Commentary: Huell Howser passing is a loss for California

Nearly 10 years ago, I was with Huell Howser as we started to enter Frank Sinatra's compound in Rancho Mirage for another of his famous "California's Gold" programs.

The compound had never allowed a camera crew to tape on property since Sinatra had sold the home a few years earlier, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see inside a place Ol' Blue Eyes had called home for nearly 50 years.

I had worked with Huell to get permission to do the show when I served as the tourism marketing person for the Palm Springs area, and I knew that this visit was going to be a unique event.

On the day of the taping, I stood behind his cameraman with my own video camera and asked if I could tape him taping the show since I would never likely set foot in that home again.

At that point, Huell laughed and said, "Gary, that's great, let's just do this show together then."

He immediately pulled me up in front of the camera and, while I was definitely not looking my pulled-together-for-TV best, we did the show along with an old friend of Sinatra's and the caretaker for the property.

Every year when the show airs, I get calls from people asking about the experience and asking me why I didn't think to dress better for my 15 minutes of fame. I simply tell them, Huell wanted me to look "organic," without the Hollywood sheen. This, in actuality, is partially correct.

Huell's passing is a tremendous loss for California and for those of us who considered him our friend.

Telling the story without airs and a singular focus on the story subject is what made Huell a California icon. He would bring a camera, turn it on, and whatever he discovered went on the air. No rehearsals, no retakes. What happened happened.

I worked with Huell on many stories about the Palm Springs area, and also several in Orange County. While even TV's "The Simpsons" took an affectionate mocking of him, trust me, what you saw on the air was genuine. (After "The Simpsons" episode aired, I called him and he hadn't known about it, but later requested and got a copy of his animated cartoon cell from Matt Groening).

Huell was always sincerely interested in whatever he was covering. If the story didn't have merit, he didn't do it, and no P.R. pro could change his mind.

He was a man of strong opinions, and he didn't hesitate to express them, whether it was a lack of historical preservation by a community or a disregard for the small business.

Huell considered TV a vehicle for telling good stories that people needed to know. It could have been that undiscovered gem in a remote community or that piece of history that wasn't fully appreciated by the general public. It was always about the people and story, a rarity in a business that often puts celebrity ahead of everything else.

I will miss my friend Huell. But his humanity and commitment to a better California, and all of its hidden stories, is a loss for all of us.

GARY SHERWIN is president and chief executive of Visit Newport Beach.

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