For kids growing up in the Portland area during the past 35 years, the Ramblin' Rod Show on KPTV was as much a part of the morning as footed pajamas and Sugar Pops. As host of the cartoon show, which ran from 1964 until his retirement in 1997, Rod Anders played straight man to a circus of low-rent TV amusements, effortlessly fusing kitsch and sincerity. After news of Anders' sudden death at 69 from a stroke (a funeral was held May 17), longtime Portlanders, including me, were forced to stop and consider his death, their childhoods and Mortality (his, of course, but mostly their own). Rumor is that Krusty the Clown is said to be loosely modeled after Rod, considering Simpsons creator Matt Groening is from Portland. But I'll take the original any day.
To cheers from a bleacher full of tots, each morning Ramblin' Rod sailed into camera view on a ersatz tugboat made of fiberboard, while Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" played in the background. His uniform was always the same: polyester slacks and a cardigan sweater covered in pins that said things like "I'm with stupid" or "Ford in '76," all gifts from his pint-sized followers. In between screenings of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons, Rod made the kids his co-stars with small talk, smile contests and a birthday dance routine from the Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Players.
In third grade, I achieved a then-lifelong dream of appearing on the show. Eager for my 15 minutes, I raced for a seat near the top-right bleacher corner, knowing that's where Rod would always conduct his interviews. Sure enough, he fired me a string of questions. The more inept my answers were, the more riveted he became.
"What's McMinnville famous for?" Uh, I don't know. [Awkward silence.] "Don't you have a high school?" Yeah, that's it! We're the Grizzlies! "So what else is McMinnville famous for?" Uh, I don't know. [More awkward silence.] "Do you have a college there?" You betcha, Linfield! They're the Wildcats, and my mom went to school there, but I like the Oregon Ducks better.
Later, I remember almost crying because I was one of the few kids not celebrating a birthday or chosen as a smile contest winner, and therefore not entitled to the complimentary bottle of Pop Shoppe soda other kids were guzzling. Seemingly sensing this, Rod continued to give me more screen time than the rest of the audience combined. And I didn't even give him a pin. My presence didn't exactly make great television, but I cherished every moment.
Locally produced kid shows have gone the way of dodo birds and Yugo cars in the years leading up to and following Rod Anders' departure from the airwaves. Rod gave way to Good Day Oregon. "The landscape of how television has changed," Bruno Rudolph, promotion manager at KPTV, told me. "Certainly the demographic that Good Day Oregon attracts is more attractive than children's programming. Plus the availability of cartoons has gone down, because they've been bought up by cable networks." Good Day Oregon is far better produced than Ramblin' Rod ever was, but it's part of an insipid yet revoltingly perky genre that's already been done to death on the networks. Meanwhile, kids are relegated to ubiquitous cable TV, with no homegrown options left. What do today's kids dream of for their 15 minutes of fame? Their own Web log? A spot goofing on America's Funniest Home Videos? My guess is that they're lost without a Ramblin' Rod on whom to project their visions of fame. He was missed before he even died.