This month, California lost its greatest cheerleader — Huell Howser.
It is newspaper style to refer to people by their last name, but as travel writer Christopher Reynolds of The Los Angeles Times wrote in his eulogy to Huell, “what Californian has ever called him ‘Howser?’”
During the nearly 40 years I’ve worked in travel journalism and public relations I never met a celebrity who got a more enthusiastic reception than Huell. Everyone recognized him and greeted him as if they knew him, personally. People would walk up to Huell in the middle of a shoot and rather than be bothered, he’d work them into the story. We did a week of episodes at Yosemite. Despite being pressed for time, he delayed shooting to spend time with his fans. Huell was the same person you saw on TV.
Huell was the master at walking into a situation and finding the story within it, quickly. Nothing was scripted until he got back to the studio and connected the interviews into a well-documented thread. In the field, he would walk right up to people uninvolved in a story and begin interviewing them, asking the obvious, then repeating what they said by saying, “So, you’re telling me…” It was this folksy, approachable, gregarious style that made fans out of many including Simpson’s creator Matt Groening who lampooned Huell on a couple of episodes as the character, “Howell Huser.”
He asked the questions we all wanted to know. Standing with a crew of bridge workers who had spent the past ten years painting one tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, he asked, “How do you get the bridge to look one color?” That’s the kind of straight-forward, curious question you’d hear asked around a barrel in a hardware store. He’d then respond to their answers with “Huellisms,” “Whoa!,” “Good Grief!” and “That’s amazing!” His innocent pronouncements often led him to being lampooned, like when comedian Adam Carolla uproariously aired this Huellism on his radio show, “I’ve never seen an actual dog eat avocados before.”
His feigned naiveté and respect for his subjects let the story tell itself. In one of Huell’s most emotional segments, Bill Lane — the former publisher of Sunset Magazine and U.S. ambassador to Australia — recalled his college summers working as a Fire Fall caller at Yosemite’s Camp Curry in the late ‘30s. The Fire Fall was a nightly spectacle where burning embers fell from Glacier Point as awed spectators listened to the Indian Love Call being performed in the valley below. As Tom Bopp, Yosemite’s musician-historian, finished playing the nostalgic song, Lane described the emotional mood that would overcome the audience, as he choked up. Huell reached out to Lane, saying, “I get emotional hearing you talk about it.”
On the day in 1990 that Huell announced to the California travel industry that he was about to launch California’s Gold, I was standing in the back of a crowded, sun-drenched meeting room at the Sacramento Convention Center. I would later collaborate with Huell and his producers on many stories. Though at the time, Huell seemed to be an unlikely story teller for California.
Huell’s voice had a Tennessee twang that seemed misplaced for the accent-less West Coast. He would later ask me, “What is a California accent, anyway? You hear Chinese, Mexican, and all sorts of regional dialects throughout California. I’m no different than other immigrants who’ve come here to claim California as their own. It’s not a flat accent that makes us Californians. It is our search for something better.”
After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Huell’s search began on the staff of a U.S. Senator. He then served in the U.S. Marine Corps, then worked at WSM-TV in Nashville before joining WCBS-TV in New York where he was the host of a magazine-styled TV show. He moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to work for KCBS-TV, joining KCET-TV in 1987 to produce “Videolog” a series of short segments on people from all walks of life. This series captured a loyal following of viewers and led directly to development of California’s Gold, his long-running series.
California’s Gold eventually spawned California’s Communities, Golden Fairs, Golden Coast, Golden Parks, Missions, Downtown, Water, Green, Road Trip and travel specials that took him beyond California.
Over the 22 years that he produced California’s Gold, Huell uncovered stories that were right in front of us, but otherwise undiscovered — among them: visits to See’s Candies, to a menudo plant, to the exact center of California and to the remote and surf-lashed St. Georges Reef lighthouse seven miles from the northwest tip of California. In El Dorado County, he did the expected stories: James Marshall Gold Discovery site in Coloma and Fanette Island in Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, but also the Studebaker Wheelbarrow Races at the El Dorado County Fair.
It was his enduring pursuit of the obscure in a place as obvious as California that made Huell great. Hollywood has made California the nation’s best-known state, yet Huell revealed how little we really knew about it. Like many other publicists, each year I’d pitch stories to Huell. A few made his list, though most did not. One he wanted to do, but never got around to doing was about the only commercial fisherman on Mono Lake, a fellow who had a license to fish for brine shrimp. Huell’s long list and limited time never allowed him to get to the brine shrimp story. Perhaps he’s doing it now.
Fred Sater, who served as PR director for the California Division of Tourism said Huell “didn’t see California’s Gold as a travel show, but rather a show about the people, the cultures, the history and the landscape of California. But, make no mistake about it, no show had a greater impact on travel in the Golden State than California’s Gold.”
Donations in Huell’s memory can be made to the California’s Gold Scholarship Fund at Chapman University by calling Michelle Bautista at 714- 744-7623.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.