Fans bid Howser farewell
Everyone thought they knew what Huell Howser would have said if he’d been standing outside Griffith Observatory just before sunset Tuesday afternoon.
If he’d climbed the observatory steps in a short-sleeved button down, khakis and work boots and taken in the hundreds who had come to celebrate him, a crowd stretching in glorious honeyed light beyond the Astronomers Monument and into the overflowing parking lot.
If he’d known that his fans had started arriving about 9 a.m. for a public memorial due to start at 3:30 p.m., that among them were teenagers and nonagenarians, some of whom had driven for hours -- from the far-flung California cities and small towns he’d visited, from the mountains and deserts he loved.
If he had seen Lynne Green, 90, of Woodland Hills holding court in high style in the first row of folding white seats, wearing a jaunty red hat decorated with a red feather and telling everyone she met about how, after she’d signed up at 80 for Buddy Powell’s commercial acting class for seniors, Howser came to do a show on the class and “made me one of his featured speakers.”
It was so easy to picture Howser there, plunging happily into that crowd, microphone in hand, stopping to squeeze the shoulders of people bundled in winter coats, scarves wrapped around their heads, and warming them up in his Tennessee drawl with a loud “Howdy!” or a “How y’all doin’?”
L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge arranged the memorial for Howser, who died last week at 67, and who became a California household name in three decades of exploring the state’s people and places in his homespun television shows.
Similarly exuberant and smitten with the state, LaBonge and Howser were longtime friends. But even those in the gathering who knew Howser only from watching TV spoke of him as if he were family.
Some teared up as they affectionately swapped stories about him with the strangers they found themselves standing next to in the crowd. They talked about how his shows had sent them out, in search of the obscure monuments and the hole-in-the-wall diners and the odd festivals he’d told them about.
“He always found something cute to say, no matter what. I had a big crush on him,” confessed Joy Fisher, 78, of Mid-Wilshire.
Teresa Cerna, 65, of West Hollywood said she had a crush on him too, for “his personality -- so warm -- and his accent.” She said that she’d raced to make it to the observatory from Newport Beach, where she works in a private home as a cook, and that she’d once waited outside Pink’s for 2 1/2 hours to get Howser’s autograph.
Gloria and Beverly Pink, dressed in pink, took a break from their family’s famed 73-year-old hot dog stand to attend, carrying with them the sign for their $5.80 “Huell Dawg” -- two hot dogs in one bun, with mustard, chili, cheese and onions. The bright yellow sign, which they pulled off the wall for the occasion, fittingly is in the shape of California.
Howser was so humble, the ladies Pink said, that he wouldn’t cut in line when he visited, even though everyone knew who he was and vied to offer him the chance.
Tuesday’s gathering featured a lineup of speeches, from the director of the observatory, the executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, pop culture historian Charles Phoenix and others. As the sun began sinking just before 5 p.m., an LAPD helicopter circled in a salute.
Then Howser’s voice suddenly boomed from the speakers, singing “California, Here I Come.” LaBonge asked everyone to sing along, and they did. As the song played again and again, people joined him, singing and dancing on the observatory steps.
It was heartfelt. It was hokey. It felt just right.
Everyone thought they knew what Howser would have said if he’d seen it.
“Oh my gosh!” they could practically hear him. “That’s amaaaaaazing!”
And on this day, it would have been an understatement.
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