Marc Gill, the big, bald, bearded genie at center stage, yanks a smorgasbord of heavenly treats from the Ronco Ready Grill.
Here comes the lollipop lamb for Dad and sensible salmon for Mom, and now hot dogs and chicken fingers for their curly-haired girl and two boys. Has our hungry crew stopped for a bite at their favorite all-you-can-eat joint? Better than that, this real-life family of five has landed supporting roles in one of the most anticipated infomercials of the fall season.
But wait, there’s more! Out of Gill’s furnace of fun -- an oversized silver toaster-thingy –- emerges a rack of potatoes and asparagus. Gill looks into the camera and pauses to recover from what appears to be a bad case of wide-eyed astonishment.
“Are you kidding me!” he booms as he begins serving the hot goodies. “Who wants to be first?”
The pitchman cometh, wearing a red and black chef’s smock, baggy black pants and comfy moccasins the camera can’t see. Gill is 6-foot-2, 300 pounds of sales sizzle and built like the square-bodied bulldog on the hood of a Mack truck. He can be mean-looking when he doesn’t smile. Good thing he smiles a lot and he’s smiling now, the pearly whites shining out from his goatee like a picket fence as he begins a long day’s shoot.
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The 2008 recession and its fickle recovery left deep doubts about whether America still offers that one irresistible bargain: Work hard and you will have a better life. If some polls and pundits have declared the American Dream dead, there are those in occupations old and new, fading and emerging, who defy the numbers. They strive, as Thoreau once advised, to live the life they’ve imagined. This column, which starts today, will tell their stories.
For Gill and his ensemble, it is high drama indeed inside Bluewater Media’s Studio 1 in an otherwise forgettable Clearwater, Florida, office park.
Ronco is attempting to pull itself from the dustbin of television history. Founded in 1964 by Ron Popeil, now 79 and no longer involved, the company dominated the infomercial universe with cookery and gadgetry we didn’t know we needed until Popeil told us we did: Pocket Fisherman, Chop-O-Matic, Mr. Microphone, Smokeless Ashtray, Cap Snaffler.
Ronco filed for bankruptcy in 2007 and now -- its product line under new management -- wants to recapture the magic with Gill out front as its brand ambassador.
The infomercial is risky business. Only one in 100 gadgets considered for a starring role in a 30-minute spot makes money, the television audience continues to shrink and more people are shopping online in lieu of calling the number at the bottom of their screens.
Should the Ronco rebirth succeed, Gill would arguably become America’s top TV pitchman. Already he’s compared favorably to the late, legendary Billy Mays (“Don’t just get it clean, get it OxiClean!”) and boasts on his resume, among other life-enhancers, Mighty Putty Purple, the gunk that held a truck fastened to a 747 jumbo jet as the former pulled the latter down a runway.
Gill also had a cup of coffee with Hollywood, landing bit parts. In “The Way of War,” a 2009 action thriller starring Cuba Gooding Jr. you may have missed, he played a bar bouncer named Meat Truck.
Talk about typecasting: Gill, 44, was a real bar bouncer once. His biopic, however, would look more like “Coming to America.” Instead of an African prince played by Eddie Murphy, it’s a Canadian reaching for pitchman immortality.
‘$200 Immigrant Story’
“My friends actually have a name for what happened to me,” he said. “They call it my $200 immigrant story.”
It begins 27 years ago when Gill, at age 17, hawked vacuum cleaners door-to-door in his hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 200 miles north of the Montana border with winter temps that can slither to minus 40 Fahrenheit.
The only child of a middle-class family, he played football and wrestled in high school, but fell asleep in class. The vacuums woke him up. He sold six his rookie weekend, none in the next six months, “learning about the law of averages in sales very early,” he said.
He worked in a furniture store. A stint in a restaurant as a mushroom slicer for eight hours a day gave him an invaluable leg up as a future TV pitchman specializing in food prep.
Then, in 1989, when he was 19 and living in a cheap apartment, Gill was watching an infomercial for Ronco’s Showtime Rotisserie when he had an epiphany.
Sell on Television
Popeil reached out from the small screen and ordered him to buy one each for family and friends. Gill promptly ordered nine at $199 each. He threw a party, using one rotisserie to cook a 15-pound turkey and handing out the rest to his guests, his skeptical mom and dad included.
“From then on, the goal was to sell on television,” he said. Nothing else would do.
The next phase of his life through age 25 he calls his “university years,” when he hunkered down to learn the art of the sale. Riding on a smile and a shoeshine, he went door-to-door with tube socks, Teddy bears, calculators, knock-off watches, Campbell Soup cookbooks, Disney books, and stood patiently as many doors closed right back in his face.
“You’re not going to make it very far in this unless your skin gets real thick real soon,” he recalled. He eventually became so inured of failure that he went door-to-door with an old Ford Festiva he had failed to sell through a newspaper ad and found a buyer in two hours.
Eventually he dropped the door-to-door work for other ventures. At state fairs and exhibitions, he operated a novelty picture booth, taking headshots of fairgoers and mounting them on bodies of swimsuit models or Jerry Seinfeld or Baby Spice.
“I have no idea why I never quit,” he said. “I just knew I wasn’t supposed to.”
There were plenty of times he wanted to walk away.
“You’re in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan,” he began, “you have three dollars in the bank and you’re trying to sell banana-oil cleaner for a hundred bucks a gallon,” he said. “Did I want to quit? Yeah!”
Then, in 2006, a friend called from HSN, formerly Home Shopping Network, in Clearwater. Could Gill fill in for two shows? Gill would be paid a pittance, $100 a show or $200 total.
This was more than a fill-in job. “This was my shot,” Gill concluded. “I put everything I had on the line.”
He sold his home in Saskatchewan, promised his son, now 17, from a first marriage that he’d stay in touch and headed south. His stock soared on HSN as the jovial loud everyman.
When the invitation came last November to become Ronco’s white knight, “I sat in my living room and cried,” Gill said. “I finally understood why I wasn’t supposed to quit.”
On set at the Ready Grill shoot, there is no studio audience. Instead, a dozen or so actors are grouped on stage in three familiar modes of this American life: the family, two couples on a patio and four 20-something actors slouched on a couch.
Gill has come up with a slogan inspired by the bell that sounds when the Ready Grill has finished its job.
“When it dings!” Gill hollers.
“Dinner’s done!” the couch potatoes holler back.
The man throws great gusting energy off the walls of Studio 1 from mid-morning until shortly before 6 at night when -– ding! -- the shoot is done.
He shakes hands warmly with the producers and high-fives the cameramen.
Gill left Canada with little more than that booming voice and picket-fence smile. Today he is remarried and earns what he would only describe as a six-figure annual salary as an independent contractor paid by the job.
The Ronco revival is considerably more lucrative. If it works out, Gill said he could be earning a million dollars a year within a year or two.
His success all this way from chilly Saskatoon has led him to believe the American Dream is not only real but real simple.
“I couldn’t have done what I did at this level in Canada,” he said. “The only way you can fail at anything here is to quit.”
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