LOS ANGELES — In a TV arena in which premiums are placed on the fanciful and trendy, screaming housewives and snarling reality-show participants, no one seemed more out of place or less likely to become a popular star than Huell Howser.
His platform was traditional and unflashy — highlighting familiar and off-the-beaten-track spots all around California in public television series with titles such as “California’s Gold,” “Visiting,” “Road Trip” and “Downtown.” But though his shows were focused on points and people of interest, it was Howser who turned into the main attraction, tackling his subjects with an awestruck curiosity and relentless enthusiasm.
His upbeat boosterism accompanied an appearance that was simultaneously off-kilter and yet somehow cool with a hint of retro — a thick, square mane of white hair, sunglasses, shirts that showed off a drill sergeant’s build and huge biceps, and expressions that ranged from pleasantness to jaw-dropping wonder with some of his discoveries. Often, he wore shorts.
Topping it all off was a molasses-smooth Tennessee twang that gave an irresistibly folksy flavor to his frequent exclamations of “Oh my gosh” and “Isn’t that amazing.”
The voice and the aw-shucks demeanor were also catnip for comedians who delighted in imitating his tone — he was once parodied on “The Simpsons,” and he was a favorite target of comedian Adam Corolla on his radio shows and podcasts. But he also proved to be a savvy businessman through his deals with broadcasters and sales of his shows on DVDs.
Howser, 67, one of public television’s most iconic figures, died Sunday night, his assistant Ryan Morris said. No other details were given.
“We are deeply saddened to hear of Huell’s passing,” Al Jerome, president and chief executive of KCET, said in a statement.
“This is a tremendous personal and professional loss to his friends and colleagues as well as his legions of fans.
Throughout his more than two decades with KCET, Huell inspired everyone at the station with his enthusiasm and storytelling about this great state in which we live. Huell was able to brilliantly capture the wonder in obscurity. From pastrami sandwiches and scarves loomed from lint to the exoticism of cactus gardens and the splendor of Yosemite — he brought us the magic, the humor and poignancy of our region. We will miss him very much.”
Howser’s death came only weeks after the announcement Nov. 27 that he was retiring and not filming any more original episodes of “California’s Gold.”
Despite shifts in TV trends and fashions, Howser’s approach never varied — he was merely a man with a microphone and a camera. He played down its simplicity (“It’s pretty basic stuff … it’s not brain surgery”), and said it fit his strategy: to shine a spotlight on the familiar and the obscure places and people all over California.
“We have two agendas,” Howser said in a 2009 interview with The Times. “One is to specifically show someone China Camp State Park or to talk to the guys who paint the Golden Gate Bridge. But the broader purpose is to open up the door for people to have their own adventures. Let’s explore our neighborhood, let’s look in our own backyard.”
His anti-gliltz, aggressively genial approach with people was his trademark. He expressed endless amazement at his subjects, whether it was the making of French dip sandwiches at Philippe’s restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, the burgers at the Apple Pan (“This is like … amazing!”) or the massive swarm of flies buzzing around Mono Lake. “Look at this, look at this,” he would often exclaim, prodding his interviewees to always tell him more.
Some of the people he interviewed had thought it was just an act, but came to discover that Howser was the same on camera and off.
“I had watched him while growing up, and I always thought that aw-shucks stuff was just an act,” said Paul Chavez, chairman of the board of directors of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, which runs the National Chavez Center in the Tehachapi Mountains. The center, which honors the legacy of farm labor leader Cesar Chavez, was the subject of Howser’s “California Gold,” two years ago.
“But after a few minutes,” said Paul, who is one of Chavez’s sons, “Huell was like an old friend that I had known for years. His enthusiasm was contagious. Shortly after the show ran, we got a noticeable increase in visitors.”
Real estate executive Kimberly Lucero echoed Chavez’s assessment about Howser’s enthusiasm. As vice president of marketing and sales for the Kor Group, a real estate and development company, Lucero was the host’s guide in 2005 for a show on downtown Los Angeles’ historic Eastern Columbia Building, Howser was almost breathless, surveying the gold-leaf entrance: “Look at this … look at this entrance! What in the world were they thinking when they built things like this?”
“His excitement was truly infectious,” said Lucero, who is currently vice president of marketing and sales for the Ritz Carlton Residences. “Nothing was staged.”
But even those who poked fun at his upbeat attitude were seldom mean-spirited or cruel — their affection for him was evident through the wisecracks.
He was such a local fixture that a Pink’s hot dog was named after him. Though those who came into contact with him said he was the same on-camera as he was on, he maintained a sense of mystery. He was a savvy businessman who was very conscious of his gift. One local reporter once said that Howser’s easy-going manner should not be underestimated: “He would be real tough.”
And though he was generous, Howser, who was never married, was intensely private, rarely giving glimpses into his own life. He had an apartment on Rossmore Boulevard, but also lived in his “dream house” in Twentynine Palms, which he decorated with mid-century furniture he bought from second-hand stores in Palm Springs.
Howser was aware that his ever-present cheerfulness was an eyebrow-raiser: “Sometimes, people say, ‘Are you putting that on?’” he said in 2009. “That’s kind of a sad commentary, don’t you think? Like there’s got to be something wrong with someone who’s enthusiastic and happy like that. Do I have bad days? Yes. Do I get depressed? Yes. Am I concerned about the state of the California economy and budget? I’m not some Pollyanna who doesn’t recognize that there’s hunger and poverty and racism in the world.”
Howser was born Oct. 18, 1945, in Gallatin, Tenn., near Nashville. His father, Harold, was a lawyer, and his mother, Jewel was a homemaker. “Huell” is a combination of both their names.
His Los Angeles TV career began when he joined KCBS in 1981 as a reporter. In 1987, he moved to KCET-TV to produce “Videolog,” a series of short programs featuring unique human-interest stories. That show evolved into “Visiting … With Huell Howser”. In 1990, he started traveling for his “California’s Gold” segments.
In 2011, Howser announced that he was donating all episodes of his series to Chapman University, a private Christian college in Orange, to be digitized and made available for a worldwide online audience.
-Los Angeles Times