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Uninhibited Huell Howser Takes an Unlikely Approach to Documentary

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Now, he is his camera.

Armed with one of those 5-pound digital marvels hardly bigger than a still camera, Huell Howser has become street nomad Huell Headroom, his evenings spent as a human lens observing nocturnal Angelenos largely in downtown, East and South-Central L.A., where residents of color rarely get on TV except when gangbanging, or entering a squad car in handcuffs or an ambulance in a body bag.

The spectacular result--Howser’s five-part “Hot Summer Nights” that he hopes to expand to a weekly series--is refreshingly unscripted and unchoreographed, a lively, pulsating, exhilarating verite take on a city that belies its media brand as coming apart at the seams. This is Howser’s best, most important work, running through Friday on KCET, where he is famous for his continuing statewide historical travelogue, “California’s Gold.”

Although not his first KCET series documenting L.A., this is his first as a night-crawling video commando using a featherweight camera to tape city life from early evening until as late as 2 a.m.

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“I think there’s a hunger in this city for people wanting to tell their stories,” he said in a phone chat this week. “It’s just that nobody listens, and I include myself in that.”

His mantra for years, now he’s acting on it. “We live in a very segregated city,” Howser said. “I don’t think most of us have any idea that these other layers, these other neighborhoods exist. And if we know they exist, our perception is what we get from watching local news. So we’re circling our wagons in an ever-tighter circle ‘cause we’re so afraid. Most Angelenos, including me, could be living in Dallas or Kansas City for all the experiences we have.”

Tonight, those experiences widen when Howser shows up on videotape at Leimert Park off Crenshaw, ostensibly to chat with some chess players who spend their evenings there, only to have two women give him a personal tour of this black neighborhood where artists, painters and musicians live. On Thursday, he interacts with kids, parents and coaches at the inner-city games in Montebello’s city park.

Also new is his style. The now-unseen Howser at once operates the tiny video camera himself and is behind it, lobbing questions that his subjects respond to mostly with striking intimacy and without pretense, as if schmoozing with the close-up lens. Their spontaneity, their lack of inhibition with the camera on their noses, is extraordinary in a medium noted for altering reality.

Watching the minorities who surface on “Hot Summer Nights” emphasizes the shamefulness of the short shrift they’re given--when granted shrift at all--in new TV series emerging in the major networks’ fall season. And also in the destructively narrow way they are depicted in L.A. newscasts.

“Hot Summer Nights” began Sunday with Howser mingling with the exuberant crowd at a hip-swinging, big mambo of a Cuban music gala that was part of this summer’s ongoing Grand Performances program at the Watercourt in downtown’s California Plaza. This joint was jumping, and the black and brown faces talking and cozying up to the folksy Howser as if he were a close cousin instead of a Southern-bred extraterrestrial speaking the foreign tongue of his native Tennessee.

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Cuban music “is in our veins,” said a woman with El Salvadoran roots. “I love mambo. You know mambo?” Although Howser knew mambo, the thought of him trying it was terrifying.

Joy swirled melodiously in the air, and a man said: “This is the way L.A. should be every day.” The way L.A. television should be every day, too.

“You don’t go out in search of black, brown or Asian stories,” Howser said on the phone before heading downtown to the Evans Community Adult School to tape Friday’s program. “It’s what is there today. These are the rhythms, fabrics and textures of the city. Not seeing them in Los Angeles is like not seeing an 800-ton elephant.”

That would be the one that local newscasters make a determined effort to ignore while depicting Los Angeles as mostly a gridlock of crime and dysfunction, a stereotype that nourishes citywide fear and suspicion.

The “breaking news in East Los Angeles” that led KTTV-TV’s Monday night newscast, for example, was the conclusion of a police chase. That was followed by reports of a Latino man molesting a child. And so it goes on L.A. stations, from one yada to another.

How different from that evening’s half hour of “Hot Summer Nights,” which found the solitary Howser driving nearly the length of Vermont Avenue. He talked catfish at a seafood market as it was closing. He stopped off at a taco stand just long enough to steam his lens, for he spoke no Spanish and the two servers no English. He talked briefly at a meeting of recovering alcoholics in a storefront that he had thought was a restaurant. He visited a Pentecostal church where the pastor was from Guatemala, and two guitarists from El Salvador played for 20 or so singing, swaying, hand-clapping parishioners who appeared to be feeling God and the music simultaneously.

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Even after 18 years of residing in Los Angeles, Howser remains an anomaly in a medium that tends to homogenize regional differences on behalf of making everyone on TV sound alike. Nonetheless, he is able to cross a rainbow of cultures without seeming to trespass. “The Tennessee accent is a plus because we are a city of accents,” he said.

So, most memorably on Monday, Howser stopped at a laundermat at 92nd Street, where the suspicious night man asked him for identification, then asked him not to track up the freshly mopped floor, and kept on the move (“I’m not being rude, but I’m doing my work”) while answering questions. Gradually warming up to Howser, though, he soon was spinning his life philosophies for the camera (“You know what keeps me goin’? Livin’.”).

The sequence was truly remarkable, one of those rare TV moments when there was no role playing, when the medium was pure and unconstrained, when its keyhole on life widened panoramically. Before Howser departed, the man made a final request: “Kinda scan your camera, and see how nice and clean it is here.”

On Tuesday night, Howser ventured into the Coliseum for a soccer duel between teams from Guatemala and Mexico, where his camera had a grand time with the fans. And where, typically, he confined his investigative reporting to examining the contents of a burrito that he initially mistook for a taco (“What’s in that thing?”).

Not one question about explosive Proposition 187, so prominent in the news? “That’s the most obvious and stereotypical question that the media ask,” he replied on the phone.

Howser prefers seeing the bright side of Los Angeles. So what isn’t he showing viewers? Why does he exclude gangbangers? “If some had come down the street, I probably would have talked to them,” he said.

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Why doesn’t his series extend to such areas as the San Fernando Valley, for example, or West Los Angeles? “I went to Westwood,” Howser said, “and was so disappointed with what I found, I decided not to use it. It was not good television. It was a bunch of people being cute for the camera.”

Instead, what keeps “Hot Summer Nights” going is what keeps the laundermat man going. Just plain livin’.

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* “Hot Summer Nights” airs at 7:30 p.m. on KCET-TV through Friday and repeats at 12:30 a.m.

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