Orville Redenbacher: Everything You Didn't Know About The Popcorn King

By Karen Harris

Orville Redenbacher in 1986. (George Rose/Getty Images)

The unassuming bow-tied face you see all across the snack aisle of your local grocery store was the undisputed popcorn king of the 20th century. Since 1970, Orville Redenbacher parlayed his 4-H experience and charming, down-home persona into a movie night empire that still endures today.

Becoming Orville Redenbacher

Orville Redenbacher was born on July 16, 1907 in the small Hoosier town of Brazil, Indiana. His parents, William and Julia Dierdorff Redenbacher, along with most of their neighbors, were corn farmers, and as a typical Midwestern farm kid, Redenbacher participated in his local 4-H club and the county fair. When he was 12 years old, he started earning extra money by selling popcorn to folks around town.

After graduating in the top 5% of his class at Brazil High School in 1924, Redenbacher enrolled in Purdue University to major in agronomy. His college days were quite busy: He was a member of a fraternity for agriculture students called Alpha Gamma Rho, the university's all-American marching band, and the track team. He also wrote for the school newspaper, the Purdue Exponent. After he graduated in 1928, he took a job as the farm bureau extension agent for Vigo County, but through it all, Redenbacher kept his hands in the dirt.

Orville Redenbacher's logo. (Orville Redenbacher's/Wikimedia Commons)

The Orville Redenbacher Popcorn Company

Following his stint with the county, Redenbacher managed a successful fertilizer company that earned him a tidy profit and used his spare time to grow popping corn. It was his favorite treat, and he was determined to cross-breed the perfect popcorn. He devoted almost four decades of his life to crossbreeding, by his estimate, some 30,000 different hybrids.

Finally, armed with what he believed was the perfect popcorn, Redenbacher and his partner, Charlie Bowman, opened shop. In the early days, the pair smushed their names together to call the company Red Bow Popcorn, but an advertising agency urged them to take advantage of Redenbacher's more unique and memorable name as well his affable, "wacky grandpa" image. From then on, they were known as the Orville Redenbacher Popcorn Company, and the man himself was its face. From 1972 until his death in 1995, Redenbacher starred in dozens of TV commercials wearing a bow tie as a nod to the company's original name.

Orville Redenbacher in 1979. (Hunt-Wesson/Wikimedia Commons)

Passing The Popcorn

Toward the end of his life, Redenbacher was joined in his commercials by a likewise bespectacled young man named Gary, one of his 12 grandchildren by his two daughters, Billie Ann and Gail, with his first wife, Corinne Strate. Although by this time, Redenbacher had sold his popcorn company to Hunt-Wesson, he remained involved and hoped Gary would become the company's main pitchman once he was gone. Gary never became as popular as his old granddad, but the third generation of Redenbachers still work the same fields where their patriarch experimented with his popcorn all those years ago. Redenbacher, meanwhile, fled the fields later in life, spending his golden years in California until his death at the ripe age of 88.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.