When I was growing up, late night television was a very different beast from what it is today. My family didn’t even have cable until I was in my late teens. No video on demand, no Tivo, no infinite channels, no online streaming and some television stations even went off the air at night. We got exactly 6 stations; ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and 2 independent stations on UHF. There’s no comparison to how much better both the quality and variety of programming is now, but, still, there are things that I miss from the earlier days of television. One of those things is the commercials I used to see on late night TV.
Both the products and the style of the ads were so striking that I remember many of them to this day. I can’t hear the phrase, “we’ll be back to pick you up later” without thinking of the Mr. Microphone commercial. Several of the favorite songs of my youth came off of a variety of K-Tel music collections. I often marveled at the inventiveness of products that rolled out, seemingly endless, to address innumerable needs, both real and imagined. And the delivery? These commercials featured reenactments of everyday problems, played out by low budget actors, overdramatized to catastrophic proportions. Or, alternatively, displaying the amazing life that could be yours if only you purchased these amazing inventions. The pitches were delivered with all the subtlety of a carnival huckster.
I’m guessing that air time was cheap for a Maine television station at 3AM, so you’d inevitably see local car dealers and furniture stores hawking their wares, but the two big players of the late night circuit were Ronco and K-Tel. Ronco was an American company founded by Ron Popeil, who learned his trade from his inventor/salesman father, Samuel. Starting in 1964 making $89,000 in sales, by 1969 that figure had risen to $14 million. Popeil sold the company for $55 million in 2005, only to go bankrupt and fold in 2018. Quite possibly the father of the infomercial, Ron Popeil and his company have been featured in numerous news segments and interview, been the recipient of several awards, both honorary and derogatory and insinuating themselves into pop culture by everyone from the Simpsons to Saturday Night Live. Among their more well known offerings are:
The Chop-O-Matic – One of their earliest and longest running products
The Popeil Pocket Fisherman – I’ve never met anyone who has owned one of these, so I have no idea if they work or not, but the alliteration in the name made it fun to say.
Mr. Microphone – This seems like it would be the most annoying product one could ever design, but what has stuck with me is the ultimate cringe of a car full of teens using it to try and pick up some girls just minding their own business.
Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler – I never saw the purpose for this. I’ve scrambled eggs for a good part of my life and I’ve never had an issue with the traditional, outside-the-shell way of doing things. Evidently, this invention was inspired by Ron Popeil’s utter disgust at egg whites and incompletely scrambled eggs. While I think this is nonsense, it did win 84th place in Mobile Magazine’s Top 100 Gadgets of All Time, so what the hell do I know?
I could go on, but, seriously, one could write an entire book and I want to get this posted today.
K-Tel is a Canadian company founded in 1962 and became one of Ronco’s biggest rivals. Started by Philip Kives, a door-to-door salesman and a pitchman on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, he was the perfect man to match Popeil at his own game. In fact, K-Tel started out by selling some of Popeil’s products, like the Veg-O-Matic, before selling their own products. This company is no joke, going from $23 million in sales in 1971 to $178 million 10 years later, expanding their holdings to include real estate and oil exploration. They’re still functioning today, mainly making money from their 200,000 song catalog of golden oldies, such as “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard and “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen, carried on platforms such and iTunes and Spotify and featured in television, movies and commercials. Among their offering were:
The Miracle Brush – Basically a glorified lint brush. I was all set to talk shit about this product, but in doing some research, I’ve found several testimonials that rave about the Miracle Brush and state that they are still using theirs after 20-30 years.
The Fishin’ Magician – An all-in-one multitool, this gadget had a scale to weight your fish, a tape measure to measure it, a hook remover, a filet knife, a scaler, a bottle opener and more.
The Scrappy Scrubber – I only vaguely remember this one, but think an oversized electric toothbrush for your dishes.
Too many music compilations to count – Still a music powerhouse, K-Tel has released such timeless collections such as Disco Fever, Hooked on Rodgers & Hammerstein, Chipmunk Mania, Street Wave, Good Times in Country Music, Themes for Dreams – The Magic Sound of Panpipes and the list goes on and on.
While we have K-Tel and Ronco duking it out like Godzilla and Gamara, I would be remiss to not mention some of the other participants of the late night circuit. Notably, Ginsu Knives and their amazing feats will be forever burned into my brain. They sliced through a tin can and it still stays sharp enough to slice a tomato. What the hell kind of kitchen were they thinking of? Who could ever forget Suzanne Summers and her erotically charged ThighMaster? In addition to all the goods being sold, I must also mention the services. Classics like the Psychic Friends Network, Tony Robbins’ Self Help seminars and even sexy chat lines like 544-CHAT and 550-TEEN were all major players trying to capitalize on the desperation of someone watching television at 3 in the morning. These are all the classics I grew up with, now remnants of history, a dying breed after giving rise to Ebay and the Home Shopping Network. I often wonder if these things will all be forgotten in the passage of time, but I promise you that I will keep their memory alive until I take my last breath.