#KOCE45yrs: On making a happy splash

The Magic of Bill Alexander

I put my almighty paint, on my almighty palette and I put it on the almighty canvas. And if you can do it, my God, what a joy to be on this earth! -Bill Alexander

When KOCE came on the air November 20, 1972, we weren’t broadcasting around-the-clock programming. Our programming, in fact, only covered a fraction of a clock: for six wonderful hours Monday through Friday, KOCE aired telecourses and PBS programming.

After we’d been on the air for a year, then station manager Don Gerdts sought out a meeting with Bill Alexander, a local artist who was making a name for himself doing painting demos at area stores, creating landscapes in a very short time. Alexander’s 30-minute paintings impressed Gerdts and he proposed the idea of a show.

Gerdst and Alexander agreed to film a pilot together. When the pilot aired, the station appended a simple call to action at the end, requesting that viewers call or write to the station if they enjoyed the program. In the next week, KOCE received 200 calls and 150 letters, more than we’d received total in the year we’d been on the air.

Happy to give the people what they wanted, Gerdst and Alexander went to work on a six-episode order of The Magic of Oil Painting, which aired in March 1974.

So, who was this artist that so captivated southern California audiences at the time?

Bill Alexander was a soldier in the German Army during World War II, and taken prisoner by the Americans. While captive he painted portraits of American GIs’ girlfriends and wives (from photos the GIs shared with Alexander). The GIs enjoyed Alexander’s work so much they built him a studio.

Gerdst told the Los Angeles Times back in 1983:

He was so good at it and so ingratiated himself to the officers that they built him a studio where he painted full time. After the war he ran a printing press for the occupation forces and in 1951 with the help of his American friends, he moved to Canada, where for years he struggled to earn a living as a painter.

Alexander proved to be an acquired taste. Some viewers at the time found his awkward demeanor and German accent to be a tad off-putting. In fact, a PBS affiliate in Chicago nearly didn’t pick up the program.

Eventually though Alexander won over audiences and programmers alike (his viewers nicknamed him “The Happy Painter”); 120 PBS affiliates around the country broadcast KOCE’s The Magic of Oil Painting.

Producing a show hosted by a celebrity in the pre-email era created some opportunities we may not appreciate now.

Five KOCE staff members worked out of a trailer responding to Alexander’s letters, which numbered more than 2,000 per week. Some were love letters, others thanked Alexander for the inspiration, often citing it as a life saver.

Gerdst understood the appeal viewers found in Alexander. He told the LA Times:

‘What [Alexander’s] doing is painting, but he’s selling a philosophy of life, and his philosophy is: don’t be afraid to try new and different things. He inspires that drive to do it. That’s what his mystique is.”

One of the viewers who found inspiration in Alexander, and his program, was Bob Ross. Living in Alaska at the time, Ross learned Alexander’s painting technique and sold some of his work in the area. Eventually Ross sought out formal instruction from Alexander, and of course went on to have his own PBS television show, The Joy of Painting.

The Magic of Oil Painting ran until 1982, after which KOCE produced a special filmed on-location at Alexander’s home in Powell River, British Columbia.

While Bill Alexander passed away in 1997, his legacy lives on—both nationally, and to us. Many PBS viewers from around the country still affectionately recall Alexander. As for us at KOCE, we remember him as our first highly successful and memorable national program.

Enjoy: The Magic of Oil Painting