John Doyel, 92, leaves lasting mark on products, people
“At his 90th birthday party,” recalled Mary Swartz, “John seemed invincible. Sadly, nobody is. But I feel so fortunate, so honored to have had a chance to get to know him. Chelsea is a bit less for his passing.”
That sentiment, echoed by close family and numerous friends, may be an even more significant legacy than the “as seen on TV” devices which long ago established their creator as an unforgettable contributor to popular (and practical) culture.
A designer for the Ronco company throughout the 1970s, John Doyel (92) passed away on September 21 at Bellevue Hospital — a short time after a very bad fall at a neighbor’s house.
Doyel was born in 1919 in the town of Winchester, Indiana, which is where he met his wife, nurse and future Chelsea neighborhood activist, Rowena Diggs (who passed away in 2006). After attending the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC. Doyel served in the Army Core of Engineers, stationed in Iceland, England and France during WWII as a specialist in camouflage design.
In 1949, the couple moved to New York from Indiana. Still an avid painter, Doyel spent many evenings in the 1950s drinking at the Cedar Bar with colleagues Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack. In 1952, the couple moved to a West 20th Street brownstone just west of Ninth Avenue, built in 1829 as a rental property on the estate of Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of Hebrew and Greek at the General Theological Seminary (and author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”).
The Doyels bought the house in 1965, and John (who had also designed lawn-ornament Santa Clauses for a time) began collecting mechanical and antique Santa figures from all over the world. They opened their home to friends and neighbors at Christmas — and also on Halloween, when the house became part of the Safe Circuit system of trick-or-treat stops for neighborhood children.
In his basement workshop, Doyel (helped along and inspired by a crew of artist friends and former army buddies) designed many memorable late night TV-marketed products — including the Portable Cordless Sewing Machine, the Record Vacuum (an LP washing machine), the Rhinestone and Stud Setter, the Miracle Broom, the Smokeless Ashtray and many others. The products became immensely popular when buoyed by irresistible pitches from legendary Ronco front man Ron Popeil. After splitting with Ronco, Doyel continued to design gadgets for other TV marketeers, including The Nut Gun and The Press n’ Pour automatic drink mixer.
Active, curious and prolific, Doyel’s creative drive — and output — was extraordinary for a person of any age. “He wrote poetry, was a photographer, filmmaker and graphic artist who weekly attended life drawing classes at the Society of Illustrators,” recalled son-in-law Nick Fritsch. “He was an ice skater and archery enthusiast, and an avid glider and motor pilot who last flew on his 92nd birthday.”
Admitting that her own fear of heights precluded such an experience, Swartz recalls how her late husband, Jerry, once accompanied Doyel in the air. “John took him up in his glider plane one sunny afternoon. For Jerry, it was a stupendous experience, one he went back to in his mind over and over: So high, with this huge view of the countryside. And so quiet.”
Reluctant to join him in the air, Doyel managed to ground Swartz in more ways than one. “For years,” she notes, “I had coffee with him, and he always insisted on buying. At first I thought, ‘This is an old man.’ I very quickly changed that to ‘This is a very interesting man!’ We talked philosophy, and about his childhood, growing up in the Midwest, where I also come from. He was a good listener. In fact, our last conversation was trying to arrange a good time to get together because he remembered I had been going to Liberia during the summer and wanted to hear all about it.”
Tim Samuelson, a cultural historian for the City of Chicago who literally wrote the book on the Ronco phenomenon (“But Wait! There’s More!: The Irresistible Appeal and Spiel of Ronco and Popeil”), shared with Chelsea Now his memories of meeting Doyel while researching the book. “My initial contact with Mr. Doyel was to gather historical data on his role in developing many early TV-advertised products that have become icons of American popular culture,” said Samuelson. “But once inside the door of his Chelsea home, I was educated, enlightened and delighted in so many other ways beyond the topic of my initial research mission.”
The delights continued during many subsequent visits. “In ample fulfillment of my initial mission, he engagingly gave me insights on the complexities of creating popular products like The Bedazzler and the Miracle Broom,” which Samuelson hails as the direct ancestor of all cordless portable vacuums. “Mr. Doyel’s forty-year-old Miracle Broom,” he notes, “still does a great job for quick clean-up tasks in my office, so his presence is very much with me today.”
As he did with countless others, Doyel soon endeared himself to Samuelson by branching out far beyond the bond that initially brought them together. “I also learned about new computer technologies, photography, flying, gardening, early Chelsea history and many other topics,” recalls Samuelson, who says he especially treasures Doyel’s “inside stories of encounters with New York’s creative cool cats of the mid-20th century. He made me feel like I was there with them…and it takes a special kind of person to get a middle-aged man to re-think the existence of Santa.”
“John,” says William Borock on behalf of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, “was a man for all seasons. We will miss his reservoir of interesting stories, his take on life, the twinkle in his eye, his abundance of creativity, his essence and his being…his caring. This was John Doyel.”
John and Rowena Doyel were both dedicated neighborhood activists who were very involved in the creation of the Chelsea Historic District (in 1970). Their daughter, Lesley Doyel (and her husband, Nick Fritsch) are continuing the family legacy of activism — with Lesley teaching local history at several area schools and serving as co-president of the neighborhood association Save Chelsea. John Doyel is also survived by his granddaughter Nora, to whom he was devoted.