For generations of Portland kids, the greatest entertainment coup imaginable was perching on a set of rickety bleachers inside KPTV Channel 12’s drafty TV studio, hooting and clapping for a grown man dressed in a rust-colored cardigan cluttered with hundreds of buttons…standing in a fake tugboat.
That man was “Ramblin’ Rod” Anders, who hosted the beloved (and high-rated) local morning kids' TV program The Ramblin’ Rod Show (1964–1997). Compared to today’s kids' shows, it had a refreshingly bare bones format: The chill Portland native would arrive via faux ship, interview a few of the kids, announce birthdays, and introduce a handful of Road Runner and Popeye cartoons—that’s it. Occasionally, during the 1980s, a dude dressed up as the Chuck E. Cheese rat would saunter out to shimmy to a live song. With zero fees or auditions for its kids-only on-air audience, the only barrier between local grade schoolers and basic cable stardom was a sign-up sheet at the news station. In a time when home video cameras were expensive and cell phones a Star Trek prop, this level of public exposure was a small narcissist’s dream come true.
The Ramblin’ Rod Show’s greatest contribution to local culture was the Smile Contest, which crowned a coveted Smile Winner from the 30 or so kids on set each day: the camera slowly panning across each frozen grimace like a police lineup of gap-toothed cuteness. (Inevitably, the—arbitrarily chosen—Smile Winner would end up being the child sitting next to you. Portland’s young learned defeat at a tender age.)
“I wasn't a Smile Winner, but I sat at the top right seat [of the bleachers], which was Rod’s go-to spot for nervous comments from starstruck children,” remembers local podcaster Cort Webber. “I got to do the countdown to the smile contest, which, if you think about it, is more important than winning. There would BE NO smile contest without someone to countdown the beginning of it.”
“I would watch it every day [from home]. I was so jealous of the Smile Winners and would imagine what that kind of stardom must be like,” confesses Funemployment Radio co-host Greg Nibler. “My brother and I did make buttons [for Ramblin’ Rod] and sent them in. [We’d] always try to see if we could spot them on his jacket (we never did, but we would pretend they were there).”
The Smile Winner boasting rights continue to this day—some locals even post Ramblin’ Rod Smile Contest screenshots as Facebook bio photos. “I felt special. I think that was the coolest thing about it. He made kids feel special,” remembers three-time Smile Winner Nico Bella, who owns Portland’s Spellbound Flowers. “You didn't have to be rich to be there. Your parents didn't have to be able to afford to send you on the show. Every kid was welcome. A rare thing these days.”
The Ramblin’ Rod Show ended in 1997, and Anders, who spent his retirement years flying airplanes near his cabin in Buxton, Oregon, died in 2002. He was reportedly gifted close to 15,000 buttons by local kids throughout the show’s run. He kept them all.