When the pantheon of great Chicago businessmen is reeled off— retailers Montgomery Ward and Marshall Field, restaurateurs Ray Kroc and Richard Melman, manufacturers Cyrus McCormick and George Pullman— somehow they never quite get around to Ron Popeil, master TV pitchman.
Which is a shame, because Popeil not only made a fortune for himself out of such humble devices as the Chop-O-Matic and the Pocket Fisherman, but was a pioneer in bringing the smooth-talking Maxwell Street salesman into the electronic age.
His Chicago roots are discussed even less here than he is, but I was reminded of them when I bumped into him, quite by accident, Sunday at the end of a long day at the International Home + Housewares Show at McCormick Place.
"Chicago, Chicago, my home town, Chicago," he said, shaking hands. He began working here at 13, hauling vegetables to the sprawling outdoor market on Maxwell Street so his father, S.J. Popeil could demonstrate his inventions, such as the Veg-O-Matic. Soon Ron was demonstrating products at the flagship Woolworth's at State and Washington.
"That's where I got my education," he said.
His business quickly grew. He wore a Rolex, had offices at the Playboy Building at 919 N. Michigan. The Veg-O-Matic went through vegetables so quickly, salesmen had trouble hauling them around, so he thought to go on TV, producing a string of memorable commercials that brought Popeil, part Midway barker, part street corner salesman, part vaudeville entertainer, to the growing medium. Although he was no mere pitchman. Popeil enthusiastically researched and developed his products. They had to work well.
He introduced more products—Mr. Microphone, Inside the Shell Egg Scrambler, Showtime Rotisserie, to name a few—and became part of the culture. Steve Goodman wrote a song about Popeil products; Weird Al Yankovic wrote one too. "Help me, Mr. Popeil!"
Popeil sold his company in 2005 for $55 million. He lives in Beverly Hills, where he is developing his next breakthrough product, a table-top fryer.
"Most of my inventions take two or three years," he said. "This one has taken twelve and a half years."
I wondered how he settled on a fryer.
"Why a fryer? Before I invent a product, I have to completely understand and be satisfied with the marketing. All my inventions, the marketing has to be there before I entertain a particular invention." In other words, there is a need."
For a 78-year-old, he had a clear-eyed view of the present media moment.
"The market now is changing," he said. "The TV audience is getting smaller and smaller. It only has eight to ten years left. Social media is the new journey."
He also has an unusual hobby. "I happen to be the world's largest collector of olive oil," he said. "I'm in the Guinness Book of World Records."
Though I kept trying to shift the conversation back to Chicago, kept the focus relentlessly on his new fryer, which he plans to sell lock, stock and barrel to whatever company sage enough to buy it, claiming that improved safety standards will cause all other fryers to be pulled from the market.
"It is the most dangerous product on the planet," he said, speaking with animation and enthusiasm. I had to ask him—at this point in his life, why continue to work on new products?
"I love what I do," he said. "Inventing and marketing, creating the market."
Popeil gets back to Chicago a few times a year—though he no longer owns the company, he was stopping by the Ronco booth to visit.
"The people are what I miss about Chicago," he said. "The city has really grown. Great downtown, great people. The weather is wonderful where I live, but you really can't replace the people."