In the Wee Small Hours, Pitchman Ron Popeil Is Never at a Loss for a Miracle
updated 07/13/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/13/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT
For 17 years Ron Popeil has been making his fortune selling the kind of useful products you never knew you had a use for—at least not until he went on TV and told you you did. Since 1964 Popeil's Ronco commercials have been interrupting late-night TV movies and reruns with bursts of hyperthyroid hucksterism, as Ron and his minions shrill the virtues of the Miracle Brush, the Miracle Sander and the Miracle Broom, Mr. Microphone (a wireless mike that can transmit a person's voice over the nearest FM radio) and Hula Ho ("the weeder with a wiggle"). Ronco gadgets are cheap—none costs more than $25—but Popeil has sold enough of them ($37 million worth last year) to afford homes in Beverly Hills, Aspen, Palm Springs and Honolulu, two Excaliburs, three Mercedeses and a Porsche.
Popeil, in fact, is the Horatio Alger of the TV age, a self-made multimillionaire who started with next to nothing. A native New Yorker, Ron was only 2 years old when his mother went one way and his father, Sam (who later manufactured products for which Ron handled the marketing), another. Ron and his brother were raised in Chicago by his paternal grandparents. They were so poor, he says, that "my grandmother used to put chicken feed in the soup for filler. The home life wasn't there," he adds quietly. "I wouldn't recommend my childhood to other people."
On his own at 16, Ron worked six days a week behind the counter at Woolworth's and on Sundays as a pitchman at Chicago's outdoor market on Maxwell Street. After an unhappy year and a half at the University of Illinois, he moved on to demonstrating the Chop-O-Matic, a precursor of Ronco's famed Veg-O-Matic slicer. (Ronco sold more than $50 million worth of Veg-O-Matics before the company stopped marketing them in the late '60s following a disagreement with the Federal Trade Commission over charges of misleading advertising.) As it turned out, Ron was a born supersalesman. "It's a talent that's innate," he says. "My father had it. I have it."
Success, however, didn't come easy. "My lungs hurt from bellowing all day," Popeil recalls, "and my hands always smelled like onions." No wonder. He chopped 50 pounds of them a day, plus potatoes, cabbages and radishes, and an occasional beet to hide the blood from cut fingers. Then, in 1964, a friend made Popeil a TV commercial for only $550 (his spots still look cheap, but now cost more than $15,000). Popeil spent another $400 on TV time and $400 more to stock a Rockford, Ill. store with food slicers. He expected them to start moving in two weeks, but they sold out in just two days. Ronco was on its way. In 1969 the company went public, and today Ronco gadgets are sold in 23,000 stores in the U.S., as well as in Britain, Nigeria, South Africa and Australia.
Twice divorced, with two grown daughters by his first marriage, Popeil lives on two acres in Beverly Hills with his bride of four months, Lisa Parkes, 25, a UCLA architecture student. He flies to Ronco's suburban Chicago headquarters every two weeks, but does most of his work at home. There he inspects thousands of inventions each year to find the two or three that Ronco will sell. Nonsmoker Popeil's current favorite: the Smokeless Ashtray, with a filter that absorbs cigarette smoke and odors. "Does someone you know smoke? Doesn't smoke get into your hair, clothes, furniture and drapes? Then Ronco has the answer..." Amazing.