Today's profile is not your traditional badass. Orville Redenbacher couldn't physically destroy another man like Matt Mitrione. He didn't perform great aeronautical feats like David Wolf or Neil Armstrong. Still, he is a proud Purdue alum that accomplished great things in the business despite humble beginnings. He built an empire based on snack foods and he ruled the industry with an iron fist.
Okay, maybe it wasn't an iron fist. I have a hard time picturing the good natured popcorn magnate as some kind of ruthless despot calling for the head of Betty Crocker. He was probably more like Colonel Sanders, unless you believe in the Colonel Sanders from this episode of South Park, which is a much funnier portrayal. Instead, he was a benevolent grandfather type, humble in his own way.
Redenbacher was born on July 16, 1907 in Brazil, Indiana near Terre Haute. He started in the popcorn business at a very early age. He grew up on a western Indiana farm and often sold popcorn from a roadside stand. After graduating in the top 5% of his class from Brazil High School he attended Purdue in 1924. He was a long-time member of 4-H, which allowed him to continue working on his hobby of perfecting popcorn.
While at Purdue he was a member of Alpha Gamma Rho and was a proud member of the All-American Marching Band. Much like Neil Armstrong and myself, he was a low brass player, proving once again that pansy woodwinds have no place on the marching field. Redenbacher played the tuba, while Armstrong played the baritone. I never marched in the AAMB, but I played a mean jazz trombone in high school.
Perhaps the true secret of badassery lies in playing a low brass instrument.
Anyway, back to Redenbacher. He graduated from Purdue in 1928 with a degree in agronomy. After graduation he most back to western Indiana and went to work in agriculture. He served for many years as the Vigo County Farm Bureau extension agent.
An empire built on popcorn
Poor Orville is probably rolling in his grave at the fattening of America with other snack foods. He knew that popcorn was a light, healthy snack and today it is muddle with all kinds of flavors and butters that take away its health value. He obsessed over popcorn in its simplest form. He did not instantly become a popcorn magnate though. The basis of his empire was built on manure.
Redenbacher's early fortune was built on fertilizer, proving that you can literally turn shit into gold. In 1951, with partner Charlie Bowman, he bought a seed corn plant near Valparaiso. He was now able to take his hobby of growing and developing popcorn and turn it into a business. The company, Chester Hybrids, tried over 10,000 different hybrids of popcorn before Redenbacher was satisfied with the results.
The final result was RedBow, a strain that was developed into a gourmet popcorn that debuted in 1970. Redenbacher became the face of the company, and his face began appearing nationally on commercials as early as 1973. It was at the advice of an advertising agency that Redenbacher market the popcorn in his name, and it took off.
Orville Redebacher's simple, classic packaging quickly took over a third of the unpopped popcorn market. Though the company would be sold numerous times over the years, Redenbacher became a millionaire with his signature suspenders and bow tie. Some even questioned if he was a real person and not an actor. His down home look confused many consumers, but his consistently showed he was a real person via talk shows.
Starting in 1979 Valparaiso organized the popcorn festival, which has since been held on Labor Day weekend. Redenbacher was also granted an honorary doctorate from Purdue's college of agriculture in 1988. The man was a self-made legend that always maintained the same image in his commercials until his death in 1995.
Death and legacy
Sadly, we no longer have Redenbacher with us. He was found dead in his Jacuzzi at the age of 88 in his California condo on September 19, 1995. Thus, this weekend we honor the 15th anniversary of his passing. There is no word if he was found with a bevy of 20 year old models and empty Cristal bottles, as I would be if I were an 88-year old millionaire. Instead, it was a simple heart attack, and his ashes were spread at sea.
Even 15 years after his death his popcorn is the top seller in the U.S. market. Many of his commercials from the ‘70s and ‘80s can still be seen on television, as well as a digital re-creation of himself in a 2007 commercial.
Orville Redenbacher built an empire on manure and popcorn. How does this not make him a badass? Today, we honor him by bestowing upon him the status of true badass, even though he was a down home, simple man. He earned millions with simple honesty and hard work. I leave you with some of his classic commercials and his famous challenge:
"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"
Digitally remastered Orville