Death Of A UHF Pitchman

Ron Popeil has died. The inventor/developer/popularizer of countless weird products and the star of ever-playing infomercials, Popeil was 86.

If you got anywhere near a TV during the ’60s and ’70s, you knew the name Ron Popeil. He was the guy who sold many of the products that were featured on commercials on the “UHF” channels on your TV.

(I realize as I write those words that many people alive today have no idea what a “UHF” or “VHF” channel was, or how they were different. Here’s a primer. The VHF channels were numbered 1 through 13, were on the VHF dial on your TV with clearly demarcated slots for the stations, and accordingly were easy to find and came through on your TV much more clearly. The three networks and their local broadcast stations were always on one of those VHF channels. The UHF channels, on the other hand, were on a different dial that didn’t have specific channel indicators, so if you wanted to watch a UHF station you first had to switch to the UHF dial, then carefully turn that dial incrementally, with the precision deftness of a brain surgeon, to find the best signal for channel 43 or channel 61, manipulate your rabbit ears to further enhance signal quality, and put up with some “snow” on the screen and fading in and out. Nevertheless, becoming a master of UHF channel tuning was an essential skill for any kid who wanted to watch Three Stooges shorts, Star Trek reruns, bad horror movies, and the other enticing mainstays of UHF programming. The UHF stations eventually became a lot more accessible when cable TV became widespread.)

The first Ron Popeil/Ronco product I remember was the Veg-o-Matic, which allowed you to put a peeled potato on a kind of wire screen below the top of the device, depress the top, forcing the potato through the screen, and thereby produce french fries that were ready for the fryer. The Veg-o-Matic always seemed to me to be of limited usefulness, but it sure would come in handy if french fries were a staple of your diet. And of course the Veg-o-Matic was only one of a host of odd Ron Popeil products. There was the Ronco Steam-A-Way, a gun-like device that allowed you to steam out the wrinkles that appeared in your clothes while you were traveling. There was the Buttoneer, which appeared to replace thread with plastic stays to keep buttons attached to their fabric forever, and which was known mostly because its commercial the same phrase countless times as frustrated people dealt with lost buttons: “The problem with buttons is . . . they always fall off!” We can’t forget the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, a fold-up fishing product that allowed avid anglers to always be ready to set a hook and drop a line into any brook or pond they happened to pass by (although I don’t think bait was provided). And finally Ron Popeil brought us Mr. Microphone, a cordless microphone that could tie in to the frequency of your car radio and allow you to broadcast annoying comments to passersby. The smooth ’70s character with the bad haircut shown in the photo above uses Mr. Microphone to deliver the deathless line: “Hey good lookin’. Be back to pick you up later!” (That one has become a standard catchphrase in our household.)

It’s strange, and kind of scary, to think of how all of these Ron Popeil items, and their related commercials, have become so firmly lodged in my brain synapses that I can easily recall them, decades later–but that’s what repeated watching of UHF TV will do for you. RIP to the Master Pitchman and his menagerie of products.

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