Orville Redenbacher - Known as the Popcorn King, Orville Redenbacher was
born on July 16, 1907 in Brazil, Indiana. A graduate of Purdue University (1928)
in the area of agronomy, he taught agriculture for one year then took a job as
an assistant county agriculture agent in Terre Haute, Indiana. He earned a
successful living with farming and fertilizers (which made him rich). As a
sideline, Orville bred corn varieties (with his friend Charles Bowman) which
lead to a number of strains ideal for gourmet popcorn. Orville started his first
crop of hybrid popcorn seed in 1941.
In his later years, Orville became a pop culture icon as the spokesperson for
Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Popcorn. On his TV commercials, he appeared as a
wholesome, Midwest-American with a Barney Fife smile who sold the public a
popcorn that was guaranteed to be fluffier, tasty and pop every kernel - mostly
(each kernel was slowly dried to an exact moisture level of 13.25 percent to get
a 44:1 expansion ratio).
Recalling his early days in the popcorn business, Redenbacher told the
Associated Press "We tried to sell the different processors on the idea that
people would pay more for a better quality product, that this was a good
marketing concept. They said we were crazy, and we tried to prove them wrong."
Convinced that his popcorn was superior, Orville, aka "Reddie", drove around the
country selling his gourmet popcorn product. He initially sold the popcorn under
the name of "Red Bow." In 1971, he introduced Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet
Orville's popularity as a spokesperson began in 1971 when he was asked to sign
autographs at Marshall Fields, a downtown Chicago department store who were one
of the first retailers to carry Redenbacher's popcorn. The media picked up on
his folksy, "born on a small corn farm in Indiana" banter and an advertising
icon was born. To market his product (and as proof they really met the man)
Orville distributed stickers or cards that read: "I met Orville Redenbacher."
In a few years, Orville's popcorn became a success and in 1976, he and his
partner, Bowman sold their operation to corporate giant Hunt-Wesson Inc. (owned
by ConAgra since 1990). Orville agreed to stay on as the product pitchman and
continued to sport his trademark dark-rimmed glasses, bow-tie, suspenders and
his parted-down-the-middle of his head white hair..
A New York Times article by op-ed columnist Gail Collins once said of
Redenbacher: "Like other immortals—Colonel Sanders, Frank Perdue, Dr.
Scholl—Redenbacher had a negative glamour that inspired trust. He looked like a
man who would spend 40 years crossbreeding 30,000 popcorn hybrids in search of
'the perfect kernel."
William E. Smith, executive director of The Popcorn Institute in Chicago and a
lifelong friend of Redenbacher stated "Many people thought he was a media
creation, but what people saw on television, that was him. In all of our
industry, he was one of the great gentlemen and great personalities."
In 1975, Orville published a cookbook entitled:
The Popping Corn Book:
Orville Redenbacher's Authorized and Complete Popcorn Lovers Guide. It featured recipes
like "Sister Mabel's Caramel Corn", "Popcorn Pastels", and "Harvest Pumpkin
Ball." Orville followed up that book with Orville Redenbacher's Popcorn Book
(St. Martin's Press, 1984). In 1996, a look at the life of Orville Redenbacher
was published called Popcorn King: How Orville Redenbacher and His Popcorn
Charmed America by Len Sherman (Summit Publishing Group).
Because Orville guaranteed that every one his kernels would pop, there was the
occasional letter in the mail that proved otherwise. In 1984, Orville told the
Los Angeles Times "Every once in a while, someone will mail me a single popcorn
kernel that didn't pop. They'll tape it to a piece of paper and mail it to me.
So I'll get out a fresh kernel, tape it to a piece of paper and mail it back to
them." (Unpopped kernels left among popped kernels are known as "Old Maids.")
Gary and Orville
In later commercials, Orville appeared with his grandson (Gary Fish) who
continued his grandfather's promises of quality. In 1987, Gary Fish actually
changed his last name to Redenbacher as an heir apparent in the marketing
Unfortunately, on September 20, 1995 Orville Redenbacher had a heart attack and
drowned while taking a bath in his whirlpool spa at his condominium in Coronado,
California. Redenbacher is survived by two daughters, Gail Tuminello, of
Valparaiso, and Billie Ann Atwood, of San Jose, Calif.; 12 grandchildren; and 10
great-grandchildren. At Orville's request, his body was cremated. Redenbacher's
second wife, Nina died in 1991. His first wife, Corinne, died in 1971.
Time magazine called Redenbacher "the Luther Burbank of popcorn." His popcorn
brand still remains among the top choices of popcorn lovers everywhere.In 2005, the development of Orville Redenbacher's Organic Microwave Popcorn was
announced. The new product will bear the "USDA Organic" seal, verifying they
were produced using certified organic practices, such as no synthetic pesticides
or synthetic fertilizers.
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