There was a time, America, when Mr. Dentist, the Plaque Attacker, meant more to us than Mr. T.

That was a time when, to survive stylishly in this hectic world, you didn't need a 128K external-port, expandable, LED-crystal-screened, modemed computer and printer so small you could fit both into your briefcase.

You didn't even need styling mousse or musk for behind the male ear lobe.

Back in those cordless, effortless days of yore, about 20 seconds ago, all you really needed to lift existence above exhausting routine and deposit it on cloud nine was something to Chop! Slice! Dice! Mince! Cut! Spear! Pure'e! Clean! Vibrate! Relax!


Sure you do. It's easy to recall those great days, now that you think about it.

Because every night of the 12th month of every year, there on the tiny screen where we all get our marching orders, was that man, mouth spieling, hands moving like lightning, showing you how carefree you could be.

And like zombies under the control of an alien force, we all sent away for those magical creations that promised totally carefree days forever more.

Americans do remember. And by the hundreds, they are pouring into a storefront art gallery on one of Chicago's grimy industrial thoroughfares, Milwaukee Avenue, to pay homage to the artifacts of another era.

Here, at the Randolph Street Gallery, glistening beneath carefully aimed spotlights, is . . . the age of Ronco!

Nearly two dozen of the zany creations are on display in the Ronco Show, which runs through Dec. 15. Although Ronco itself has fallen on hard times, filing for bankruptcy, the love affair with the bizarre inventions seems as strong as ever. The gallery has been stunned by the response: National and local television and newspapers have sent camera crews and reporters swarming there to record what hardly anyone could have imagined -- Ronco, retrieved from the ash bin of history.

There was a machine for every need. Mr. Microphone ("Batteries and radio not included"). Mr. Dentist ("The Plaque Attacker"). The Record Vacuum (battery-powered or plug-in). The Egg Scrambler (" . . . totally blends eggs right inside their shells!")

The Miracle Broom. The Glass Froster. The Smokeless Ashtray. The Roller Measure. CleanAire (white or walnut). The do-it-yourself-with-your-own-breath vibrating back relief air cushion. The Food Dehydrator (3-tray or 5-tray model). Cellutrol. Whiskee Plus.

If nothing else, the speed of these gadgets astonished us: from TV screen to order blank to mailbox to trash bin, they passed us by with the velocity of a meteor.

But all those wondrous innovations were only technological stepping stones to the most ingenious and famous inventions of all: the Veg-O-Matic, and its fiendishly clever companion, the Pocket Fisherman.

The attraction is not all that mysterious. For nearly 20 years, exotic and funny new miracle machines poured forth from the fertile minds of the Popeil family of Chicago's suburbs. They pioneered the hard-sell TV campaigns that made their Rube Goldberg creations household words.

"It's really curious," said Randy Alexander, a performance director asociated with the gallery. "The media is getting a chance to look at itself, and the gallery has gotten to be a meditative space for the Baby Boomers. They see themselves in this stuff -- they are old friends with the Veg-O-Matic."

Dozens of visitors have spent hours trying out the gadgets, and left with order blanks the gallery cheerfully supplies for nostalgia buffs and kitchen adventurers. Most of the inventions can still be ordered from Innovations 2000, which now sells the Ronco items.

But history has refused to wait. Meteor that it was, the Pocket Fisherman is no longer available. And the last Veg-O-Matic was sold off days ago. Now, according to gallery executive director Nancy Brown, when people come to view the artifacts of an earlier age, "mostly, we hear laughter."