Matic, the Showtime Rotisserie, the Inside-the-Eggshell Jammer, the Smokeless Ashtray. Do you remember boxed hair? It was also Ron. Father and son weren’t close, to put it mildly. After his parents divorced, he was sent to an orphanage. In a memorable New Yorker profile, Ron said he never saw his father until he moved to Chicago when he was 13. Even then, he was only allowed to work at the Popeil factory when Dad was away. So, like his father before him, Ron started throwing gadgets at the Maxwell Street flea markets. He made his way. He bought a stand at Woolworth’s on State Street and became something of a draw on himself, so kind with the sale of chants, lunchtime crowds crowded nearby. Whatever he sells to you, it’s cut, diced, cleaned, folded. He was a carnival barker for the Cathode Age whose gadgets would change your life, or at least put dinner on the table at 5:30 p.m. sharp. Now how much would you pay? Many. Tim Samuelson, the former Chicago city historian who collects Popeil products, wrote an animated history of the Popeils in 2002 and even organized a Popeil exhibit for the Cultural Center. He once told me that despite the elegant image of the family, many of their products are well made, even ingenious. Ron was worth $ 200 million when he died. It’s too good to be true? But wait, there is more. In 1974, his ex-wife hired two hitmen to kill Ron. She went to jail and less than two years later they remarried. Ron Popeil’s gadgets have long since entered the collections of the Chicago History Museum and the Smithsonian.


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