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Remembering Inventor And TV Pitchman Ron Popeil

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

DAVIES: We're going to remember Ron Popeil, the inventor and pitchman behind the Chop-O-Matic, the Veg-O-Matic, the Popeil pocket fisherman, 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 early days of television. Like any pitchman, his use of language and hyperbole was designed to pull the customer in. One of his catch phrases was, but wait, there's more. He was so ubiquitous, he was parodied in this 1976 "Saturday Night Live" sketch by Dan Aykroyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DAN AYKROYD: (As spokesperson) How many times has this happened to you? You have a bass. You're trying to find an exciting new way to prepare it for dinner. You could scale the bass, remove the bass' tail, head and bones and serve the fish as 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 scaling, gutting and cutting are over because Super Bass-O-Matic ’76 is the tool that lets you use the whole bass with no fish waste, without scaling cutting or gutting. Here's how it works. Catch a bass. Remove the hook. And drop the bass - that's the whole bass - into the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76. Now adjust the control dial so that that bass is blended just the way you like it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Popeil got his start demonstrating products at flea markets and at Woolworth's as a teenager in Chicago. One of those products, the Chop-O-Matic, was an invention of his father, Samuel. Ron Popeil went on to form his own company, Ronco, and became a multimillionaire. Terry spoke to him in 1993, when he'd written the book "Salesman Of The Century." He told her what he would say to sell a product during one of his demonstrations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

POPEIL: Most of the products were housewares-type products, like food choppers and slicers and things of that nature. And I would normally say - if I was using my food slicer, I would say that the food slicer blade was so sharp that you could slice an onion so thin it only had one side. Or when tomatoes got expensive in the wintertime, you could slice a tomato so thin you'd make one tomato last you all winter long. Or this knife was so sharp that you could cut a cow in half - and that's no bull. Every demonstration, basically, was showing the consumer the old-fashioned way of doing it. Whether we had an old, rusted knuckle buster in the house that I know you're...

TERRY GROSS: Like, a cheese grater or something.

POPEIL: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

POPEIL: One of those old knuckle busters - it was a stand-up kind of product - versus using my particular product that accomplished the same thing very easily, easy to clean. And the price was right.

GROSS: OK. Now, the second ad you did on TV was for the Chop-O-Matic. And, in fact, why don't we hear the ad?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPEIL: If you want to chop a few celery stocks - you know, for soup, salad or stuffing - instead of wasting time cutting the celery with a knife like you usually would, just place your celery under the chopper. With a few taps of the palm of a hand - see how easy it is? - just like bouncing a ball. And in seconds, your celery is chopped. Here's a way to make a hurry-up supper, make some of those mouthwatering hash brown potatoes. Just place the potatoes onto the chopper, a few taps, a few seconds and there's your hash brown. They're ready for the pan. What could be easier? Of course, if you have an appetite for potato pancakes, you just continue tapping. I'll show you pancakes that are so fine, they won't fall apart or be tasteless or rubbery when you break them. And just look how fine they are. You add an egg and some onion and fry them to a golden brown. This is certainly a welcomed sight for any hungry man.

GROSS: Now, I have to say, your voice in that ad almost sounds like a circus barker.

POPEIL: Yes.

GROSS: There's a certain kind of melodious - you know, the way you're asking questions and then answering them. Sounds like you're inviting people into the tent or something.

POPEIL: Well, when, in fact, you are demonstrating product, there's so much you have to say. And people are in a hurry. Don't forget, people who stopped to buy my product didn't come to see 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 an interest and have them go down in their purse or pockets and take out money and buy a product they had no interest in buying in the first place.

GROSS: What's the most successful TV ad you've ever done?

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

GROSS: OK. Now, let's leave out the infomercials. What's the most successful?

POPEIL: Then I would have to think that you've got to talk about dollars or units...

GROSS: Units, units.

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

GROSS: You got 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. Those items were big. Buttoneer was a giant item as well. The problem with buttons is they always fall off. The problem with buttons is they always fall off. And when they do, don't sow them on the old-fashioned way, with needle and thread, get a Buttoneer. The new automatic button faster makes a great Christmas gift, dun, dun-dun, dun.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, this is part of your philosophy - right? - that every product needs to be the solution to a problem.

POPEIL: That's 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 pause here and play a Mr. Microphone ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPEIL: Hey, this Christmas party's getting a little too quiet. I think it's time we liven it up with my favorite Christmas gift, Mr. Microphone. Hey, what's that? Well, you set the dial on your FM radio. And - testing, testing. Hey, I'm on the radio. I love it.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Jingle bells, jingle bells...

POPEIL: These kids are having a fabulous time with Mr. Microphone, the cordless microphone that actually puts your voice on the radio.

POPEIL: (Singing) Oh, what fun it is to ride a one-horse open sleigh (scatting).

There are no attaching wires, so you're free to move around. Broadcast over any FM car radio. Hey, good-looking. We'll be back to pick you up later.

GROSS: Now, that hey, good-looking - were you being funny or serious there? Did you really expect people would go cruising along with their Mr. Microphone, picking up chicks?

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

DAVIES: Inventor and TV pitchman Ron Popeil speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. He died July 28. He was 86. On Monday's show, Terry speaks with Cecily Strong. She's nominated for an Emmy for her work on "Saturday Night Live." Now she's starring in a new series called "Schmigadoon!" - a loving satire of 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. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE METROPOLE ORCHESTRA AND JAN STULEN'S "SCENIC RAILWAY (1962)")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering 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 producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly say Terry Gross spoke with Ron Popeil in 1993. Their interview was in 1996.]

(SOUNDBITE OF THE METROPOLE ORCHESTRA AND JAN STULEN'S "SCENIC RAILWAY (1962)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 8, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
In the audio, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly say Terry Gross spoke with Ron Popeil in 1993. Their interview was in 1996.