CLEARWATER ― Bob Ross loved happy little trees.
The host of “The Joy of Painting” also loved Waffle House and “breakfast for dinner,” said Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Inc., which was started by her parents and Ross and continues to sell art supplies in his name. “That was one of his big things. If there was a Waffle House nearby, chances are he would eat there.”
Ross died of complications from lymphoma in 1995 at the age of 52, but his show lives on.
Wednesday marks the 29th anniversary of the final episode of “The Joy of Painting,” the PBS show that turned Ross into an unlikely celebrity.
A Clearwater Waffle House played a role in the landscape artist’s origin story.
“Here’s how this whole crazy thing started and how Clearwater fits in,” Kowalski said.
It begins with another artist, William Alexander, whose “The Magic of Oil Painting” was the original famous PBS art class show. Kowalski calls him the godfather of TV painting.
Alexander also toured the nation and trained others as traveling art teachers.
“Bob Ross was one of those teachers, covering Florida and a little of the East Coast,” Kowalski said. “He was just this guy in a motor home with a dream of teaching classes and a lot of them were in Vero Beach and Clearwater.”
A tragedy in 1982 brought her mother, Annette Kowalski, to one of Ross’ classes.
“My oldest brother died in a car accident,” Kowalski said. “My mother was depressed about it, and the only thing she could manage to do was watch public television and, in particular, William Alexander.”
Kowalski’s father, Walt Kowalski, suggested that his wife take an Alexander class.
He had retired from the road but Ross, his top protege, was teaching less than a day’s drive from the Kowalskis’ Virginia home.
“My mother and father jumped into the station wagon and drove to Clearwater,” Kowalski said. “And that’s where my mother took a weeklong painting class with Bob Ross and my mother saw something in him that was just remarkable. She told us recently that she didn’t paint much. She sort of followed Bob around, watching him interact with others.”
Annette Kowalski told her husband, a retired CIA employee, that she believed Ross’ talent for teaching art was not being fully utilized and that they should market him.
“My mother and father took Bob to dinner at a Waffle House,” Kowalski said. “And they said to him, ‘Why don’t you let us help you do classes higher up the East Coast. We’ll set up classes for you and you can spread your wings.’”
To promote one of those courses, they produced a commercial, she said. Realizing that Ross spoke to the camera as well as he spoke to students, the trio decided to launch his PBS show. It premiered on Jan. 11, 1983.
Ross taught viewers how to paint landscapes via 400 30-minute episodes of “The Joy of Painting,” filmed primarily in an Indiana studio.
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His ability, unique demeanor and sayings such as, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents” turned Ross into a pop culture sensation.
Ross made appearances on MTV and network programs like “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” and “The Joan Rivers Show” and was mobbed by fans when out in public.
None of that might have happened if not for a chance meeting in Clearwater and a business agreement made in a Waffle House.
“In a sentence,” Kowalski said, “that’s kind of where everything began.”