On March 26, 2013 serendipity came to town while nosing around vintagelosangeles.net, as I love history and used to live in Southern California. On the site I came across Los Angeles PBS station KCET and while nosing around on their webpage discovered that on January 7, 2013 long time California resident Huell Howser passed away. “We are deeply saddened by the news of Huell’s passing. This is a tremendous personal and professional loss to his friends and colleagues, as well as his legions of fans. We will miss him very much,” read the message on the site. Wait, what, no he cannot be dead he is too young! Next to the notice is a picture of a smiling, white-haired Huell in a sea of blossoming poppies in central California but the Huell I remember is tall, brown-haired, muscular, and always wearing a polo shirt and sunglasses. Beginning in 1988 on KCET I used to catch Videolog a 10-minute show used as filler where Huell traveled California “…with one camera, one microphone, and one person listening and learning…,” letting people do the talking as he stood aside and captured it. What caught my attention was his accent as he was born and raised in Tennessee, his enthusiasm for the story, and his infectious ear-to-ear smile, he just made people feel comfortable. As soon as I read the above notice I could hear his closing, “for Videolog, I’m Huell Howser.” The show aired from 1988 to 1990 and due to popularity it extended to 30 minutes and renamed California’s Gold which is where I lost track of Mr. Howser as my life was changing as well.
Huell Howser reported on human interest first in Southern California in the early 1980’s then expanded that to the entire state and as he did so too did his following so much in fact people wanted to be on his show.
Between then and March 2013 I moved 10 times between California, Michigan, Oregon, and finally Washington State, (whew!) and never thought of the show until recently so, through the courtesy of KCET and The Official Huell Howser You Tube site, I began viewing shows to catch up. The idea for his California shows was honed in Tennessee starting a way back in 1973 with The Happy World of Huell Howser where non-celebrity people are interviewed such as contestants in a spitting contest, dancing southern style, and one episode with Huell interviewing a family that keeps a pig living indoors like a dog. While watching I quickly ascertain that the Huell in Tennessee is different from the Huell I know in California, long hair and polyester clothing compared to khaki, short hair, and polo shirt aside, he matured in California but he still enjoy interviewing the “off the beaten path” individual. In the late 1970’s New York City was his new home working for WCBS on a show called To Life one episode has Huell jogging with Mayor Koch and another taking New York buddy, Jewish comedian and part owner of the Carnegie Deli, Leo Steiner back to Nashville for a taste of southern hospitality from country singer Tom T. Hall. Amazing! Another episode of To Life worth mentioning was his interview of Dolly Parton in her New York apartment where it looks as if Dolly is infatuated with Huell. I became intrigued and needed more!
Digging deeper into the vaults I found some early news segment called People Watcher done in 1981/1982 for KCBS in Los Angeles the same time I moved to San Bernardino, California; I may have seen some of these but just never made the connection with Videolog! Continuing the hunt I found and watched Huell Howser, with communicable, southern smile interview the owner and workers of a historical landmark at Muscle Beach near the Santa Monica Pier called Hot Dog on a Stick and with his passion for gettin’ the story all I recall of Huell came flooding back. The long hair from Nashville is now cut short, cotton polo shirt and in this episode Khaki shorts and sunglasses. This is great; it is as if I am in Southern California watching the show on television instead of my computer! As this one ended I choose another one through KCET webpage and like a child on Christmas morning I tore into three more before I had to step back and let this all sink in, I still cannot believe he is gone. With each episode I thought of what I was doing when it aired: 1990 California’s Gold begins as I begin anew after a failed relationship, 1993 Huell goes to top of San Francisco Bridge as I turn to PG Wodehouse and his famous Jeeves and Wooster series, and in 2005 as Huell moves to Death Valley I am moving into my second home in Vancouver, Washington.
Uncovering California’s Gold shows from his webpage, calgold.com, I found myself with programing to last a long time and there on the front page welcoming me back is Huell with white hair, the polo now replaced with a Cabana shirt but still wearing the sunglasses and why not since the sun seems to always shine in California. A couple of years ago Huell wrote and produced a story on the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California and while there decided to cut a music video for the song, California Here I Come which I have now watched a half-dozen times and cannot get the song out of my head. Thanks Huell! I wish I still resided in California as many of the places he uncovers in Videolog and California Gold I want to see in person however, I have been to some of them such as Union Station, Pasadena, Palm Springs, Venice Beach, and Pismo Beach (Huell actually digs clams with his feet here).
In closing, Huell Howser, coincidentally, passed away on the 174th anniversary of Louis Daguerre’s announcement of the first complete practical photographic process that captured an image, Huell devoted his life to capturing snapshots of life, still and human.