There was never anybody quite like Huell Howser.
Huell Howser, the man with the Tennessee twang that made it his life’s mission to prove that everyone in California had a story to tell, passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. California has lost its greatest booster.
I don’t remember when I first became aware of Huell. Like a lot of Californians, though, once I became aware of his program “California’s Gold” (and his various other specials) on PBS, he became regular viewing. His premise was simple: that making television “wasn’t brain surgery,” and that an interesting story can be found around just about any corner. His programs were the epitome of simplicity: Huell, with a microphone in hand and followed by his trusted cameraman, traveling all over California to find any and all of the weird, interesting, fascinating things he could.
In an era where so much of television is flash and bang, razzle and dazzle, and endless noise, Huell was refreshing. Huell could get excited about anything, and anyone who happened to be around while he was filming might find themselves suddenly on camera. Sadly, most of you from outside California will have never heard of Huell Howser, but that was kind of his point: there are things to discover right in your own backyard. Of course, his adopted state was the perfect place to test that theory. Deep down I suspect that my own, relatively late arrival to the world of international travel had less to do with the financial limitations of the past, and more to do with the fact that there’s just so damn much to see out here, than I previously suspected.
A native of Tennessee, Huell adopted California as his home with vigor. He may never have lost his accent, but he loved when people questioned him about it, called him out for not having a “native Californian” accent. He would turn the question around, making it into a conversation about what a big melting pot California is: that his accent was no more out of place here than that of someone from Mexico, Vietnam, or Russia.
Some made fun of him, of course. The simple yokel from Tennessee that spoke with the funny accent and punctuated even the most mundane discoveries with terms like “Wow!” and “That’s Amazing!”. Yet, somehow, he was above parody. We all did our knock-off Huell impressions not out of cruelty, but out of fondness. Best of all, Huell was in on the joke. When Matt Groening (a long-time Huell fan) created a parody character named “Howell Huser” on The Simpsons, Huell himself stepped right up to do the character’s voice.
I was even lucky enough to meet him once, a few years ago at an event for Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” film a few years ago:
Yes, it was a quick meet-and-greet, and Huell continued to work his way through the crowd of admirers after only a minute or two. But he stopped for everyone that wanted a picture or just wanted to say hello, and you could tell that he was truly loving every minute of it. He genuinely loved people, I think, and not because he wanted anything from them, but because he truly found their stories to be interesting. That kind of genuineness is something that seems to be becoming more and more of a quaint notion these days, and that’s a shame.
Huell Howser, California, and all of us Californians, will miss you.
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You can read about my meeting with Huell here.
Huell donated his entire library of shows to Chapman University, which is in the process of converting them and posting them to an online archive. You can view some old episodes here.
Good video clips at the bottom of this article.
Visit the California’s Gold website here.
Read about The Simpsons tributes here.