“There is something of the friendly alien about him, the man from space for whom everything — every flower, every doughnut, every doorknob — is new and miraculous. He is famous for stating the obvious, but the obvious things are exactly those things that we forget how to see …”
In 2009, the always astute Robert Lloyd wrote those words about Huell Howser, when he interviewed him for a profile piece in the Los Angeles Times. The posthumous reputation of the late and lamented chronicler of California’s Gold, who died in 2013, has only risen higher, it seems, as the years go by. Lloyd called Howser “a great man of television” in his obituary and it’s hard to argue with that.
How many public figures can you think of who ever get hit with that old-fashioned label “beloved” without being a cartoon character? Many would cite Howser, the Tennessee native–turned–California booster and creator-host of a string of public television road-trip and travel programs. During his lifetime, Howser’s guileless enthusiasm for the obscure sights and natural wonders of the state charmed many, and no doubt struck others as corny, almost like a thing of the past, or possibly a thing of the South.
But it always worked, getting total strangers, those Californians he would interview in far-flung little towns and big cities, to open up about the things he was discovering and learning from them: desert sights, rural backwaters, kitschy museums, roadside food stands and the unglamorous people who ran such things (“Now, how did you branch out from chicharrones into pig ears?”), all set Howser on fire with awed enthusiasm and the thrill of discovery. Why should that be considered quirky?
It perhaps makes sense that it took an outsider to see California afresh, but as TV entertainment the formula worked like a charm. Howser’s longtime cameraman Luis Fuerte tells his own story and that of his onetime partner in the book, Louie, Take a Look at This! My Time With Huell Howser, released in April ($22.95, Prospect Books). Unlike his famous friend, Fuerte is a native son, born in San Bernardino, and a veteran of many years spent working as a cameraman and technician at the old KCOP-13 studio on La Brea, long before he met Howser.
Fuerte’s narrative is measured, almost diplomatic at times, protective of both his late friend’s legacy and his own, giving proper due to Howser’s perfectionism, his good-heartedness and his eccentricities.
Fuerte gets into some fascinating details of Howser’s pre-L.A. career, as a young TV personality in both Nashville and, briefly, New York, before taking a job in L.A. with CNN in 1980 (I can still remember those short Videologs that Howser produced for KCET as “fillers,” some of them no more than 10 minutes long).
Fans of Howser-the-personality will enjoy the author’s stories of his capacity for partying once work was over and his excitement over doing shoots at places such as Mono Lake or covering all of the California missions (“We did it, Louie … all 21!”), or “touring” Folsom State Prison and hovering over customers at Pink’s Hot Dogs (“Look at this, is this a happy man or what?!”) and making them like it. Of course he was already a celebrity by then, but if anyone can be described as having a “winning personality,” it was Huell Howser.
Reading between the lines of Fuerte’s stories, you get the feeling that he and Howser were never quite buddy-buddy, even though these two usually worked together, sometimes for weeks at a time, with no one else; their personal chemistry while working on the road seems to have been cordial but strictly business. This may have been established early on by Fuerte’s man-of-few-words personality (opposites attracting and all that), and those instances when he needed to set some boundaries between them:
“I said, ‘Huell, what’s this? Your secretary says you want me to take your car to get serviced?’ ‘Well, Louie, it’s not my car. It’s really our car, the one we’ll be using to drive all over California when we shoot.’”
(Fuerte then reads the proverbial riot act to Howser, who quietly backs down and takes his own car in. All remains well between them thereafter.)
Fuerte comes off just as generous of spirit as his friend, and you can sense his indulgent amusement when he writes about some of Howser’s zany quirks, including his penchant for repeating, word for word, certain “amazing” things he’s just been told by a guest:
“The all-time California’s Gold record of Huell and his guest repeating themselves was during a show we did on Santa Rosa Island. I was shooting Huell and a park ranger as they hiked around looking at the island’s native plants. ‘And this plant is called the Lemonade Berry,’ he said, pointing to the plant in question. Instantly, Huell’s interest was piqued. ‘The Lemonade Berry?’ ‘Yes,’ the ranger said. ‘We call it the Lemonade Berry because —' In his excitement, Huell cut him off as he strode toward the berry; I was following dutifully with my camera. … He said, ‘What do you mean? This thing is called the Lemonade Berry?’ And the ranger said, ‘Yes. This is called the Lemonade Berry.’”
Fuerte concludes, with a note of exhaustion, “The five mentions of that plant was Huell’s California’s Gold all-time repeating record, but that was just part of Huell’s charm.”
Fans who recall the man’s beefy physique won’t be surprised to read about Howser’s humongous appetites: “Liquid refreshments weren’t Huell’s only fuel of choice. He also liked to eat. Wait, let me take that back — he loved to eat. And boy, did he love his steaks. On the rare occasions when we ate dinner together, he usually chose the restaurant, which more than likely would be a steakhouse. … I’d have my salad, and he’d make that steak disappear.”
Satisfying his cravings con gusto seems to have been part of Howser’s happy-hedonist credo:
“We were on location … when Huell showed up after a night of partying … and in a ragged voice barely above a whisper he said, ‘Hi, Louie.’ His shoulders sagged … he peered at me through narrow slits. The man was in major discomfort, probably thinking that death would be a nice alternative to filming that day. … ‘Louie,’ he said, ‘take the day off. We can shoot this tomorrow.’”
And don’t forget his In-N-Out burgers: “I began to think the real reason we did so many shoots up north was so he could make that stop at his favorite I-5 In-N-Out.”
Fuerte is justly proud of his accomplishments as a cameraman working on Videolog, Visiting … With Huell Howser, California’s Gold (and other less well-known series, too), and he goes on about his camerawork a wee bit more than a nontechnical guy like me can follow, but it’s OK; he’s having his moment in the sun, so go to it, man! I would have liked more details here about one of the most enjoyably geeky California’s Gold episodes ever made, featuring two of the most colorful characters in all L.A. lore: Howser and Forrest J. (Forry) Ackerman, the movie monster fan/memorabilia collector who invented the term “sci-fi.”
Interestingly, the author reveals that Howser never submitted a single episode of California’s Gold for Emmy consideration because, as Howser sheepishly admitted to him, he was “afraid to lose.” One of the great things about this book is its complete listing of every California’s Gold episode, from 1991 to 2001, with synopses.
As the years pass, it’s becoming clearer to those of us who didn’t quite “get” the real worth of Huell Howser when he was on, that his accumulated life’s work is of permanent value (the entire estate of Howser’s videotaped programs is now housed at Chapman University in Orange). There’s also a sense now that Howser was well ahead of his time, geeking out way back in the ’80s and ’90s over our vintage art deco buildings and old downtown movie palaces when such things had a very small, nerd-only audience, back in pre-internet L.A.
The truth is, there’s something touching about Howser, especially now: his obvious goodness, his likability, his interest and his empathy. When you read Fuerte’s amused descriptions of such things as the time Howser’s “accent got heavier and heavier” when they were shooting a show in Louisiana, or watch him on YouTube ecstatic over the views from the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, you might get a lump in your throat.
I’ll let Robert Lloyd have the last word about the great man of television, written back in 2009:
Howser is no sparkle-eyed psychotropic adventurer … but his ideas about TV and the world are not so far from the William Blake poem:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Or half an hour, as the case may be.