Orville Redenbacher: The Popcorn King Who Revolutionized an Entire Sector of The Economy

Orville RedenbacherIf anyone deserves the undisputed title of ‘The Popcorn King” then that person would be Orville Redenbacher. And with good reason too. As a matter of fact, the New York Times described him in the following words “The agricultural visionary who all but single-handedly revolutionized the American popcorn industry.”

How did he earn this title? For this, we will have to take a look at his early life and how it inspired him to become the towering popcorn magnate, that had tens of millions of people all over the world, happily munching on popcorn.

o   His early life

Redenbacher was born on July 16, 1907, in Brazil, Indiana.  Since his family owned a farm, he grew up around crops and farming equipment and showed his true entrepreneurial spirit early on, by selling popcorn from the back of his vehicle. He went on to graduate from Brazil High School way back in the spring of 1924. While being one of the elite five percent at the top of his class.

Later on, he joined Purdue University, and became an active member of the agriculture-oriented Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity as well as the Purdue All-American Marching Band and as a budding athlete, he became part of his varsity’ track team as well. After four years of study, he went on to graduate in 1928 after attaining a degree in agronomy.

Indeed, so great was his interest in the agri based sector, that he spent most of his subsequently productive life working in this industry, and he also served as Vigo County’s extension agent for their Farm Bureau in the Terre Haute area, in Indiana, and later on at the Princeton Farms in Princeton, in the same state.

o   Redenbacher as a businessman

This was the man that the NYTimes has gone on to describe as “But for all his bumpkin appearance, the man with the signature white wavy hair and oversized bow tie was a shrewd agricultural scientist who experimented with hybrids” had started his career by selling fertilizer, and this was his main source of income, but he was greatly interested in corn, and spent most of his spare time working with different strains of popcorn.

By 1951, he felt that he had become self-sufficient enough to create this own popcorn line and recruited Charlie Bowman and together, they went ahead and bought the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in the state of Boone Grove, in Indiana. They named their company “Chester Hybrids”, where these two enterprising entrepreneurs went about, methodically trying literally tens of thousands of diverse hybrid strains of popcorn, before they ended up settling on a particular hybrid that they decided to name “Red Bow”.

However, an advertising agency that they were working with, basically took exception to their choice of nomenclature and advised them to use the founder’s own name “Orville Redenbacher” as the brand name of the new product.  They changed their branding image and name accordingly and launched their own line of ‘popping corn’ back in 1970.

However, ever the entrepreneur, Redenbacher sold the whole company in 1976 to Hunt-Wesson Foods. This was actually a division of the well-known conglomerate Norton Simon, Inc.

Meanwhile, it was in 1973 that Redenbacher had started appearing on national TV, and one of his very first personal appearance was in the “To Tell the Truth” TV based game show.

By the mid-1970s, Both Bowman and Redenbacher had gone on to capture a whopping third of the entire unpropped popcorn market as it existed in the US at that point in time. Redenbacher subsequently decided to move to Coronado in California state.

He appeared as the Redenbacher brand’s official spokesman, wearing his (by then) trademark public speaking outfit that became the image an entire generation of Americans have come to recognize. His image included a bow tie and horn rimmed glasses. Sometimes Redenbacher also made it a point to appear in various commercials with his grandson.

o   Are you real Mr. Redenbacher?

In fact, so greatly was America captivated by his persona that quite a few customers wrote letters to the studios asking if Redenbacher was an actor or a real person per se?He responded to all such rumors by appearing on many different talk shows, in which he conclusively proved his own identity. In a book that he wrote Redenbacher stated, “I want to make it clear that I am real.”

o   His personal life

Redenbacher had married Corinne Rosemund Strate in 1928 and he remained with her till her death in 1971. After her death, he married his second wife, Nina Reder, and as with his first wife, he was with her till her dying day on May 8, 1991, at the really old age of 91.

o   Redenbacher and his legacy

Orville was not just renowned for his contribution to the popcorn industry, but the entertainment that had been provided by the various TV commercials that starred him, went on to create an image, that is right up there, with various other Americana food giants such as Col Sanders and others of his ilk.

In fact, his image is going through a revival and since 2006, there have been several of Orville’s commercials dating back from 1970s and 1980s,that are currently being re run on many different channels,all across the nation, chiefly due to their sentimental value.

Almost twelve yours ago, a television commercial actually featured a digital re-creation of Redenbacher and it was quite popular, especially amongst the older generation who still had fond memories of the original ones. In order to honor his many services to the popcorn industry, On September 4, 2012, Valparaiso, Indiana created and unveiled a statue of Orville Redenbacher in order to commemorate the city’s annual popcorn festival with his enduring legacy.

by Bobby J Davidson

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