Show us your . . . Popeil gadgets | Show us your [____] | Chicago Reader

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Show us your . . . Popeil gadgets

Cultural historian Tim Samuelson appreciates the Chicago story in as-seen-on-TV appliances.


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As the city's cultural historian, Tim Samuelson has had occasion to amass all manner of Chicago treasures: Eliot Ness's handcuffs, chunks of the Wrigley Building, and discarded pieces of structures by Sullivan and Wright. Some of the artifacts are displayed in the home Samuelson shares with his wife at the Promontory Apartments, a Hyde Park building with its own historic pedigree as Mies van der Rohe's first high-rise. In the kitchen, Samuelson keeps selections from his Popeil Brothers/Ronco gadget collection, relatively inexpensive, mass-produced items that he believes have considerable import as pieces of the city's history. "They have a remarkable story to tell us that's distinctively Chicago," he says.

That story, detailed in Samuelson's 2002 book But Wait! There's More!, goes something like this: Decades before Ron Popeil appeared on your television to market the Showtime Rotisserie with the tagline "Set it and forget it," members of the Popeil clan had perfected their showy brand of salesmanship as Maxwell Street Market vendors. Ron's father, Samuel, and his uncle, Raymond, became pioneering TV pitchmen, selling the Veg-O-Matic, the Pocket Fisherman, and other doodads produced by their Chicago manufacturing business. Driven to make a name for himself, Ron broke away and formed Ronco. He became a chief rival of Popeil Brothers, developing products such as Mr. Microphone, the Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler, and more as-seen-on-TV classics.

Samuelson estimates his Popeil Brothers/Ronco collection numbers 125 items, many of which he keeps in a storage unit on the north side. The historian displayed the collection in the 2004 exhibit "Isn't That Amazing!" at the Cultural Center. (The Chicago History Museum has its own Popeil family gadgets on view as part of its Decorative and Industrial Arts Collection.)

Occasionally, Samuelson still turns to a Popeil appliance while preparing meals, all the while faithfully re-creating the original TV pitch. "If I want to slice up an onion," he says, "I'll get out the ol' Chop-O-Matic, and not cry over the process."

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