Mr. Infomercial: The Early Years of Ron Popeil

You may not know him by name, but chances are if you have ever had a sleepless night and turned on the television, Ron Popeil has been there to keep you company. He is the king of the late night infomercial, and the man who made famous such catch phrases as “But wait, there’s more!” and “It slices! It dices!” But, Popeil is also more than that. Over the past forty years, Popeil has created for himself an empire. By inventing and selling over $2 billion worth of products, Popeil has turned his company, Ronco Teleproducts, into a global leader in direct response marketing.

That success is a long way from the life Popeil knew as a child. Born on May 3, 1935 in New York City, Popeil’s parents divorced when he was just three years old. In what would mark the beginning of a difficult childhood for the future salesman, Popeil and his 17-month older brother, Jerry, were sent off to a boarding school in upstate New York. They had little to no contact with their family, until four years later, when their grandparents came to pick them up and take them back to their house in Florida.

Popeil’s grandfather was a Polish immigrant with few redeeming qualities, who would frequently beat Popeil and his brother. As a result, Popeil’s time with his grand parents was filled with few happy memories. He calls it a case of being “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” When he was 10 years old, Popeil moved with his grandparents to Chicago, but took the first chance he could to move out on his own at the age of 16.

Popeil’s father, Samuel, was an inventor who sold his products through some of the major department stores throughout the U.S. Despite their rocky relationship, Popeil went to work for his father after moving out, performing live demonstrations of his products to in store customers. “I used to drum up business for my father’s company,” he says. “Because sales were significant the stores would jump on the bandwagon and order more products.”

Then one day, Popeil decided to take a walk along Maxwell Street in Chicago, one of the city’s major tourist attractions where salesmen from all walks of life were busy hawking their wares. “The first time I went there the proverbial light bulb went on in my head,” he recalls. “I saw all these people selling products, making sales, pocketing money, and my mind went racing. I can do what they’re doing, I thought, but I think I can do it better than they can.”

Popeil immediately went back to his father’s factory and bought a range of kitchen products from him at wholesale price. The next Sunday, he returned to Maxwell Street to try his luck. “I talked, I yelled, I hawked, and it worked!” he exclaims. “I was stuffing money into my pockets, more money than I had ever seen in my life.” After living for 16 years in a house without love, Popeil says he finally found a way to connect with others through sales.

It was the start of something big for the eager, young Popeil.

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