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That's not amazing -- California's Gold, Huell Howser, has passed away

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 7, 2013 01:49pm | Post a Comment
Huell Howser California Poppies
Huell in the Antelope Valley amongst California Poppies (source: Cameron Tucker)

I am utterly gutted to hear that Huell Howser has passed away.



I heard the news as I was writing about my exploration of Irvine for this blog, and simultaneously planning on exploring the route of the Expo Line Phase II tomorrow. If it weren’t for Huell, I may not have had the idea of doing either. (When I was approached about working for KCET, one of the names I proposed was California's Fools Gold, a self-deprecating homage -- they went with Block By Block instead). I’m sure he inspired a lot of other people to go on adventures in their back yards too (this page has a map showing the communities he visited). Even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I will miss him terribly.

Huell Howser on Mono Lake
Huell canoeing on Mono Lake (source: Cameron Tucker)

Back in November, Huell announced that he was retiring amid rumors that he was seriously ill. Just last week I was chatting about him with a customer at my shop and the customer expressed his dismay. I too was saddened by his retirement but expressed that he'd earned it and that even his biggest fans have, in most cases, hundreds if not thousands of episodes to catch up on. Still, the customer hoped that someone would soon fill his shoes. I expressed doubt that any single person could.

Huell Howser at Pasadena's Cobbler Factory
At the amazing Gourmet Cobbler Factory in Pasadena -- in the San Gabriel Valley (image: KCET)

It's impossible to know how many adventures Huell Howser inspired. I suspect that he's one of John Rabe's biggest heroes. (Check out Rabe’s episode with him here). I loved his earnestness, enthusiasm, unpretentiousness, boundless sense of adventure, energy, and intelligence. Despite the fact that Angelenos are constantly told that we are obsessed with celebrity, glamour, fame and fortune; Howser showed thankfully little interest in any of that. He even seemed to hint at a healthy disgust with politicians and ambivalence for authority.

Instead he championed the everyday, the immigrant, the ignored, the uncelebrated and in doing so showed what really makes California truly special. 

Gallatin Tennessee
Huell's hometown

Huell Burnley Howser was born 18 October 1945 in Gallatin, Tennessee, a small town in the Upper South near the border with Kentucky. His name was a portmanteau of his parents' names, Harold and Jewell. He received a BA in history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.





After serving in the Marines he began working Nasvhille’s WSM-TV, where he traveled around the central part of the state and Kentucky in a motor home filming what he called "happy features." 
Huell Howser with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn
Huell with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn in the 1970s


After spending some time at WCBS in New York where he hosted a show called Real Life! (and later, To Life!). In the age of Candid Camera, The Gong Show, Real People, and That's Incredible, New Yorkers seemed confused by segments on window washers and "turkey mavens." Howser was later told that New Yorkers were uncomfortable being touched. In 1981 Howser moved to hug-friendly Los Angeles where there's no shortage of people happy to be on camera. It was in Los Angeles that he stayed.

Huell Howser with the Del Rubio Triplets in 1987 (source: KCET)
Huell Howser with the Del Rubio Triplets in 1987 (source: KCET)

His career in LA began with him reporting for KNXT (now KCBS). He then briefly worked on Entertainment Tonight which is kind of remarkable since when he next moved to KCET (then a PBS affiliate) in 1987 and began producing his Videolog segments, he showed himself to be a one man antidote to ET -- and the other shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Access Hollywood, Extra!, and all the other shows that seem so determined to make Los Angeles look awful.

Visiting... with Huell Howser



The first episode I remember seeing was Visiting… With Huell Howser episode #903, in which he visited Iwasaki Images of America in Gardena to learn about how plastic food commonly seen in the display windows of Japanese restaurants is made (something I was and am fascinated by as well). The previous episode had been about visiting Cambodia Town in Long Beach. The following was about Downtown's LA Barber College. The most recent episode I watched was episode 104 of California’s Gold, “Cornish Christmas.” 

a construction crew underground in L.A.
Howser with a construction crew underground in L.A. (source: Cameron Tucker)

In an interview with the LA Times’ television critic, Robert Loyd, he expressed “Let's explore our neighborhood, let's look in our own backyard, let's go down to Koreatown and buy some kimchee. We won't do a story on what it's like to spend the night in a $10,000 hotel suite.” I thought he had the best job in the world and the best attitude to boot. Though he once claimed to be a Methodist, he had the soul and outlook of Laozi.

Huell Howser in his apartment
Huell Howser in his former residence in Midtown's Hancock Park neighborhood (source: Kevin Hively)


Though outgoing, friendly, and on TV all the time, Huell was guarded about his private life – which I really respected. He was one of the few people on TV who didn’t seem interested in promoting himself as a celebrity, even though he was one. He never bothered to go out of his way to deflate tired, cynical stereotypes of California, he just ignored them. Likewise, he understood that Californians come in all shapes, colors and accents and in a culture where southern accents are almost always equated with stupidity and/or bigotry, he was not only proudly southern, but unprejudiced, and intelligent. 




He was often parodied albeit more-often-than-not, lovingly. I'd bet that all of his self-professed fans have an imitation of him. He turned up on The Simpsons twice, the Beverly Hills, 90120 episode "Jobbed," as well as Thoughts of Suicide on an Otherwise Lovely Day and Who Killed the Electric Car? He leant his voice to Winnie the Pooh, and was mentioned on Weeds. He has a hot dog named after him at Pinks, a honey ham & pineapple cheeseburger at Peggy Sue's 50s Diner (in Yermo), and his face on a bottle of milk from Broguiere's Farm Fresh Dairy (in the Southeast LA County city of Montebello).


He passed away at his Palm Springs home on 7 January 2013, aged just 67. We should all honor him by undertaking adventures at the next opportunity and keep our eyes open the what's amazing all around us. In 2000, Huell said "I have this theory that when I die, my tombstone will say, 'Huell Howser: he did the pig story,'" -- a reference to a profile he did of a 500-pound pet pig named Porky who then lived in a Powderly, Kentucky. In a 2003 story in Los Angeles Magazine he was quoted saying, "Seriously, what I want to do is to be saying 'Good night' and fall over dead in a sand dune and have the credits with the sand blowing over my body and the people at home just going, 'Well, I guess that's Huell's last show.' That is the way I would like to die." RIP Huell!

Click on this link to share your memories on KCET's page

*****

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