He may be 71 and as Midwestern as American Gothic, but Orville Redenbacher is a genuine pop celebrity. Pop as in corn, that is. Orville is the popcorn king of America, and star of a series of funny commercials which this year will help sell some $30 million worth of the high-priced ($1.85 for a 30-ounce jar) Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn.
"Orville has a great down-home believable quality," says Craig Mathiesen, creator of the nine commercials. "We could not cast someone to play the part of a character named Orville Redenbacher who would be more perfect than Orville Redenbacher himself."
For TV, Redenbacher, wearing his trademark bow tie, bellows for the hard-of-hearing Miss Lucy, mixes up identical twin girls, spells his name for a cop trying to give his popcorn wagon a parking ticket and—because his is the official popcorn of Disneyland and Disney World—even debates Goofy on the merits of his product.
Off the tube, Redenbacher never stops selling either. "I provide the hot air," he says, "while others produce the popcorn." He even climbs into a tethered promotional balloon known as the Flying Kernel. Orville likes to point out that popcorn is the oldest food on the North American continent (dating back 5,600 years), that 450 million pounds of it are consumed annually in the U.S., and that people in Minneapolis eat an average of more than four pounds a year apiece, while New Yorkers manage less than a pound and a half.
"You can live on popcorn," insists Orville, who flavors his with salt only, no butter. "It has 12.7 percent protein and 5 percent fat." Although pie—any kind—is his favorite food ("I often order pie as an appetizer and then again for dessert"), he eats popcorn almost every day. On the road, he sometimes skips dinner altogether in favor of a bowl of popcorn and a few Seagram highballs. "I usually stop at three," Orville says. Highballs, that is.
He traces his mania back to his boyhood on a farm in Brazil, Ind. where his father ate popcorn every night. The youngest of four children, Orville attended a one-room schoolhouse and did his share of the chores. "I don't think anything is more miserable," he says, "than milking cows in freezing weather."
Orville turned down an appointment to West Point ("I would have been eligible for three wars," he observes dryly) and instead got a degree in agriculture at Purdue. He worked his way through college—"One year I gave up my Christmas vacation to delouse chickens"—but still found time to play the sousaphone, work on the university paper and star in track. He still has his 50-year-old letter sweater to prove it.
Redenbacher met his first wife, Corinne, when he was a junior. "She thought my name was Rickenbacker, like Eddie," he recalls, "but by the time she found out it was Redenbacher, it was too late." After teaching briefly, Orville became a county agent in Terre Haute, then ran a 12,000-acre farm partly owned by Tony Hulman, late owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There he met his future partner, Charles Bowman, manager of Purdue's Agricultural Alumni Seed Improvement Association. Orville and Charlie teamed up in 1952 to buy a hybrid seed corn business, the Chester Company.
By 1970 the two men were the world's largest producers of popcorn seed. But when they developed a special line of seed, they had trouble selling it because of the high price. Deciding instead to market their own Gourmet brand of popcorn in 1971, they put Orville's name and face on the jar. Sales soon boomed. Popcorn lovers claim it's a superior product. "We've bred out the old maids," Orville explains, which for the uninitiated refers to kernels that don't pop.
In 1976 the partners (neither of whom had sons to take over the business) sold their popcorn business to the California-based Hunt-Wesson Foods Inc. for over $2 million—with the stipulation that Orville spend 60 days a year promoting the product. Though he is paid only $212 a day scale for his TV appearances, he loves the recognition. He carries a supply of stickers reading I MET ORVILLE REDENBACHER THE POPCORN KING, which he autographs and pastes on people's chests. He signs only "Orville"—"Golly Moses, it would take me a month to write the whole thing."
Now semiretired, Redenbacher visits Indiana often (he and Bowman still own a fertilizer and farm equipment business), but lives in a condominium in Coronado, Calif. with his second wife, Nina. They were married in 1971 after his first wife died. Last month the Redenbachers traveled to China.
"I've always wanted to see the world, to learn what makes people tick," Orville explains. He also wants to write a book—The Sex Life of Popcorn—that will, he says with a wide grin, "be all about pollen going astray."
There is no place for old maids in Orville's gourmet (and expensive) product