At 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, March 29, the quaint campus of Chapman University, normally quiet at this hour, swelled with an eager and excitable fandom. They crowded around vendor booths lining Grand Street, and formed a line, 150 people deep, outside the Leatherby Libraries. They'd come to see a new permanent exhibit on the life and work of Huell Howser titled "That's Amazing! Thirty Years of Huell Howser and California's Gold."
"We definitely didn't expect this amount of interest," said Mary Platt, Chapman's director of communications and media, as she navigated the crowd. "Huell gave a talk here in 2011, and we had over 1,000 people show up then, so we knew there'd be a crowd here today, but we didn't expect it to be quite this big."
A separate line, as long as the one at the exhibit entrance, ran behind the Irvine Lecture Hall, where Howser's fans waited to watch a documentary called A Golden State of Mind: The Storytelling Genius of Huell Howser, by Chapman film professor Jeff Swimmer. While they waited, the "Whistling Diva," Carole Anne Kaufman, whistled pop songs and musical movie favorites to huge bursts of applause.
"We've sold over 1,000 tickets to the documentary alone, and haven't even counted how many people are here just for the exhibit or the vendors," Platt said.
Howser's partnership with Chapman began in 2010, when Chapman University president Jim Doti - "a Huell-like personality himself," said Platt - saw the California's Gold episode on the town of Orange. The episode touched on the existence of the Chapman campus, but Doti wished that Howser had explored the university more. He wrote Howser a letter inviting him to visit the university, and see all that it had to offer. Howser took Doti up on the offer. Within the year, Howser was frequently visiting the campus, speaking to classes on broadcasting, journalism and history. When he learned that he was ill with prostrate cancer in 2011, he started planning his ongoing legacy with the university, establishing the permanently endowed California's Gold scholarship, and making his first archival donations.
Howser would eventually donate almost 8,000 videotape originals of more than 1,000 episodes of his various TV shows, his raw footage, production notes, still photos, and personal papers. He also bequeathed his impressive found-art collection, antique furniture, memorabilia collection and his three homes. The video archives are now available online for free at Huellhowserarchives.com.
See also: James Adomian remembers Huell Howser
"We knew he was ill, but he passed so suddenly. None of us expected it, and Chapman's plans [for this archive] hadn't covered the enormous amount of material we'd receive," says Randolph Boyd, a Chapman special collections and archives librarian.
All of these materials are now housed within the California's Gold Archive within Chapman's Leatherby Libraries, the entrance to which is preceded by the permanent exhibit. The exhibit room, in the basement of the library, has a maximum capacity of approximately 30 people.
"I've been in line for 2 hours and 20 minutes," said a woman that was a mere steps away from the exhibit entrance on Saturday morning. "I love Huell. But I've also invested so much time here today, that at this point, I'm not going to not see it."
Once inside, visitors made their way downstairs, where, along the way, they marveled at some of Howser's found art that he collected on his travels around California, including a piece of the original Hollywood Sign, an old, rusted-out air-conditioner coil turned into a coffee table, and a sheet of colorfully corroded metal hung on the wall like a painting.
"He had such an eye for found art," Platt says, likening his ability to see the unique qualities in a person, as demonstrated by his interviews on California's Gold, to his knack for finding the beauty in abandoned equipment or forgotten objects.
Inside the exhibit, created in collaboration with the Automobile Club of Southern California, the walls, displaying photos and quotes, tell the story of Howser's life and career trajectory. Other parts of the exhibit include a re-creation of his office, using his actual furniture, and a display of memorabilia that he collected throughout his career, including a a Marvel Comics cartoon of Huell Howser meeting Stan Lee. Howser's famous folksy quotes adorn the walls above video segments of his TV shows.
The Saturday crowd was diverse. Older fans in floppy sun hats and tropical shirts swapped Huell stories with young rockabilly hipsters and buttoned-up scholarly types. People young and old proudly wore their "That's Amazing!" t-shirts, and a young man in all black flashed a Huell arm tattoo.
"It's totally surprising, this turnout," said Luis Fuerte, Howser's cinematographer, as he stood ready to sign autographs. "All Huell wanted was for people to talk about the show. He didn't care about being a celebrity; as long as people were watching, he was happy."
A woman, standing nearby, asked Fuerte to sign her Automobile Club's new California's Gold-themed map of the state, and introduced her father. "He's 92 years old, and he got to meet Huell once," she said, as her father nodded and laughed.
"That's amaaazing!" piped another fan, waiting his turn for an autograph.
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"I don't know why they want my autograph," said Fuerte.
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