I am utterly gutted to hear that Huell Howser has passed away.
I heard the news as I was writing about my exploration of Irvine for this blog, and simultaneously planning on exploring the route of the Expo Line Phase II tomorrow. If it weren’t for Huell, I may not have had the idea of doing either. (When I was approached about working for KCET, one of the names I proposed was California’s Fools Gold, a self-deprecating homage — they went with Block By Block instead). I’m sure he inspired a lot of other people to go on adventures in their back yards too (this page has a map showing the communities he visited). Even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I will miss him terribly.
Huell Burnley Howser was born 18 October 1945 in Gallatin, Tennessee, a small town in the Upper South near the border with Kentucky. His name was a portmanteau of his parents’ names, Harold and Jewell. He received a BA in history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
After serving in the Marines he began working Nashvhille’s WSM-TV, where he traveled around the central part of the state and Kentucky in a motor home filming what he called “happy features.”
Huell with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn in the 1970s
After spending some time at WCBS in New York where he hosted a show called Real Life! (and later, To Life!). In the age of Candid Camera, The Gong Show, Real People, and That’s Incredible, New Yorkers seemed confused by segments on window washers and “turkey mavens.” Howser was later told that New Yorkers were uncomfortable being touched. In 1981 Howser moved to hug-friendly Los Angeles where there’s no shortage of people happy to be on camera. It was in Los Angeles that he stayed.
In an interview with the LA Times’ television critic, Robert Loyd, he expressed “Let’s explore our neighborhood, let’s look in our own backyard, let’s go down to Koreatown and buy some kimchee. We won’t do a story on what it’s like to spend the night in a $10,000 hotel suite.” I thought he had the best job in the world and the best attitude to boot. Though he once claimed to be a Methodist, he had the soul and outlook of Laozi.
Though outgoing, friendly, and on television all the time, Huell was guarded about his private life – which I really respected. He was one of the few people on TV who didn’t seem interested in promoting himself as a celebrity, even though he was one. He never bothered to go out of his way to deflate tired, cynical stereotypes of California, he just ignored them. Likewise, he understood that Californians come in all shapes, colors and accents and in a culture where southern accents are almost always equated with stupidity and/or bigotry, he was not only proudly southern, but unprejudiced, and intelligent.
He was often parodied albeit more-often-than-not, lovingly. I’d bet that all of his self-professed fans have an imitation of him. He turned up on The Simpsons twice, the Beverly Hills, 90120 episode “Jobbed,” as well as Thoughts of Suicide on an Otherwise Lovely Day and Who Killed the Electric Car? He leant his voice to Winnie the Pooh, and was mentioned on Weeds. He has a hot dog named after him at Pinks, a honey ham & pineapple cheeseburger at Peggy Sue’s 50s Diner (in Yermo), and his face on a bottle of milk from Broguiere’s Farm Fresh Dairy (in the Southeast LA County city of Montebello).
He passed away at his Palm Springs home on 7 January 2013, aged just 67. We should all honor him by undertaking adventures at the next opportunity and keep our eyes open the what’s amazing all around us. In 2000, Huell said “I have this theory that when I die, my tombstone will say, ‘Huell Howser: he did the pig story,'” — a reference to a profile he did of a 500-pound pet pig named Porky who then lived in a Powderly, Kentucky. In a 2003 story in Los Angeles Magazine he was quoted saying, “Seriously, what I want to do is to be saying ‘Good night’ and fall over dead in a sand dune and have the credits with the sand blowing over my body and the people at home just going, ‘Well, I guess that’s Huell’s last show.’ That is the way I would like to die.” RIP Huell!
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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam.
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College.
Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on various products from Cal31.
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One thought on “That’s not amazing — California’s Gold, Huell Howser, has passed away”
This is a really fine tribute to Huell. Very nicely written, Eric. You wrote
“Even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I will miss him terribly.”
Well, here we are 4 years, three months and one day later and I still struggle mightily with the loss. I miss him terribly and I am trying to figure out how it is possible to miss this man so much even though I had never met him in person. For me, Huell became the destination, his shows the trip. I could “see” him, I understood him beyond his work. We both grew up in the South and it was startling to realise he and I shared many of those sayings and little words that Southerners typically say. It always amazed me that he actually reacted to things like I do, said things like I do and used words that I have used most of my life. Even the “thumbs up”! I totally identified with him. We even shared the keen interest in
industrial metal objects as found art. We shared a passion for Hawaiian shirts and it absolutely cracked me up that he frequently dressed like my younger brother, also 6′ 4″ – Hawaiian shirt, light colored shorts and sandals. Ya, I miss him. He was a total inspiration to me. “Utterly gutted” just about covers it.
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