Broadcasting Legend Huell Howser Dies at 67

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

69 comments

  • Melanie

    I learned so much for you Mr. Howser, thank you for sharing so much of yourself with all of us. And thank you for teaching us so much about this beautiful state we live in. This is a great loss for all of California. My deepest sympathies to his family, friends, and colleagues PBS and California is now much poorer without you..

    • Robert

      Yes, I 'ditto' your thoughts. We , here in California, have lost a real legend……. and a very , very nice man.
      He brought all that is good in this golden state to our homes. My wife and I enjoyed his shows immensely and will continue to do so.
      Rest in Peace, Huell……….. You will be with us forever.

  • Matt

    Please go through your archive and see if you can find Huell defending the businesses in his neighborhood during the LA Riots of 1992. I will never forget it! Melrose and Rossmore outside of Radio Shack. He and about 10 others defended their neighborhood. He was the man!

    Rob

    • Dan

      No joke! I still remember that too as a young teen!!! I saw it live on TV. I dont which station it was, but they were interviewing him while he was holding a water hose. I was like wow, what a cool dude, he really cares for CALIFORNIA!

  • Marr in SM

    The company that makes milk in quart sized glass bottles has Huell on the side of the eggnog this month. Off to Ralphs I am going to get one right now.

    • LastGirl

      They don't have it anymore (at least not my Ralphs). I wanted to kick myself during Thanksgiving when I didn't get the eggnog and that stupid Ralphs never got anymore not even for Christmas. That eggnog is really good.

      Pink's Hot Dog has a Huell dog. I've never had it but it's probably good.

  • mareich

    OMG! Such sad news! We enjoyed his programs so much, learned a lot about my home state. We had the opportunity to meet him in Palm Springs a few years ago, he was as nice a guy in person as you saw on TV. He will be missed by so many people.

  • Kathy in San Diego

    His shows have brought us such joy mixed in with all of the information and beautiful scenery. He had such a warm, compassionate style you don't see anywhere else. I am very sad. He will be missed alot by millions.

  • Shirley Tonoian

    Such a sad day . . . So Cal was initially introducted to Mr. Howser with 'special' segments on Channel 2 news. Mr. Howser's California's Gold's was truly a precious treasure for all to enjoy.

  • Lorenzo

    Huell got his start in Nashville doing folksy items. A pig named Porky that liked sodas and a dog that like to ride on the roof of his owners pickup truck were two I recall. He drew in a line in the sand with station management over the reporting of the demolition of the old TN Governors Mansion. He did the story and was terminated. Our loss was California's gain. He touched a lot of lives. I heard he was terminally ill a few weeks ago. I miss him already.

  • Will

    Huell is a California Gold. I grew up watching his shows. Nothing fancy or big budget to produce nevertheless his shows gave us fascinating stories. His enthusiasm shows us that there's much to be appreciative for and admire even given the simple mundane things around us.

  • Scott

    Thank you Huell for all your educational and entertaining shows. I would sit and watch them with my dad and grandpa all the time. To this day I still can remember shows about California's Gold. In the eyes of this fifth generation California. , you sir are the true meaning of California's Gold. Rest in peace

  • Barbara Rincon

    What a kind a gentle soul, I really enjoyed watching him get so excited to be at new places , he treated everyone he met with such respect. Yes he will be so missed, thanks for all the places u showed us,
    You will always be remembered, I will pray for you and your family, Thanks so much !!! Mr. Huell Howser

  • Sammy

    I miss California! I moved there from the east coast in 1989, and stayed 15 years. Am back in Georgia now. I loved his programs. They could remove you from the hustle and bustle and stress of daily life and take you to a peaceful, charming place. His shows were an island in a storm, an oasis in a desert. RIP Huell Howser, you were pure gold to California's citizens/

  • Jean

    I will miss Huell. He is one of those rare people that, although you have never met them personally, your life has been blessed by his presence on the planet. He had integrity, honor and shared his love of life through his programming. I am glad to have known him, if only from television. Blessings to those who knew him personally; I'm sure you are feeling a tremendous loss.

  • Kay

    I am so shocked!, my husband was the one who got me hooked on his TV show, his voice made him so recognizable, so different, no one like him again. I even watch the repeats.. so very sad, no one has said why he died? he will be missed in our home every night. He showed us places and some history I never knew, so sad, very sad today to hear!!

  • Salvador Belmonte

    Huell Howser you were admired and respected throughout California, your tv shows were watched with enthusiasm, admiration and apreciation. Your were one unique, talented and natural gifted person. there would not be one like you. You will be missed enormously, you had a powerful smile! R.I,P. my friend.

  • Linda & Dan Lopez

    We are shocked and deeply saddened to learn of Huell's passing. Although we never met him personally, he was always a welcomed friend in our home. We enjoyed his programming;informative, without condecending commentary, he enthusiastically made you proud to be part of California. He is our "California Gold" and will be missed. Our condolences to all who loved him. Rest in peace friend.

  • Nanya Biznez

    I didn't love his style (slow, simple questions and gushing over everything/everyone) but I always loved the content and even went out of the way to visit some of the places he spotlighted. RIP to a good guy.

  • tom okeefe

    The firefall at Yosemite was the one i remember the most.Then the Bodie and Mono lake Tufa episodes……That was mid 90s…I now live in the eastern sierra[June Lake] and i visit these places daily…Thank you Huell for the inspiration.

  • Desert Mom

    What a sad day for California. He had such a passion for the state and the people who live and work here. I have young children and we always watch his show together. They love learning about all things California through the eyes of such a fun loving man. We have visited so many places that we didn’t even know about but learned through Huell. We will miss learning about California through Huell Howser. My prayers to everyone who knew and loved him. Huell you will be missed. Thank you for your enthusiasm and teaching my family and I about California.

  • erlinda

    Will miss watching his California Gold show and hearing his wonderful voice, I still miss Ralph Story another great story teller.

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