Day 6

Meet the woman who put Bob Ross on TV

Bob Ross filmed more than 400 episodes of The Joy of Painting, showing the world how to make happy little trees. This summer, Netflix picked up his other series, Beauty is Everywhere, sparking a renewed interest in him. Annette Kowalski tells Brent how she discovered Ross and helped him become a PBS star.
Bob Ross on PBS’s “The Joy of Painting.” The programme ran from 1983 to 1994. (BOB ROSS INC. USED WITH PERMISSION)

For reasons few can explain, a man with a perm who painted landscapes on PBS in the 1980s has re-emerged as a pop culture icon.

As the host of The Joy of Painting, Bob Ross rose to unlikely fame as the painting instructor who could teach you how to create a painting in just 30 minutes.

Ross died in 1995, but his popularity lives on, in part as a result the recent agreement for Netflix to stream his other series, Beauty is Everywhere.

Annette Kowalski was Ross' business partner, and she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that she knew he'd be a hit right from the moment she started her first painting class with Ross in 1982.

"I was mesmerized by Bob Ross. I followed Bob around the classroom watching the way he interacted with his students," Kowalski explains. "And on the fifth day I said to my husband, 'I don't know what it is about this Bob Ross, but I think we ought to put it in a bottle and sell it,'" says Kowalksi.

How they met

Kowalski had been going through a period of deep grief after her son was killed in a car accident.

She spent her days lying on the couch and watching Bill Alexander, another artist who would paint a work of art in 30 minutes on PBS.

Kowalski liked to paint, so to help her through her grief, her husband tried to get her lessons with Alexander.

"The Alexander company in Oregon said 'sorry, Bill isn't teaching anymore, but we've got this other young guy who's teaching Bill's classes.' We would have to go to Clearwater, Florida for the closest class with this Bill Alexander wannabe," says Kowalski.

So, Kowalski and her husband, Walt, drove to Florida to take a week-long course.

"I cried all the way because I didn't know who this Bob Ross person was," says Kowalski.

After a few days in his class, says she could "feel Bob lifting me up out of this grief, this heavy grief. "

How Bob Ross landed on PBS

"I was so impressed with Bob that I asked him if he would come to the Washington area, which he did, for a price," says Kowalski.

Kowalski and her husband wanted to advertise the classes that Ross would be teaching in Washington, so they filmed a television commercial that was supposed to air during The Phil Donahue Show. But they had one problem: the commercial wasn't in the right format, so they had to have it fixed at the local PBS station.

"While we were having the tape worked on, the manager of the station walked in and saw Bob," says Kowalski. "And he went up to Bob and he said: would you agree to make a series. And the rest is history."

The Joy of Painting aired on PBS from 1983 to 1994.

What's with the hair?

Ross is instantly recognizable by his poofy, curly hair.

He and his wife were living in Alaska, working with the Air Force, and Ross felt he was spending too much money on haircuts. So he decided to get a perm to save money. He wanted to get his hair cut once he was on television, but he couldn't.

"Our paint company had put pictures of Bob with his hair on their tubes of paint. It became our logo, and he never could get his hair cut and he hated that hair."

When asked if Ross had his hair backlit to emphasize it, Kowalski says: "No, he was just an angel."