Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 9, 2013

Thanks, Huell

Almost exactly a month ago, we learned that Huell Howser was retiring. My California readers understand the buzz this announcement caused. The rest of you are saying, “Who?”

I immediately set out to write a blog about the inimitable Mr. Howser, both as an appreciation of the man and his work, as well as to introduce a remarkable individual to those of you who aren’t familiar with him. I had just a few more tweaks to make to that blog, and I was going to post it this week.

Then, Monday brought the news that Huell had died early that morning. Now the tone of this blog entry must change somewhat and the tense shift to past perfect, but here we will celebrate the man and not mourn overmuch. As a television producer, interviewer or on-air narrator, Huell matters to me and to anyone with a sense of curiosity and wonder. Anyone who delights in poking around this world for the fascinating stories that lie right down the street or over on the other side of town should celebrate Huell’s dedication to inspiring everyone to do the same.


The Personality

Huell Howser was, well, it’s difficult to give him a title, but let’s say he was a television personality because he had a unique, widely recognized persona, and he was on TV. Since about 1987, Huell  produced and starred in a string of television series that appeared (and still appear in constant rerun) on public television. There were a number of titles for these series including, “Road Trip With Huell Howser,” “Visiting With Huell Howser,” and the longest-running and most widely popular one, “California’s Gold.” All the series have more or less identical formats: Huell goes somewhere in California that he finds interesting, and shows it to viewers, both by live on-camera narration and through interviews with people associated with that place. You’d have to categorize these programs as travelogues, but there’s more to it than that.

Television is replete with travel programs. Chances are, if you’re a regular reader here, you have one or two favorite programs, yourself. Often, these programs are highly researched and assembled by large production teams of researchers, writers, camera crews, travel planners, editors and graphic artists. They take you to the far corners of the world and introduce you to exotic locales and fascinating people.

Huell’s Approach

What distinguished Huell’s approach was that he was going to see something of interest and simply take you along with him: casually, making discoveries as you went. You were simply going to see what there is to see. He never let the audience in on any of the planning or preparation he and his very small team did. In fact, the programs are posed to obscure any prework. The notion is that they just showed up. Huell would stroll around a state park or a historic town, microphone in hand (only the one mic — he was us, asking the questions, describing what was in front of him). The camera generally stayed wide, letting us see what Huell saw (sometimes irritatingly so: often I’ve called out at the screen, “For goodness’ sake, Huell, zoom in for a cutaway shot!”).

You can find Huell’s programs at his archive, CLICK HERE. If you don’t know him, click on one of the shows and watch to get a sense of the man’s gee-whiz enthusiasm and good nature.

Whatever the topic, the spirit that defined every one of the hundreds of programs he created (the New York Times credits him with more than 2,000) was Huell’s unbridled, irrepressible sense of curiosity and wonder. Despite a career that spanned a stint in the Marines and decades of journalistic experience, he still spoke in a broad gangly down-home Tennessee drawl: “Hah! How y’all? Y’all raysidints heahr?” His enthusiastic hail-fellow-well-met eagerness could make viewers unfamiliar with him wonder if he was some yokel who’d never been on camera before.

Everyone who’s watched Huell can parody him without hesitation: he constantly punctuated the remarks of his on-camera subjects with, “Oh, my goodness,” “Look at THIS!” or, probably his trademark, “That’s amazing!”

Yes, Huell was easy to make fun of. You’ll find some hilarious parodies of Huell on YouTube, because, well, the guy was so distinctive, he was bound to attract that sort of thing. Even The Simpsons took a cut at him. But that was an essential part of what made him so credible as a guide; you knew he was telling his story straight, and not selling you anything except the fun of learning something new.

His corn pone, aw-shucks manner never varied, but it was genuine, and helped underscore his core message: “I’m just a guy with an insatiable curiosity who delights in finding out new stuff that I can share with my viewers.” Once you understood the pure and focused nature of his mission, though, you were never fooled. That cat was as good a storyteller as there is, all the more so because he got the story from whomever he interviewed, whether they were practiced speakers or just ordinary folks.

His persona was a dramatic and sometimes hilarious contrast to the practiced, well-honed suaveness of Rick Steves or Rudy Maxa. But, he had a mission, and his message was always the same: if you ever wondered what’s back that dirt road or what the scenery in a state park looks like, or what it takes to manufacture a product or grow some sort of crop, then GO LOOK AT IT! GO!

There are plenty of Huell Howsers around the world, covering their locales in more or less similar programming, and they become familiar to loyal audiences. Just one excellent example, from the far side of America, is “Bill Green’s Maine.” For many years, this skilled journalist has been taking Mainers around their state. CLICK HERE to view some of his programs. Now, Bill’s production techniques are a more sophisticated than Huell’s; he shoots more cutaways, he edits his interviews to be more concise, and, although he’s an enthusiastic and tireless supporter of the rich lifestyle and culture of his region, he certainly lacks Huell’s gee-whiz homeboy attitude. The contrast, in fact, demonstrates a lot of what endeared Huell to all of us, who may never have met him, but refer to him by his first name, because we know we’d’ve gotten along with him if we ever had.

A Legacy of Learning

Every year, a rite of passage for every California 4th-grade student (approximately 9 years old) is an assignment to report on one of the 21 California Missions established by the Spanish from 1769-1823. Every student. Thousands upon thousands of reports, year after year, for decades. They do research and write reports, build models of their assigned mission, and, ideally, learn something not only about history and culture, but about the mere process of researching and writing reports. Huell shot a series of videos covering all 21 missions, and many California public libraries have purchased that series as one of the key tools these kids rely on to learn about a mission that might be 500 miles away from where they live. That’s one legacy that fits Huell’s raison d’etre perfectly.

But a larger legacy is one we all share. We’ll continue to see his programs on TV. When we do, we’ll be in the company of a genial, inquisitive tireless fellow traveler who appeals to the questing soul in all of us; whose charm, energy and curiosity never fail. So, we here salute him as a boon companion and a guide who took joy in something ineffable and aspirational, always seeking what was new under the sun, under western skies.

Thanks, Huell. We’ll miss you, brother.

CLICK HERE to read the Los Angeles Times obituary of Huell Howser.

CLICK HERE to read the New York Times obituary.

CLICK HERE to read an excellent brief appreciation of Huell by the LA Times entertainment writer published at the time Huell announced his retirement.

Donations in memoriam can be made to the California’s Gold Scholarship Fund at Chapman University (to which Huell donated his video archives, as well). CLICK HERE for details.

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017

Photo of Huell Howser used courtesy of Wikipedia Commons Licensing Policy and may not be reused without reference to and compliance with that policy.


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