Orville Redenbacher, the agricultural visionary who all but singlehandedly revolutionized the American popcorn industry, was found dead Tuesday at his home in Coronado, Calif. He was 88 and apparently died of natural causes.
By his own account he was just “a funny looking farmer with a funny sounding name.” But for all his bumpkin appearance, the man with the signature white wavy hair and oversized bow tie was a shrewd agricultural scientist who experimented with hybrids for years before he came up with the first significant genetic improvement in popcorn in more than 5,000 years.
Until Redenbacher and his partner, Charlie Bowman, achieved their breakthrough in 1965, popcorn was essentially the same product the Indians had introduced to the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving more than three centuries earlier, virtually unchanged from popcorn that archaeologists have traced back 5,600 years.
In contrast to garden-variety popcorn, whose kernels expand some 20 times their original size when popped, the Redenbacher-Bowman “snowflake” variety expanded as much as 40 times, producing a lighter, fluffier product.
The premium-priced Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn was introduced by Marshall Field’s, the Chicago department store, in 1970, and within five years was the leading national product, a somewhat dubious distinction since there had been no dominant American popcorn in a highly fragmented industry.
In 1976, while Redenbacher’s was still little more than a regional brand, Redenbacher and Bowman sold out to Hunt-Wesson, now a Conagra Inc. subsidiary, and Redenbacher began a career as a company spokesman, making hundreds of personal appearances a year and appearing in scores of television commercials.