By Mary A. Sego
Primary Creator: Redenbacher, Orville (1907-1995)
Extent: 1.5 Cubic feet. More info below.
Date Acquired: 02/04/2010. More info below under Accruals.
Subjects: Purdue University--Alumni and alumnae
Orville Redenbacher was born in Brazil, Indiana, and grew up on his family's farm where he sometimes sold popcorn in Wesley town from a roadside stand. He graduated from Brazil High School in 1924 and was in the top 5% of his class. He attended Purdue University, joining the agriculture-oriented Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and the Purdue All-American Marching Band. He graduated with a degree in agronomy in 1928. He spent most of his life in the agriculture industry, serving as a Vigo County Farm Bureau extension agent in Terre Haute, Indiana, and at Princeton Farms in Princeton, Indiana.
In childhood, he joined 4-H, and developed an obsession with developing the perfect popcorn. He earned a small fortune in fertilizer, but in his spare time, he indulged in his obsession. In 1951, he and partner Charlie Bowman bought the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant near Valparaiso, Indiana. Naming the company "Chester Hybrids," they tried tens of thousands of hybrid strains of popcorn before achieving success. Redenbacher and Bowman initially named the hybrid "RedBow," but were advised by an advertising agency to use the name Orville Redenbacher to market the corn. They adopted the advice, launching their gourmet popping corn in 1970,  and Orville was suddenly everywhere. Redenbacher could first be seen on national television in 1973, long before his well-known commercial appearances promoting his gourmet kernels. In an episode of the popular game show, To Tell The Truth, he stumped the panelists (Kitty Carlisle Hart, Bill Cullen, Joe Garagiola, and Peggy Cass), all of whom were shown enjoying samples of Redenbacher's then-new novelty popping corn flavors including chili and curry. The original Orville Redenbacher labels were colored in using Crayola crayons. Orville stayed original and stuck to the basic crayon colors of red, white, black, and yellow for his label so it would have a clean classy look.
By the mid 1970s, Redenbacher and Bowman had captured a third of the market for unpopped popcorn. In 1976, Redenbacher sold the company to Hunt-Wesson Foods, which was a division of Norton Simon, Inc. In 1983, Esmark purchased Norton Simon, and the next year (1984), Beatrice Foods acquired Esmark. In 1985, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts acquired Beatrice with the goal of selling off businesses. The popcorn business and other old Hunt-Wesson businesses were sold in 1990 to agribusiness giant ConAgra. Redenbacher then moved to Coronado, California. He continued to promote his popcorn, appearing in numerous television commercials (including later ones with his grandson Gary Redenbacher), always wearing his trademark bowtie and glasses. His wholesome image and folksy name confused many consumers, some even writing the company to ask if Redenbacher was a real person, and not an actor. He responded to this by appearing on various talk shows, professing his identity.
After the initial sale to Hunt-Wesson, the city of Valparaiso, Indiana, started their first Popcorn Festival in 1979. Celebrating Redenbacher’s development of his popcorn in Valparaiso, the festival featured Orville and Gary appearing several times as grand marshal of the signature event, the Popcorn Parade. Purdue University granted him an honorary doctorate degree in the College of Agriculture in 1988.
Redenbacher hosted the SFM Holiday Network syndicated movie broadcast package along with his grandson.
On September 19, 1995 Redenbacher was found dead in the jacuzzi of his condominium in Coronado, California. He had suffered a heart attack and drowned. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea. He was 88 years old.
2005 marked the 40th anniversary of Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn, still the #1 selling brand in the United States. To celebrate the man behind the popping corn, ConAgra developed a special website that highlights some of the classic Orville Redenbacher television commercials. One of his most famous and recognizable commercials states, "My gourmet popping corn pops up lighter and fluffier than ordinary popping corn. Mine is blowing the top right off of the popper. Mine eats better too. Try my gourmet popping corn. You'll taste the difference or my name isn't Orville Redenbacher".
Since 2006, several of Orville’s commercials from the 1970s and 1980s have aired on many channels across the country during commercial breaks. The advertisements for the brand’s "natural" popcorn snacks, introduced 13 years after his death (2008), feature a clip of him at the end.
In January 2007, an advertisement featuring a digital re-creation of Redenbacher appeared on television. Redenbacher's grandson, Gary Redenbacher, responded to questions about how he felt about the advertisement by saying: "Grandpa would go for it. He was a cutting-edge guy. This was a way to honor his legacy."
Access Restrictions: Collection is open for research.
Use Restrictions: Purdue University per deed of gift 2010.
Physical Access Note: All photographs and advertisements have been housed in polyester sleeves and acid-free folders. The oversized artifacts were wrapped, and the remaining items in the collection are housed in acid-free boxes.
Acquisition Source: Donation
Acquisition Method: Donation received from Kevin R. Fish (eldest grandson of Orville Redenbacher) on February 4, 2010. Additions to collection also given by Fish on May 7, 2010; August 5, 2010; June 30, 2012.
Preferred Citation: MSA 37, Orville Redenbacher papers, Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries
Processing Information: All photographs and advertisements have been housed in polyester sleeves and acid-free folders. The oversized artifacts were wrapped, and the remaining items in the collection are housed in acid-free boxes.
Other Note: Manuscript for Orville Redenbacher's unpublished biography by Robert W. Topping can be found among Topping's papers.