Orville Redenbacher: A passion for popcorn

2012-09-04T00:00:00Z 2012-09-05T00:28:07Z Orville Redenbacher: A passion for popcornPhil Wieland phil.wieland@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352 nwitimes.com
September 04, 2012 12:00 am  • 

VALPARAISO | The man who rose to become top of the poppers, Orville Redenbacher, was born in Brazil, Ind., on July 16, 1907 -- the youngest of four children.

His daughter, Gail Tuminello, who still lives in the Valparaiso area, said Redenbacher "always was hardworking and ambitious." His interest in popcorn started while still a child in Brazil, where he grew and sold popcorn to make extra money.

After graduating fifth in his class, he went to Purdue University to study agronomy and played the sousaphone in the marching band.

After graduating in 1928, he spent years as the Farm Bureau extension agent in Vigo County and worked for Princeton Farms, in Princeton. Tuminello said he and his wife Corinne lived across the street from the farm on U.S. 41 in southern Indiana, and he began experimenting with growing the perfect popcorn.

He also had a second interest.

"I was fascinated with mass communication, too, and became the first county agent to do radio broadcasts from my office and from mobile units," Redenbacher said in his "Orville Redenbacher's Popcorn Book," published in 1984. "I even went on to do my graduate work in radio communications at Purdue and at Colorado State."

He and Charlie Bowman, a fellow Purdue grad Redenbacher got to know through the pair's work as extension agents, joined forces to buy Chester's and Sons, in Boone Township in the early 1950s. Bowman's wife, Mary, said her husband had worked with Chester's and was contacted by them when the family wanted to retire.

Bowman and Redenbacher had talked about a joint business venture, and when Bowman told his friend about Chester's, they decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

The two families were close. Both had three daughters and Tuminello would babysit for the Bowmans. Tuminello considered Mary Bowman like a second mom.

Mary Bowman said the pair grew popcorn in Cuba until Fidel Castro came to power and told them to leave. She said they looked at Florida but were told popcorn wouldn't grow there.

Charlie Bowman threw a handful of seed into a ditch near Homestead, Fla."and it grew like crazy," she said. So they decided to rent about an acre for their experimenting.

The pair were later joined by Carl Hartman, whom Redenbacher called "a truly fine professional plant breeder," as they spent all their spare time hybridizing popcorn until they had one they were ready to market.

The first jars were sold as RedBow -- because neither man was interested in getting all the publicity -- Tuminello said.

While popular locally, the two men were both ambitious and wanted to take it to the national level. Tuminello said,

"They were just two little guys, and they didn't have the money to market it nationally," Tuminello said. "Dad went to an ad agency in Chicago and paid them $13,000 to consult, and they said he should use the Orville Redenbacher name."

"He used to say, 'I paid $13,000 for them to come up with the same name my mother did.'"

She said her father and Bowman marketed the popcorn everywhere they could think of, sending samples to people they knew from their connections at Purdue and Princeton Farms. Finally, Marshall Fields agreed to sell it, and it soon caught on with the rest of the country and led to the famous commercials featuring Redenbacher in his trademark glasses and bow tie.

In his book, Redenbacher states, "I want to make it clear that I am real."

A lot of people thought he was an actor hired to portray the real Orville Redenbacher, if he actually existed at all, despite filming the first commercial in Valparaiso and identifying himself. He even stumped the panel on the TV show "To Tell the Truth" as to who he was.

"He loved the recognition and was never too tired or out of sorts to greet people and sign autographs," Tuminello said. "He did love it. He always said 'Find something you love and do it.' All those years he had to put it on the back burner while making a living to support us."

Redenbacher died in 1995, and his ashes were scattered at sea.

Bowman continued to work at Chester's until he was 86. About six years ago, the Bowman's moved to Michigan. He died three years ago.

"He loved to go to work," Mary Bowman said of her husband.

She went to Homestead with him once a year to help plant popcorn, and she sometimes worked on the corn sorting belt and with the cleaning crew at the plant.

Mary said she and Charlie planned the first Popcorn Festival in Valparaiso.

"We thought it would be just for one year, but it's still going," Mary Bowman said.

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