The amazing Huell Howser: A traveler’s appreciation
If your job is traveling around California, as mine has been on and off since 1992, you get used to two things. First, wherever you go, the odds are good that Mark Twain beat you to it 140 years ago.
Second, the odds are even better than Huell Howser, California’s tourist laureate, beat you 14 years ago. If so, you can bet that the locals remember his visit fondly, and that legions of Californians remember it too.
It’s happened to me at Lake Tahoe, in San Francisco, in Yosemite and up north in the land of drive-through trees. In fact, I suspect that among Californians these last two decades, Huell may have had more viewers than Twain had readers.
This isn’t an ideal situation. But it’s not such a bad thing, either. Huell’s unflagging sense of wonder was always a welcome counterpoint to the been-there, done-that posture that you encounter so often in life and on television. (And yes, I’m calling him Huell, because what Californian has ever called him “Howser”?)
Call up a few clips on YouTube. The visit to the Bagdad Café, maybe. The time he straddled the U.S.-Mexico border. Or Huell’s euphoric communion with the flies of Mono Lake.
“They’re mating?” he asks the local expert in his Tennessee twang. “On my hand?”
In November, when Huell’s production company announced his retirement, Times television critic Robert Lloyd explained his own soft spot for Howser’s work. I can only agree. And now that Huell has left us for good — he died Sunday night at age 67 — I want to offer up two more perspectives, one from the mountains, one from City Hall.
“Working with Huell was different than with any other reporter or show,” said Yosemite National Park Assistant Supt. Scott Gediman, who did about 15 shows with Huell.
On one hand, Gediman said, Howser’s approach was “the ultimate in low-tech, with him and his photographer.” But as Gediman sees it, Howser was actually doing something rare: listening carefully.
Huell was in the moment, ready to swerve in conversation toward the topics that the speaker was most passionate about. With so many viewers and editors craving speed and brevity, this doesn’t happen on the air a lot. Or in print, for that matter.
“He didn’t have an agenda,” said Gediman. “It took a lot more effort, and a lot more skill and a lot more brilliance than he got credit for. I thought a lot of him, I really did.”
With Gediman, Huell stood at Glacier Point, roamed Yosemite Valley, examined some of the park’s most historic buildings, took a boat out on the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and hiked Yosemite Falls, where Huell complained on camera, “Scott, these mosquitoes are killing me!”
In about 15 years at Yosemite, Gediman said, he’s done countless television interviews, including ““Nightline,” “Dateline” and “Larry King Live.” But when people walk up to Gediman at the park, the question they ask is: “Aren’t you the ranger who’s on ‘Huell Howser’?”
Howser, raised in Tennessee, came to Los Angeles in 1981, already a veteran television reporter. By 1987, he was shooting short episodes for public television station KCET. Beginning in 1990, he filmed two decades of episodes under the “California’s Gold” marquee and many more under a handful of other titles. He covered the missions, the parks, the coast, the desert (where he had a house in Twentynine Palms) and the resurgence of downtown Los Angeles.
If Huell were political, “he could have been governor forever,” said City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who met Howser in the 1980s.
At that time, LaBonge served as a deputy to City Councilman John Ferraro and Huell was a reporter at KNXT, eager to hear story pitches. Over the years, they’d talk California history, share dinners at Musso & Frank in Hollywood. LaBonge and his wife, Brigid, visited Huell at his artifact-filled desert house. When LaBonge took over Ferraro’s old City Council seat in 2001, he chose his friend Huell to swear him in.
“He would call me sometimes for story ideas, we’d sometimes drive around town,” LaBonge said. Sometimes, LaBonge said, “he’d tell me, ‘You’re full of baloney, Tom.’ He’d know what to pick. He’d listen and he’d let you know right away.”
Like most of us, I didn’t really know Huell – I met him briefly once, at a Los Angeles Times Travel show just before he took the stage to utterly charm a packed house. But we all got to know Huell the way he wanted to be known – as a man of curiosity, energy and optimism, a California outsider who found his way into a great place and never took it for granted.
Who wouldn’t want to follow that path?
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