Thursday, July 29, 2021

In memoriam: Ron Popeil (1935-2021)

By Patrick McCray

We lost him a few hours ago, and in losing him, we lost one of the last, great American originals from the silent generation. Although the news will provide others with the fodder for lazy punchlines, American innovator Ron Popeil is worth far more. The medium of television in the era of Dark Shadows was more than just a chain of 23 minute episodes squeezed into a half hour. It was a ritual that streaming, physical media, and convenience have robbed us of. And thus, whether we hear the pitchmen from in front of the television or from behind the bathroom door, TV commercials are as much of the text experience as the intended programming.

He belongs to Collinwood as much as anyone else. And although he was neither actor nor character nor Dan Curtis Productions employee, he was nevertheless a presence in hundreds of episodes. And like the literal characters who inhabit the Dark Shadows universe, he was part sorcerer and part comforting friend. He trafficked in pure imagination and the art of the unexpected, but with a sincere flair that reminded you that he was uniquely postwar, all American, And every bit on your side. 

Ron Popeil was, above all, an innovator and, if either had the time to bother with the other, was Howard Rorke to Wendell Berry’s Ellsworth Toohey. The latter sold those of us with good manners and letters after our names on the myth that labor saving technology was lazy, suspect, and responsible for divorcing us from an authentic human existence. And that’s why very few parents ever hired Wendell Berry to appear at kids’ birthday parties.

A college dropout, Popeil joined his inventor-father in the family business responsible for the Veg-o-Magic and Chop-o-Matic kitchen utensils. There is only so much romance to mincing vegetables, and beyond chasing the almighty dollar by convincing the American public that they desperately needed something they had no idea existed, Popeil and son were also domestic innovators. Just those two inventions alone saved postwar Americans countless hours to spend on other things. As someone who is missing a healthy section of the pad of his thumb due to an expertly crafted kitchen knife, I can attest that they are far safer. 

They not only changed how Americans interacted with their domestic lives; the Popeils changed our relationship with technology and the very process of learning about it. Carrying on in his father‘s footsteps, Popeil was a tireless inventor who had the necessary creativity to look beyond good taste and provide the workin’ Joe and Jane with tools to elevate the ordinary. Or just bring a goofy grin to families that needed it. There was a sense of excitement and wonder that Popeil brought to to his inventions, turning the mundane into something almost countercultural. By preparing his demonstrations on videotape, Popeil was a key visionary in the field of retail communication. That’s the technical side of his second art: sales. But what truly made Popeil such a pop pioneer was the infectious excitement for his inventions… and his sincere affection for the consumers. Beyond his well-tuned mantras reassuring us that the gadgets “really, really work,” was the subtext that we deserved better. To listen to Ronco ads is to hear a voice suggesting that those who came before him in domestic engineering were content for us to settle for less. Why must the future start with billion  dollar space vehicles out of our reach? Why can’t it inhabit our homes, as well?

Yes, anyone who creates so many varied products will be an object lesson in Sturgeon’s Law. 90% of everything will be crap. A mechanical mug froster, spray-on-hair, and a machine to scramble eggs in the shell are bizarre must-haven’ts. But there is a giddy audacity to them that keeps them memorable. In reviewing Ronco products just now, I was struck by how much Popeil lived in the future. I saw many Ronco innovations that respectable manufacturers simply allowed him to beta test. Before they took half the risk for twice the price. 

Go to a Williams Sonoma or surf the Internet for high priced life tools, and Ron Popeil will be staring back at you, having gotten there first. Oxo has nothing on the man, and it owes him a moral fortune. Veg-o-Matic-like food choppers can now be had respectably in the most chic of boutiques. The same can be said for the “innovation“ of lumbar support in motor vehicles.  Air purifiers. Spill-proof commuter mugs. Teeth cleaning equipment modeled on dental  tools. His final claim to fame and fortune, the countertop rotisserie oven, may seem dubious in the era of air fryers and pressure cookers. That’s until you think of the comparatively exotic and healthy recipes suddenly in reach of the renters of tiny, joyless studio apartments or denizens of dorm rooms. Suddenly, life has a lot more possibilities, even if in three easy installments.

Of course he would accompany Dark Shadows. After all, what was that program but the reinvention of time-honored story elements from bold, new perspectives to delight modern audiences? Helpful then. Helpful now.  That’s a shared tradition of American vision that we can all get behind.  Both are symbiotic and endearing legacies as seen on tv.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...