Valparaiso | Two Valparaiso legends told the story of the first Popcorn Festival on Thursday evening at the Porter County Museum.
John Schnurlein and Leonard “Uncle Len” Ellis, two of the original founders of the popular festival held the Saturday after Labor Day, reminisced about their experiences creating Valparaiso’s signature community event.
Ellis and Schnurlein said chamber member Charlie Bowman, of Chester Inc., was instrumental in starting the first festival in 1979.
In 1951, Bowman and Orville Redenbacher, friends from their college days at Purdue University, bought George F. Chester & Son seed corn plant in Valparaiso. The two eventually made popcorn under the Redbow name before changing the name to Orville Redenbacher on the advice of an advertising firm.
“They always talked about their same vision,” said Gail Tuminello, Redenbacher’s daughter. “Charlie never minded that my dad got the glory. He was remarkable. They always said they paid them $13,000 to come up with the same name his mother came up with.”
When Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce members mused in 1979 about starting a festival, Bowman suggested a popcorn festival.
In the beginning, the downtown vendors opposed the festival because they felt it would drive away business.
“We got an earful from them,” said Schnurlein, sporting a navy blue Orville Redenbacher ball cap.
Bowman chaired the first festival, while Ellis and Schnurlein handled event promotion by visiting radio stations around Northwest Indiana.
“They needed a couple of big mouths and they found John and I,” Ellis joked.
Audience members, many of whom were involved in planning the festival over the years, recalled Popcorn Festival traditions, including the Popcorn parade, the Popcorn Talent Show, the Popcorn Queen contest, the Popcorn Ball, the Cutest Baby contest, and the Popcorn Panic run. Many noted that celebrities often served as grand marshal of the parade, including Gary native Karl Malden and Dick Butkus.
Ellis said once the festival caught on, “it was the beginning of Valparaiso."
“Valpo was a good town, a wonderful town, a religious town,” Ellis said. “But it didn’t have the pizzazz of somewhere else.”
Ellis said the festival was “the beginning of something.”
“It gave Valparaiso a name to hang their hat on,” he said.
The museum displayed several artifacts associated with the festival, including a statue called “The Golden Orvie,” which was awarded to volunteers for their help in organizing the festival.
“Your dad was a special guy,” Schnurlein told Tuminello. “I’m glad that the city fathers have seen to put his bronze statue on the bench. I was tickled to have my picture taken with it.”
Porter County Museum Director Kevin Pazour said the museum plans to create an exhibit honoring the festival.
“If we can share those memories, we’re all better for it,” Pazour said.