There’s a good chance your last bowl of popcorn bore the name of an Indiana man named Orville Redenbacher. Yes, Orville Redenbacher was a real person. When the white-haired man in the bowtie rose to fame in the 1970s and ‘80s as pitchman for his gourmet popcorn, many people thought he was an actor. Redenbacher made several guest appearances on talk shows to prove he really was the agricultural scientist who developed a brand new kind of popcorn.
Redenbacher (1907-1995) started his career in the fertilizer business. He had a passion for popcorn, though, and spent his spare time developing genetic variations of popcorn seeds. In the early 1950s he went into business with Charlie Bowman, and by 1965 the pair had developed the “snowflake” variety, which expanded to twice the size of standard kernels when popped.
At first Redenbacher sold the “Redbow” brand popcorn out of his car because distributors did not want to pay the relatively steep price for something they considered a staple. Consumers responded to the superior popcorn, though, and Redenbacher liked to say he never failed to make a sale.
Redbow probably would have remained a regional brand without the advice of a Chicago advertising executive, who recommended changing the product’s name to Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Popcorn. The name stuck in people’s heads, and contributed to the rise in sales. Redenbacher was fond of saying he’d paid the ad agency $13,000 to come up with a name his own mother had thought of for free.
Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Popcorn exploded in popularity in the 1970’s. In 1976 Redenbacher and Bowman sold out to Hunt-Wesson, and Redenbacher became a paid pitchman for the brand.
Born in Brazil, Indiana, and educated at Purdue University, Orville Redenbacher was a longtime resident of Valparaiso, where the annual Popcorn Festival is now held in his honor.