35 Happy Little Facts About Bob Ross

Whether or not you’re artistically inclined, there’s a good chance that you—like millions of other people around the world—have been captivated by Bob Ross’s instructional landscape paintings and soothing voice. On what would have been Ross’s 75th birthday, we’re sharing 35 facts about the happy little legend.

1. HE KEPT AN ALLIGATOR IN THE BATHTUB AS A KID.

A lifelong animal lover, Ross was always rescuing wounded animals and nursing them back to health. As a kid growing up in Florida, this meant one rather strange addition to the family: an alligator, which he attempted to nurse back to health in the Ross family bathtub. Even in his adult life, Ross was always playing host to orphaned and injured animals, including an epileptic squirrel that lived in his empty Jacuzzi.

2. HE WAS AN AIR FORCE MASTER SERGEANT.

Ross’s quiet voice and gentle demeanor were two of his most iconic traits, which makes the fact that he spent 20 years in the United States Air Force and retired with the rank of master sergeant all the more surprising. Basically, he was the guy who told everyone else what to do.

3. HE USED TO BE QUITE THE YELLER.

Before he lent his dulcet voice to The Joy of Painting, Ross spent a lot of time yelling. "I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work,” Ross once said. “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn't going to be that way anymore."

4. BEFORE HE PAINTED HAPPY LITTLE TREES, HE PAINTED PANS.

While stationed in Alaska during his stint in the Air Force, Ross indulged his creative side by painting his now-iconic landscapes onto golden pans, which he sold for $25 apiece. Today, they can fetch as much as $7500 on eBay.

5. HE WAS INSPIRED BY BILL ALEXANDER.

From 1974 to 1982, German painter Bill Alexander hosted an art instruction show on PBS, The Magic of Oil Painting, where he shared his “wet-on-wet” oil painting technique. Ross discovered the series while working as a bartender, and became an immediate fan of the artist. He ended up studying under Alexander, who became his mentor. In fact, Ross dedicated the first episode of his own PBS show, The Joy of Painting, to Alexander. “Years ago, Bill taught me this fantastic technique,” Ross told viewers. “And I feel as though he gave me a precious gift, and I'd like to share that gift with you.”

6. WHEN ALEXANDER RETIRED, HE APPOINTED ROSS AS HIS SUCCESSOR.

In the early 1980s, as Alexander was preparing to retire, he asked Ross to take over teaching his painting classes. Ross agreed, and set out to tour the country on his own in a motor home, traveling and teaching people Alexander’s “wet-on-wet” technique. He told his wife Jane that he’d try it out for one year, and if he didn’t make enough money, he would return to Alaska.

7. HIS SIGNATURE PERM WAS AN ECONOMICAL CHOICE.

It was during Ross’s time on the road that he adopted his iconic hairstyle. Since teaching painting wasn’t an extremely lucrative profession, Ross learned to stretch every penny. One way he did this was to save money on haircuts by getting his locks permed.

8. ROSS HATED THAT HAIRDO.

Though Ross reportedly hated the permed hair, he was a businessman first, which is why he kept it. “When we got a line of paints and brushes, we put his picture on,” Bob Ross Company co-founder Annette Kowalski told Mental Floss. “The logo is a picture of Bob with that hair, so he could never get it cut. He wasn’t always happy about that.” 

(You can see what he looked like without his trademark perm here.)

9. HE WAS “DISCOVERED” BY ONE OF HIS STUDENTS.

Though it was Alexander who got Ross started on his career path as an artist, it was Kowalski—one of Ross’s students—who put him on the pop culture map. Kowalski, who is often credited as the woman who "discovered" Ross, took a five-day instructional course with Ross in 1982, and quickly became enamored with his calming voice and positive messages.

In addition to newfound painting skills, Kowalski left the class with a new client: she became Ross’s manager, helping him broker the deal for The Joy of Painting television show with PBS, and later, a line of Bob Ross art supplies.

10. HE WORKED FOR FREE.

The Joy of Painting ran new seasons on PBS from 1983 to 1994, so even at public broadcasting rates the show must have made Ross quite a bit of loot, right? Not quite. Ross actually did the series for free; his income came from Bob Ross Inc.

Ross's company sold art supplies and how-to videotapes, taught classes, and even had a troupe of traveling art instructors who roamed the world teaching painting. It's tough to think of a better advertisement for these products than Ross's show.

11. HE COULD FILM AN ENTIRE SEASON IN ABOUT TWO DAYS.

How did Ross find the time to tape all of those shows for free? He could record a season almost as fast as he could paint. Ross could bang out an entire 13-episode season of The Joy of Painting in just over two days, which freed him up to get back to teaching lessons, which is where he made his real money.

12. THE JOY OF PAINTING WAS A WORLDWIDE HIT.

In addition to being carried by approximately 95 percent of all public television stations across America, reaching viewers in more than 93.5 million homes, The Joy of Painting was a hit outside of the U.S. as well. The show was broadcast in dozens of foreign countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, South Korea, and Turkey.

13. HE WAS PARTICULARLY BIG IN JAPAN.

The Joy of Painting was a big hit in Japan, where it aired twice a day. (His voice, however, was dubbed.) On a visit to the country, Ross was reportedly mobbed by fans.

14. ROSS LIKENED HIS POPULARITY TO A DRUG ADDICTION.

"We're like drug dealers,” Ross once said of the popularity of his painting technique. “Come into town and get everybody absolutely addicted to painting. It doesn't take much to get you addicted.”

15. VIEWERS LOVED HIM. FELLOW ARTISTS? NOT AS MUCH.

Though he was undoubtedly a pop culture phenomenon, the art world didn’t exactly embrace Ross. “People definitely know who he is," Kevin Lavin, a “struggling” painter, told The New York Times in 1991. "In his own way, he is as famous as Warhol.”

"It is formulaic and thoughtless,” sculptor Keith Frank said of Ross’s work in the same article. “Art as therapy."

“I am horrified by art instruction on television," added Abstract Expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart, who passed away the following year. "It's terrible—bad, bad, bad. They are just commercial exploiters, non-artists teaching other non-artists."

16. SOME ART SUPPLY STORES KEPT ROSS’S PRODUCTS AT A DISTANCE.

The New York Times paid a visit to Pearl Paint Company, an art supply store in New York City, where an employee pointed to the “happy little corner" where they kept Ross’s products. "We hide them," he admitted, "so as not to offend."

17. ALEXANDER WASN’T THRILLED WITH ROSS’S SUCCESS.

Bill Alexander was one of the artists who wasn’t thrilled with Ross’s success, even though he had been his protégé. “He betrayed me," Alexander told The New York Times. "I invented 'wet on wet.' I trained him and he is copying me—what bothers me is not just that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do it better."

18. HIS HAPPY LITTLE COMMENTS WEREN’T AD LIBBED.

Though part of Ross’s appeal was his conversational tone, all his talk of happy accidents and other happy little things wasn’t ad libbed. “He told me he would lay in bed at night and plan every word,” Kowalski once said. “He knew exactly what he was doing.”

19. HE WAS MISSING PART OF HIS LEFT INDEX FINGER.

Though you’d never know it from his painting technique, not all of Ross’s digits were intact. He lost part of his left index finger when he was a kid in a woodworking accident while working with his dad, who was a carpenter.

20. HE RARELY PAINTED PEOPLE.

While trees and wildlife often helped bring Ross’s paintings to life, he rarely painted people. In fact, he liked to keep his work as people-free as possible.

“I will tell you Bob’s biggest secret,” Kowalski told FiveThirtyEight. “If you notice, his cabins never had chimneys on them. That’s because chimneys represented people, and he didn’t want any sign of a person in his paintings.”

21. HE KEPT A TINY SQUIRREL IN HIS POCKET.

The Joy of Painting regularly featured a rotating cast of happy little animals, with a tiny squirrel named Peapod probably getting the bulk of airtime. According to Ross, Peapod liked to sit in his pocket.

22. NOT MANY PEOPLE ACTUALLY PAINTED ALONG WITH HIM.

Though The Joy of Painting was a beloved series, people didn’t seem to be watching it to learn how to be the next Picasso. It was once estimated that only 10 percent of viewers were actually painting along with Ross.

23. HE REALLY DID LOVE TREES.

In 2014, FiveThirtyEight did a statistical breakdown of Ross’s work on The Joy of Painting and found that 91 percent of them included at least one tree—by far the most popular element. (And if he painted one tree, there was a 93 percent chance he’d paint a second one—though he referred to any additional trees as “friends” on the show.)

24. HIS SON, STEVE, PREFERRED LAKES.

On a few occasions, Ross’s son Steve subbed for his dad as a guest host. That same data set discovered that Steve liked happy little lakes: 91 percent of Steve’s paintings featured one (as opposed to Bob’s 34 percent).

25. HE MADE THREE COPIES OF EACH PAINTING YOU SEE IN THE JOY OF PAINTING.

Ross shot 403 episodes of The Joy of Painting and made three near-exact copies of each painting per episode. The first copy always hid off screen, and Ross referred to it while the cameras rolled (none of his on-air paintings were spontaneous). Ross painted a third copy when filming finished. This time, an assistant would stand behind him and snap photos of each brushstroke; these pictures went into his how-to books.

26. HE DIDN’T GET A WHOLE LOT OF INTERVIEW REQUESTS.

For all his worldwide popularity, there aren’t a lot of interviews with Ross. It has nothing to do with the artist being publicity-shy—it’s just that people rarely asked. “I never turn down requests for interviews,” he once said. “I’m just rarely asked.”

27. HE WAS AN MTV PITCHMAN.

For all his hokey-ness, Ross was cool enough to be asked to be a pitchman for MTV—which he deemed “The land of happy little trees.”

28. NINTENDO HAD PLANNED A SERIES OF BOB ROSS VIDEO GAMES.

Though some thought it was an April Fools’ joke, Nintendo had plans to create a series of video games based on The Joy of Painting. Unfortunately, the project ran into production problems pretty early on, so we’ll never know what might have been.

29. THE JOY OF PAINTING IS GREAT FOR INSOMNIA.

In 2001, Bob Ross Inc. media director Joan Kowalski told The New York Times how people almost seemed embarrassed to admit that Ross’s voice was the perfect solution to insomnia. “It's funny to talk to these people,'' she said. ''Because they think they're the only ones who watch to take a nap. Bob knew about this. People would come up to him and say, 'I don't want to hurt your feelings, but you've been putting me to sleep for 10 years.' He'd love it.''

Even today, Ross has become an ASMR star: On the ASMR thread on Reddit, “Bob Ross” is listed as a common trigger. A video of Ross painting a mountain has a staggering 7.6 million views, with others surpassing 2 or 3 million view marks. Of course, not all of those are ASMR viewers, but a mounting online presence suggests they certainly deserve some of the credit.

30. HE DIDN'T SELL HIS PAINTINGS.

In a 1991 interview with The New York Times, Ross claimed he'd made over 30,000 paintings since he was an 18-year-old stationed in Alaska with the Air Force. Yet he was not one to hawk his own work. So what happened to them? When Ross died of lymphoma in 1995, most of his paintings either ended up in the hands of charity or PBS.

“One of the questions that I hear over and over and over is, ‘What do we do with all these paintings we do on television?’ Most of these paintings are donated to PBS stations across the country,” he said. “They auction them off, and they make a happy buck with ‘em. So if you’d like to have one, get in touch with your PBS station, cause … we give them to stations all over the country to help them out with their fundraisers.”

31. ROSS’S VAN WAS ONCE BURGLED OF 13 PAINTINGS.

The fact that Ross didn’t try and turn a profit from his own work doesn’t mean that you can’t find one for sale. At one point, more than a dozen of his paintings hit the black market when someone stole 13 reference paintings from Ross’s van during the show's second season.

32. HE HOPED TO DEVELOP A CHILDREN’S SHOW ABOUT WILDLIFE.

In the early 1990s, Ross was looking to branch out from art and had an idea for a kids’ show called Bob’s World, where he planned to go out into nature and teach kids about wildlife.

33. IF YOU HAPPEN TO FIND YOURSELF IN FLORIDA, YOU CAN CHECK OUT SOME OF HIS ORIGINAL WORKS.

The Bob Ross Art Workshop in New Smyrna Beach, Florida is a must-visit destination for Ross die-hards: In addition to offering art classes in Ross’s method, you’ll find a collection of the artist’s original paintings.

34. YOU CAN VIEW MORE THAN 400 OF HIS WORKS IN ONE PLACE.

Two Inch Brush—named after Ross's brush of choice for the wet-on-wet technique—is an unofficial database that organizes all 403 paintings from The Joy of Painting by season and episode.

35. HE’S NOW A FUNKO TOY.


Funko

In August, Funko released a vinyl figurine of the iconic artist/television personality. It depicts Ross dressed in his trademark jeans and button-down shirt, holding a painter’s palette. Sadly, it doesn’t come with any miniature paintings of "happy little trees."

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Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
'Eat Lead!': When Activists Hacked Talking Barbie
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

With his familiar green fatigues and grenade clipped to his chest, G.I. Joe platoon leader Duke appeared carved from granite, not plastic. The 12-inch action figure was part of Hasbro’s Hall of Fame series, a premium-format figure released in 1993. Press his chest and the military specialist’s voice box would be activated, allowing Duke to shout a series of commands or threats.

But for a number of boys who unwrapped him on Christmas Day 1993, Duke appeared to be in no mood for conflict. When pressed to speak, he would instead exclaim, “Let’s go shopping!”

At the same time, parents who had gifted their children Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie—which was also equipped with a voice chip—were equally confused. Instead of talking about clothes or Corvettes, the Barbies sounded like they had been gargling gravel. “Eat lead, Cobra!” shouted one. “Vengeance is mine!”

Families were not amused: The dolls weren't cheap—each had a $40 to $50 price tag. After examining the box for any signs of tampering, some parents came across a small leaflet that helped explain the toys’ out-of-character speeches. A group calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization was taking responsibility for the switch. The goal of their stunt was to reframe the conversation over gender roles in America.

 
 

Since she first hit shelves in 1959, Barbie has transcended her boxed-in identity as mere toy store inventory to become an avatar for girls looking for a role model. (At one point, the doll received 20,000 fan letters a week.) The size of her waist, her job skills, her Malibu beach house—all of it has been commandeered by social anthropologists looking to see whether her influence is enriching young girls' lives or offering dispiriting, stereotyped notions of femininity.

That debate took a turn for the worse in 1992, when Mattel released a teenaged variation of the doll that exclaimed “math class is tough!” Women’s groups were outraged, believing that Barbie was falling victim to harmful tropes that put a ceiling on both her intellect and that of her pre-teen consumers.

Though the phrase was just one of 270 the doll could utter at random—others included “I love school, don’t you?”—it received the brunt of media attention, including demands to recall the dolls. (Mattel apologized, but did not pull the dolls off shelves.)

The debate over whether Barbie had social responsibilities caught the attention of Igor Vamos, a student of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. Vamos was intrigued by the idea of “cultural jamming,” a kind of analog hacking that upended conventional ideas to create controversy. If Barbie taught passivity and sexism with her complaints of math being hard, then perhaps she should be given a different script.

Vamos bought several dozen Teen Talk Barbies and Talking Duke figures from toy stores in California and New York. He and several other “operatives” dismantled the toys, performing a crude surgery that allowed them to switch the voice boxes buried in their bodies. Volunteers would use a knife to cut into the dolls' plastic skin, then modify the transistor of the Joe’s voice chip so it would fit into Barbie’s comparatively slimmer torso.

A screenshot of a G.I. Joe Talking Duke figure

21solo, YouTube

After repackaging the dolls, the team “shop-dropped,” surreptitiously restocking them on toy shelves in Albany, San Diego, and Walnut Creek, California. Each box had a piece of paper encouraging disgruntled parents to reach out to the media after discovering the toys weren’t gender-conforming. To speed things along, they also told friends to buy the dolls and make the calls. Then they waited.

Within weeks, adults confused by their child’s new toys did exactly what the B.L.O. suggested, telling local news affiliates that their Barbie was shouting attack commands and informing kids that “dead men tell no lies.” Duke, meanwhile, rebuffed war strategy, preferring to “plan our dream wedding.”

The ensuing media coverage is exactly what Vamos was hoping for. Calling the toys' gender roles “stone-aged,” the B.L.O. claimed responsibility, stayed anonymous, and hoped it would cause consumers to rethink the propagation of violence by male toys and the relatively vacuous ambitions of Barbie.

"Obviously, our goal is to get media attention,” a B.L.O. spokesperson told The New York Times. “We are trying to make a statement about the way toys can encourage negative behavior in children, particularly given rising acts of violence and sexism."

Vamos even supervised production of a video that used Barbie to spell out their mission. “They build us in a way that perpetuates gender-based stereotypes,” the toy said. “Those stereotypes have a negative effect on children’s development.”

 
 

While most considered the act harmless—the toys could, after all, be exchanged for an unadulterated version—not everyone believed the B.L.O.’s mission played fair. "I've got a very strong negative feeling about terrorist acts against children, no matter how noble the motives," Joanne Oppenheim, a toy industry advocate, told the Times. “It's a cheap shot, and it's unfair to the kids.” Others protested the general idea of product tampering.

Mattel and Hasbro were less rattled. Wayne Charness, then-vice president of Hasbro, called it “kind of ridiculous,” while Mattel refrained from commenting. Though the B.L.O. claimed to have tampered with hundreds of toys in 43 different states, the truth was that Vamos and his team had performed surgery on roughly 120 toys. But the media perpetuated the story, making it seem as though the stunt was pervasive.

The story died down after the holidays. The tampered toys were either returned or bought and discarded. Vamos kept his role in the stunt largely under wraps until years later, when he became a part of The Yes Men, a social disruption performance group, under the alias Mike Bonanno. Vamos is now a professor of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Was the stunt effective? Anecdotally, maybe. Media outlets like Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal profiled kids and parents who had been affected by the switch, including 7-year-old Zach, the recipient of a Barbie-possessed Duke. Asked if he wanted to return the toy, Zach said no: “He’s teaching me not to fight.”

Were kids really influenced by the toys to rethink gender portrayals, or were they yet another example of the B.L.O. manipulating the media by using an undercover operative to articulate their message? If Barbie knows, she isn't talking. 

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Shout! Factory
Original GLOW Wrestling Series Hits Twitch
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

When it premiered in June 2017, GLOW was a bit of a sleeper offering for Netflix. With the amount of original programming ordered by the streaming service, a show based on an obscure women’s pro wrestling league from the 1980s seemed destined to get lost in the shuffle.

Instead, the series was a critical and commercial success. Ahead of its second season, which drops on June 29, you'll have a chance to see the mat work of the original women who inspired it.

Shout! Factory has announced they will be live-streaming clips from the first four seasons of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), which first premiered in 1986, beginning at 9 p.m. ET on June 28. The stream, which will be available on shoutfactorytv.com and Twitch, will feature original footage framed by new interviews with personalities including Godiva, host Johnny C, and Hollywood. The show will air live from the Santino Brothers Wrestling Academy in Los Angeles.

Godiva, who was portrayed by Dawn Maestas, inspired the character Rhonda (a.k.a. Brittanica) on the Netflix series; Hollywood was the alter ego of Jeanne Basone, who inspired the character Cherry in the fictionalized version of the league. Basone later posed for Playboy and takes bookings for one-on-one wrestling matches with fans.

Shout! Factory's site also features a full-length compilation of footage, Brawlin’ Beauties: GLOW, hosted by onetime WWE interviewer “Mean” Gene Okerlund.

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