The feelings of certain childhood memories last us a lifetime. The smell of chlorine still whisks me back to being at the pool in the summer with all of my friends when we had no cares in the world. The opening song of The Price is Right still makes me think of being home when I was sick because that was the only thing to watch on tv in those days for a kid. The taste of pie crust made of Crisco gives me the feels of being in my mom’s kitchen on Thanksgiving where we baked and tasted pies all day.
My son came home from school one day and said, “Mom, do you know who Bob Ross is?” Instantly, I thought of his soft voice and the “happy little trees” of my youth. When I was a little girl, I would watch, mesmerized, as Bob Ross effortlessly created nature photos with his brushes. I would desperately try to mimic his talent but could never quite get it. I do know that in every picture I ever drew from that time in my life forward, I had a “happy little tree” incorporated somehow in the scene.
Bob Ross had a show called “The Joy of Painting” that spanned from 1983 until 1994. He recorded over 400 of his thirty-minute painting episodes. In 1994, Bob was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a cancer of the white blood cells that affects the body’s immune system. Some believe that Bob suffered from cancer because of his 40-year smoking habit as well as the extreme amounts of paint thinner the artist used and was exposed to.
Bob, at the time of his diagnosis, had already suffered two heart attacks and another form of cancer that he overcame. Bob lost his beloved, second wife, Jane, to cancer two weeks before he found out he had lymphoma. According to his son, this shook Bob to the core.
When Bob died, he received a very small headline with one picture in his obituary that was tucked away in a corner of a newspaper. His fans thought this was an unfit tribute to the beloved man. When he died in 1995, he had successfully recorded 31 seasons of his humble painting show that brought millions happiness.
His death, and right before, were anything but happiness and serene. Bob dealt with legal battles over his estate and his will. Bob Ross, the quiet, gentleman, was heard yelling on the phone from his death bed over the frustrating issues. He was worth over $15 million. Bob’s business partner, Walt Kowalski, fought with Bob, before his death, about money due to Bob’s wife, Jane, dying. Bob’s estate was divided among Walt and his wife, and Bob and his wife. Jane’s death caused much fighting and unfortunately came right as Bob was diagnosed with cancer.
Ann Kowalski, Walt’s wife, wanted Bob to sign documents so she could create a memorial for the dying artist. According to Bob’s son, Steve, when Bob read the language of the document, it also gave rights to his name and likeness to Bob Ross Inc. which would be the property of the Kowalskis. As Bob got sicker, the Kowalskis got more determined to make the property theirs.
Bob quickly made some last-minute decisions and married a woman named Lydia on his deathbed and made her heir to his fortune to keep Walt from exploiting him. He awarded his son the rights to his likeness and name.
In recent years, Bob Ross has had a comeback. He is regularly watched on YouTube, many clothes that kids today are wearing are emblazoned with his image, and he has been mentioned in very popular movies, mostly due to his famous, permed hair. People now of all ages have discovered the calming presence of Ross’s show through his YouTube channel that boasts 4 million subscribers.
Due to his renewed popularity, Netflix is releasing a documentary called, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed”. The documentary will show a glimpse into the madness of the fight for his multi-million dollar estate. The Kowalskis declined to be a part of the documentary so the account is almost totally based on the story of Bob’s son, Steve.
No matter who owns the intellectual property of Bob Ross, the memories of those who were old enough to watch the show while Ross was still alive still live on and make us feel warm and fuzzy. Also, new generations are also being calmed and made peaceful by the gentle artist. So, the answer to my son’s question of whether I know who Bob Ross is answered in a resounding “Yes” and I am just as happy about that as his happy little trees make us all.