Orville Redenbacher, popcorn icon, dies at 88

The Associated Press

CORONADO, Calif. Orville Redenbacher, whose devotion to creating and promoting a fluffier, tastier snack turned him into a bow-tied popcorn icon, has died. He was 88.

Redenbacher was found yesterday morning in a whirlpool spa in his condominium, said Robert Engel, a medical examiner's investigator. The cause and exact time of death were under investigation.

Instantly recognizable by his natty bow tie and suspenders and his neatly parted white hair, Redenbacher made himself famous through cheerful, folksy commercials for the popcorn named after him.

''Many people thought he was a media creation, but what people saw on television, that was him,'' said William E. Smith, executive director of The Popcorn Institute in Chicago and a friend of Redenbacher's for 43 years.

''In all of our industry, he was one of the great gentlemen and great personalities.''

Redenbacher's image, so wholesome and middle-American it almost seemed a caricature, overshadowed his agricultural savvy, which he used to create his gourmet popping corn with his friend Charles Bowman.

Born into an Indiana farming family, Redenbacher became a county agriculture agent after graduating from Purdue University with a degree in agronomy.

In the early 1940s, while managing a 12,000-acre farm where he was growing popcorn, Redenbacher and Bowman used the fields to experiment with corn hybrids.

Several decades and 30,000 hybrids later, they introduced gourmet popcorn, which Redenbacher described as fluffier and of higher quality, but also more expensive to produce.

''We tried to sell the different processors on the idea that people would pay more for a better quality product, that this was a good marketing concept,'' he told The Associated Press in 1987. ''They said we were crazy, and we tried to prove them wrong.''

Redenbacher peddled the popcorn himself, driving across the country to convince store owners that Red Bow, named for its inventors, would sell.

Sell it did, and in 1976, Redenbacher and Bowman sold their operation to Hunt-Wesson Inc., the Fullerton, Calif.-based company now owned by ConAgra.

Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn remains the leading brand among microwave popcorns, said Hunt-Wesson publicist Jill Saletta.

Redenbacher's role as popcorn icon traces to 1971, when Marshall Fields, the Chicago department store that at the time was the only retailer carrying his popcorn, asked Redenbacher to autograph his product at a downtown store.

Redenbacher is survived by two daughters, Gail Tuminello, of Valparaiso, and Billie Ann Atwood, of San Jose, Calif., and 12 grandchildren.

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