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This is Amazing!
Do you mean to tell us that every week nearly a million people watch Huell Howser’s shows on KCET? Wow! We had no idea that a guy from Tennessee could become L.A.’s biggest booster. If this piques your interest, come on along!
IT IS HARD TO KNOW what to make of Huell Howser, and that’s the way he likes it. One of the more peculiar aspects of his television personality is that everyone who watches his shows sees in him a different man. I have heard him called “brilliant” and “profound” and “a friend to us all.” I have also heard him called “insipid and condescending,” “fish bait,” “an ugly American,” and “a big Forrest Gump.” Technically speaking, Howser is a big 57-year-old reporter with enormous biceps, a large, pink rectangular head, a white crew cut, and a childlike sense of wonder the causes him to cry “Oh my God!” and “This is amazing!” over and over in a loud and honking Tennessee twang.
The purpose of Howser’s shows, which air six nights a week on KCET and which he produces, directs, and appears in just about every shot of, is to promote the lesser-known wonders of California and to spotlight ordinary people who don’t normally show up on television unless they’ve won the lottery or murdered someone. All of these shows are nearly identical in format, opening with Howser standing in front of some venue in an excited state. “Hi, I’m Huell Howser,” he will yell into his handheld microphone. “And here I am at [blank]. This might look like an ordinary [blank], but somewhere behind me/above me/below me is something very unique/historic/amazing, and if this piques your interest, come on along!” Howser is then joined by a person or persons affiliated with said venue, who give him a tour and an oral history of the place, which Howser is always enraptured by. It is Howser’s enthusiasm that most distinguishes him from other reporters. During the course of a half-hour show about an abalone hatchery, for instance, Howser proclaimed, “I never envisioned visiting an abalone nursery before, but here we are!” “Boy that’s a whole lot of abalone!” “I’ve never seen as many abalone in my life!” “I never thought I was going to get so excited about abalone!” “I could talk about abalone all day.” “The information about abalone keeps coming. It’s a flood tide!” “This is almost too much information, but it’s interesting!” “I’m calling this ‘All you want to know about abalone and more!’” and “Y’all are doing a great job. Congratulations!” The shows traditionally end with Howser saying, “That was truly one of the greatest experiences I have ever had!”
Such reportage may seem trivial, but it would be wrong to dismiss Howser as inconsequential. His programs, whose episodes now number in the thousands, have made him one of the wealthiest and most successful people in public television, with a six-show empire that includes Visiting … with Huell Howser, California’s Gold, California’s Golden Parks, California’s Golden Coast, Our Neighborhoods, and Road Trip with Huell Howser and specials such as Hot Summer Nights and A Week in Palm Springs. This body of work has established him as California’s biggest booster and the antidote to nearly all other reporters who cover the state. While Howser’s colleagues have run willy-nilly after O.J. Simpson and pedophile priests and movie stars, Howser has had the audacity to rhapsodize about state parks and women with collections of tiny violins and family-owned businesses such as the mattress factory where one man’s job is to jump up and down on mattresses to compress their fluff. That is because Howser only likes things that are positive. “I understand there are mean people, ugly people, bigoted people out there killing each other and raping each other and doing great emotional and physical harm to one another,” he once told me. “But that’s not what Huell Howser’s all about.”
Howser’s aversion to the negative is precisely what appalls his critics. How do you do a seven-part series on California missions that makes no mention of the Indians forced to build them? But Howser’s fans far outnumber his detractors, and many of them are in high places. “I cherish what he does,” Howard Rosenberg, the recently retired Los Angeles Times TV critic, says. Al Jerome, the president of KCET, calls Howser “one of the most important personalities in Southern California,” and if that hadn’t already been true, Jerome’s 1999 decision to air Howser’s shows six nights a week certainly made him so. Howser is now watched by nearly a million KCET viewers a week. Countless others see him on public access channels. Howser’s shows also air on all 13 public television stations in California and in Hawaii and Nevada and Oregon and Nashville, Tennessee. Howser is even broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, which means our people in Iraq could be watching him right now.
HUELL HOWSER PRODUCTIONS is located in the KCET studios on Sunset Boulevard next to the Tiki Ti bar. The first time I visit, Howser is waiting for me in the hallway and hollers, “Be careful everyone, she’s here!” Howser is always joking about the press wanting more. Howser is much pinker and more overbearing in person, and he’s opinionated and likes to argue. Also, there is something about the way the light catches his hazel eyes and haloes off his crew cut that gives his lead a distinct luminosity. Howser has an excellent constitution. He says he has never had a cavity or a bad stomachache, and he attributes much of his fine health and success in life to positive thinking and his refusal to analyze things, particularly himself, too much. “Why am I this way? I don’t have a clue. But this is me for better or worse, and I find it interesting on one level and disgusting on another that anyone tries to analyze it.”
Howser leads me into his office, which is not unlike a shrine. Everywhere one looks there are photos: Howser with nuns from the show about the mission, Howser with a highway patrol officer from the show about the CHP, Howser in the cockpit of a B-2 bomber, Howser with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Then there are the tokens of gratitude from people or places Howser has done shows about, like the large diorama of the life cycle of the salmon given by the Coleman National Fish Hatchery or the giant gold clam that says HUELL HOWSER WE DIG YOU FROM PISMO BEACH, CLAM CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. Howser receives hundreds of show ideas each week, which fill his massive file cabinets. In one drawer I saw files marked CARRIAGES, CARS, CASTLES, CHINESE SHRINES, CHRISTMAS, COBB SALAD, COMPOST KING, DANDELION, DEATH VALLEY, and DEER. Howser also receives hundreds of fan letters a month. Some are from middle-aged women who want him to come over for dinner, others from people who want to give him awards or have him carry the Olympic torch, and others from those who ask him to run for office. But most people just want to know if Howser is as happy as he seems, and if so, why. “Isn’t that sad?’ Howser asks me. He has perfected the look of pity for those he disagrees with. “People think I’m brainless and inane and don’t have any opinions about anything, but I can tell you just two aspects of who I am without going into the other 5,000. One is that I’m very complex. I’m well educated. I’ve got a good IQ. I can hold my own in a conversation sitting down with any member of the Senate. The other part of who I am is an absolute child walking around this city going ‘Wow!’ And I don’t see that the two are inconsistent and not able to coexist side by side.”
Three full-time producers work for Howser, all of whom swear he is the same off camera as on, only a hundred times smarter. Howser also employs an 86-year-old amateur historian named Charles Bausback who comes in every Thursday. Howser hired Bausback after receiving a list of show topic suggestions from him. Many of Howser’s most popular episodes are about places Bausback vacationed as a child, such as the Water Wheel Falls in Yosemite and the Bristlecone Pines. Bausback is a repository of arcane knowledge. The first place in Los Angeles to serve pasta was the Tam O’Shanter, he tells me. It is the job of Howser’s staff to sift through the show ideas and research the 30 percent that Howser doesn’t reject right off the bat for being too negative, too political, too corporate, or for discriminating against the poor or the unattractive or the immigrant. “The whole point,” Howser says, “is for the viewers to go, ‘If Huell can do it, we can, too. He’s not coming on the air with a doctorate and saying he’s a fifth-generation Californian. He’s not larger than life. He’s just a guy wandering around California like we are.’”
Howser likes portraying himself as an everyman. But he is not like the rest of us. Howser has three homes. The first is a rent-controlled apartment at the art deco El Royale on Rossmore Avenue, but he never eats there, he told me one day as we drove past it. He keeps only beer and wine and margarita mix in the refrigerator and has no idea if his stove is electric or gas. Howser also owns two houses in the desert—one in Palm Springs and another in Twentynine Palms—and 160 acres in Joshua Tree, which he is thinking of turning into some sort of nonprofit artists’ colony and perhaps displaying his own work there. Howser fashions lamps and coffee tables and art out of discarded objects such as old candy factory vats or scrap metal he finds on his journeys. Once, when he visited the remains of the set of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, he found two little pieces of wood and made a cross that hangs in his El Royale apartment. Howser speaks of these cast-off objects the same way he speaks of the people he does stories about. Just because the arbiters of taste haven’t declared them to be beautiful, he’ll tell you, doesn’t mean they aren’t treasures.
When Howser arrived at KCET in 1987, he was not paid for his work. At the time he was still under contract to KCBS, where he’d spent the past seven years churning out features for the nightly news and had grown sick of the grind and the pessimism. Howser’s first stories at KCET were 3-to-15-minute features on a show called Videolog about such things as beauty parlors and cat litter factories. The most famous and beloved of these pieces, and the one Howser himself is most proud of, is about an elderly elephant trainer who goes to a wild animal park in San Diego to visit the elephant he left there 15 years earlier. The man worries she won’t recognize him, but when he calls her she lumbers over and eats jelly beans from his hand and performs a routine he taught her 30 years ago as if they’d never parted. On the basis of that show, KCET allowed Howser to expand these pieces into a half-hour format called Visiting … with Huell Howser. Visiting was only intended to fill programming gaps and had no regular airtime. But the show became so popular that Howser expanded it once more into a statewide version called California’s Gold, which he sold to all 13 public television stations in California, persuaded Wells Fargo to underwrite, and has continued to spin off ever since. With every new spin-off Howser (who owns all his shows except Visiting, for which KCET pays him a salary and provides him an office) attracts new underwriters, each with its own agenda. Toyota, for instance, wishing to be associated with ruggedness, underwrites California’s Golden Parks and gives Howser a new Land Cruiser every year or two. The Automobile Club underwrites Road Trip. With each new show comes a new salary, which means he is currently drawing many salaries plus proceeds from his videotape sales. Howser will not divulge how much he makes except to say, “It’s not even half of what the weatherman makes on Channel 9,” “This is PBS, not CBS!” and “This isn’t high cotton I’m in, come on!”
Howser is always guarded about his private life, and sometimes the things he says or does seem designed to confound. One day he will call you screaming, “I’m trying to be positive!” and tell you he doesn’t want to be interviewed, that his sex life and religion and politics are nobody’s business, even though you never asked about those subjects. The next day he will call you at home on a Friday night and tell you he has hardly any friends and no one with whom to watch the Super Bowl. Howser doesn’t mind your pointing out these contradictions. Once he told me he was 57, and another time he said he was 55, and when I asked him about it he threw back his head and barked out a single laugh and said, “What’s the matter? Can’t a man feel young?” He said it with such exuberance that I, too, began to laugh. Most of all, Howser comes across as a man who is awfully fond of himself and wishes to make sure that you go away fond of him, too.
HOWSER HAS PRODUCED so many shows in his lifetime that constant vigilance must go into preserving his enthusiasm and spontaneity. To this end, he likes to know as little as possible about where he’s going, he explained as he and I and his cameraman, Cameron Tucker, drove downtown to shoot a show about St. Vincent’s Court, a block-long alley in the jewelry district with little balconies and fake flowers and a barbershop and five Armenian restaurants and one Persian restaurant where people eat and play backgammon at outdoor tables. Originally Howser had wanted to go to a dim sum parlor in Monterey Park, but the restaurant canceled the day before, whereupon Howser’s staff picked St. Vincent’s Court from their files and rushed down to make sure it was still there. They returned with a business card from a deli called Garo’s on which they had written “Mom, Dad, Son,” and that is all the information Howser had about the place. “That way my question are real,” he says.
“A lot of people want to rehearse it,” Tucker chimes in.
“I’d never do that,” says Howser. “Anything that slows down or interferes with the spontaneity of the show, I get impatient and frustrated. Just ask Cameron.” Tucker stares out the window in silence.
Before Tucker, Howser’s cameraman was Luis Fuerte. Anyone who watched a show from 1990 to 2001 knew who he was because Howser was forever calling, “C’mere, Luis!” or “Look at this, Luis!” on camera, which created such a mystique about the unseen Luis that he became a cult figure in his own right. Later when I spoke to Fuerte he laughed as he recalled how enraged Howser got every time fans ran up to him on the street: “He’d say, ‘Luis can’t talk to you!’ ‘Luis’s got to work!’” Fuerte described Howser as a man with a giant ego and “beaucoup money” who would never cut the act. “I don’t care where we go,” Fuerte told me. “I don’t care if we’re walking to the parking lot and the attendant comes up to him. He’s always on.” Other than that, Fuerte didn’t seem to know much about Howser. “We used to drive up to San Francisco, and if we said 15 words that’d be a lot,” he said. Howser parks a few blocks from St. Vincent’s Court and checks his teeth for spinach in the rearview mirror. “Makeup, wardrobe. That was that right there,” he says. “‘Cause Cameron, or any other cameraman, they’ll never say your fly’s down or your collar’s turned in. Luis was the worst about it. Luis never said anything.” Howser seems irritable, but his mood improves greatly when a car comes screeching to a halt before us and the man driving calls, “Huell Howser! I love your show!” “Well, thank you,” Howser says. “You scared me, though. I thought I owed you money!” Howser is always kind to his fans. When they tell him they love the show, he will say “I knew you were an educated man/woman!” or “You were flipping through the channels again, I know you were!” or “I think you’re watching too much TV’ All of these lines he uses on the way to St. Vincent’s Court because the streets are teeming with his admirers. A bus driver opens her doors and yelps, “Huell Howser!” and he leaps aboard and shakes her hand and leaps off, waving her card and announcing, “I’m gonna go riding with her!” Then a bike messenger comes along and says he wants Howser to go riding with him, and Howser cries, “We’ll go to skid row. It’ll be fun!” Someone else invites him to a Turkish disco party. These encounters puff him up, and he becomes louder and friendlier and happier and begins moving with great velocity. “Isn’t this great?” he sings out. “Isn’t this fun?” In no time at all he has set up his first shot and is standing in traffic on 7th Street amid honking cars and gawking bystanders screaming, “Hi! I’m Huell Howser, and here we are in the middle of hustling, bustling downtown L.A.!”
THE TYPES OF SHOWS Huell Howser produces are not the first of their kind in Los Angeles. The genre, which might loosely be described as “one man gets out of his car and has human interaction for the rest of us,” began with City at Night in the late 19040s. This begat Success Story in 1950s, followed in the 1960 by Happy Wanderers and On the Go, the latter hosted by Jack Linkletter, who, unlike Howser, adored the sensational. In one memorable episode, Linkletter visits a dwarf couple who live in Echo Park with their full-size eight-year-old daughter and ask the daughter when she first realized her father was a little man. “When I was three years old,” she tells him, “I realized I could swing him around, and you can’t do that with a normal-sized father.” Linkletter was stupefied when I told him Howser chooses to know nothing about the places he is visiting. “I once shot a Christmas show in a woman’s prison,” Linkletter recalled. “And the woman playing Santa Claus had killed her mother with a butcher knife. Now if I don’t know that ahead of time, I’m supposed to wing that?” On the Go was followed by Ralph Story’s Los Angeles, which ran from 1964 to 1970. Story was Howser’s opposite in that he was witty and urbane and never appeared in his shows except via voice-over; his genius was an ability to spin the most mundane topics into high comedy. A segment about a woman who opens an exercise studio above her husband’s steak house becomes a meditation on vanity. Story’s shows, no matter how funny, had an underlying melancholy to them that left one feeling that life is short and the fact that some people choose to spend it growing camellias or building canoes in their backyard is both heroic and futile, a sentiment not found in Howser’s work. Ralph Story’s Los Angeles was followed by Two on the Town, which ran from 1978 to 1984, and Eye on L.A., which ran from 1984 to 1991, when the stations phased out local programming in favor of game shows and reruns. If Howser hadn’t come along when he did, the genre might well be dead in this market.
Howser’s California is nostalgic and idealized, and the people in it are pleasant and hardworking and love their families. If that’s not the case, Howser makes it so. This is one of the joys of watching his shows. In an episode of Hot Summer Nights, Howser visits a Laundromat in South-Central L.A. When he arrives, it is late at night, and a middle aged black man is mopping the floor. Howser follows him around asking, “Do Laundromats do a good business around here?” and “You think fathers spend enough time with their kids these days?” The man soon becomes annoyed and tells Howser he has no time for chitchat and to stop tracking footprints. But Howser won’t leave. He even trails the man into a broom closet. Sure enough, when the visit is about to turn ugly, Howser prevails and the man begins to speak about how much he loves his family, and soon he is looking deep into the camera and saying, “Everybody wants to be with someone. Nobody wants to be lonely. Everybody wants to be loved.” Having bludgeoned the man with his pleasantness, Howser ends the show triumphantly with “You see? … We’ve made new friends.”
IT IS ONE THING to see Howser on television and quite another to see him live. As is his custom, when Howser arrives at St. Vincent’s Court, he stops passersby at random, shakes their hands, and says, “This is our first time down here, and we don’t know anything about the place. Where should we go? What should we eat?” Most reporters would never rely on this method, but Howser says it has always worked for him, except for a show he taped at the employment center for the mentally retarded. Howser’s first stop is St. Vincent Deli, where a sandwhich on the counter catches his eye. “Oh, look, Cameron!” Howser says. “Take a picture of that.” “It’s beef,” says the deli owner, not sure why two men are photographing his sandwich. “A beef sandwich!” Howser exclaims, throws back his head and belts out a “Ha!,” which is what he always does when he wants to cut and needs an edit point.
For the next few hours, he darts in and out of the other delis bellowing, “How long you been here?” and “Olives!” and “Persian!” and “We’ve made a new friend!” Howser never chats with these friends for more than a few minutes before cutting them off mid sentence to meet new ones. In fact, Howser’s interview style seems to be characterized by a desire to know as little as possible about the people he is interviewing. Nearly everyone Howser meets is an Armenian from Turkey or Lebanon or Greece, and each has an interesting tale. The barber, for instance, tells me he moved here from Lebanon 25 years ago, after his sleeping baby son was nearly hit by a sniper’s bullet in his crib, and that the boy is all grown up now and plays drums for the popular rock band System of a Down. But Howser never asks anyone how so many Armenians have come to be here. To do so, he explains to me later, would be to miss the point. The point is to bring out their humanity not their Armenian humanity. “We don’t ask people where they’re from. Or how much they make. Or do they have a green card. We just accept them for who they are. And that’s a radically political statement as far as I’m concerned. Especially for television, which goes out of its way to classify people.” Outside the barbershop Howser tries to shoot some men having coffee, but they cover their faces, saying they are Israeli diamond dealers and don’t want to be on TV. “How often does that happen?” I ask Howser. “How often does what happen?” he says. “That people don’t want to be on camera,” I say “You ask funny questions,” he says. “Why don’t you ask what percentage of the time do people want to answer so many questions that you have to cut them off? Or what percentage of the time do people enthusiastically come up and hug you?” Then he runs into the Persian restaurant and eats from the dessert plate of a stranger and ends the day at Garo’s deli, saying, “This place has hooked us in!”
I ask Howser about his interviewing style a few days later, and he bristles. “I think you need to reexamine yourself more than I need to reexamine myself!” he says. “To you, asking a quote-unquote probing question is getting up and asking Cardinal Mahony, ‘Why did you build this big edifice for yourself that people are calling Taj Mahony instead of feeding the poor?’ Well, big deal! Any jerk can stand up there and embarrass Cardinal Mahony. What’s that going to accomplish? That’s what’s ruined journalism,” he says, getting louder. “Journalists think they have to be confrontational. They think they can’t just unabashedly say, ‘Wow! What a magnificent forest! You can’t imagine what it feels like just to stand here and look up and think how old these trees are and what a joy it is to be in a state park. They think that’s corny and superficial. That they’re not going to win any kind of journalism prize for it unless they can uncover that the ranger is growing pot in the grove. I mean, come on!”
But Howser’s mood soon turns again, and he begins to speak of a goat miniseries he is planning in which he will visit a restaurant that serves goat dishes and a farm that makes goat cheese and a woman who weaves things out of goat hair, and one can see that the idea excites him tremendously. “It’ll be a home run,” he cries. “I know it will.”
IT WAS NEVER HOWSER’S INTENTION to go into television. He wanted to go into politics, and his early years are filled with the sort of mythic details one finds in the biographies of populist politicians. Howser grew up in Gallatin, Tennessee, half an hour from Nashville. His father, a lawyer, had an office on the town square. His mother was a homemaker, and when he was born his parents, Harold and Jewell, combined their names to create “Huell.” As a child, Huell mowed lawns and sold lemonade and led blood drives, and when his parents took him and his sister on vacation to Florida, he brought back jars of seawater so that the other children in his class might also have a chance to put their fingers in the sea. In the eighth grade Howser went to Washington to serve as a page in Congress. After graduating from high school, he worked as an aide for Republican Howard Baker’s Senate campaign, joined the Marine Corps reserves so he wouldn’t be drafted and sent to Vietnam, then became a history and political science major at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where as a student government leader he led anti-war protests and made numerous appearances on TV and radio stations to offer the clean-cut student’s perspective on the pandemonium facing our nation.
It was during one of those appearances, in 1970, that Howser was spotted by Irving Waugh, president of WSM, the NBC affiliate in Nashville, who told everyone that Howser was going to be a huge star and installed him as features reporter on an all-star news team with other Waugh discoveries: John Tesh, who was the anchor; Pat Sajak, the weatherman; and Dan Miller (later at KCBS), the coanchor. “TV ain’t brain surgery,” Howser likes to say of the fact that he had no experience. He says he inherited his storytelling abilities from his father, who told tales about an old black man named Ike who lived on the farm he grew up on.
Howser’s first major story was about a black man who drove around with his dog on the roof of his truck. No one in Nashville had seen anything like it. “It was seven minutes long,” Dan Miller recalls. “That was unheard of. But Irving let him do it. And you could see right from the start, Huell had this incredible gift, this X factor I’ve never been able to figure out that makes people want to reveal their souls to him. We were at a party for some king, and I remember looking up and seeing Huell talking to the king on one side and a busboy on the other. That’s Huell. He could get a busboy and a king talking.” Mike Kettenring, WSM’s news director at the time, calls Howser “the most talented reporter I have ever worked with and the most social human being I have ever met. I remember going out to dinner with him, and he would work the tables, literally wander around the restaurant saying, ‘Hi, I’m Huell Howser,’ like a politician running for office. That’s who he is. He genuinely likes contact with human beings.”
Not everyone appreciated Howser. One critic called his shows “the junk mail of television.” But fans sent him broiled chickens and pocketknives and other trinkets that he’d display on the air, and soon he was hosting beauty pageants and fraternizing with celebrities. Among his news clippings from the time is a photo of a slightly chubby and gap-toothed Howser wearing a plaid shirt, a corduroy jacket, and aviator glasses, hugging Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, whom the caption identifies as two of his “best friends.” In July 1975, at the height of his popularity, he announced he was considering a run for Congress.
Howser never ran. A few weeks after the initial fanfare, Howser stated that he was no longer interested. He wouldn’t elaborate at the time, but people who worked with him say that he dropped out of the race because rumors circulated that he was gay, which in Nashville in the 1970s would have derailed both his political and television careers.
“It was a traumatic experience,” Howser says, “that involved a lot of personal feelings and forced me to come to a decision about whether I should go into politics or find happiness and fulfillment by channeling my energies into television. My philosophy of what television should be has ended up being what my philosophy in politics would have been: egalitarian and open and not elitist and pandering to the rich and famous, and the stories I’ve done reflect my politics.
After his return to television, Howser began infusing his features with politics, and Kettenring says he became the most difficult person he’s ever worked with. Howser was suspended in 1979 for editorializing in a piece on the demolition of a governor’s mansion to make way for a Popeyes chicken outlet. He juxtaposed footage of the demolition with clips of elderly people talking about how society had cast them off because they were no longer young and beautiful.
His first night back he announced that he was leaving for New York City to host a new show called Real Life, a hayseed-goes-to-the-big-city affair. But Howser did not play well in New York. Howser likes to bond with his subjects by placing a reassuring hand on their shoulders, and in New York, his producers told him, people just don’t touch other people. Less than a year later he was told it wasn’t working out. For the next seven years Howser cast about trying to regain his golden boy status. First he hosted a failed early reality show called Wedding Day. Then he moved to Los Angeles and hosted a failed talk show on CNN. Then he went to KCBS, where he might easily have spent the rest of his days as just another jovial features reporter had he not moved to KCET in 1987.
NOT LONG AFTER SPEAKING to Howser’s former colleagues in Nashville, I am pondering the key to Howser’s longevity when he calls me one night, shouting, “I’m trying to be positive!” The article is focusing too much on him, he says, and not the show. “But you are the show, Huell. You’re in every shot,” I tell him. “Oh, I know,” he giggles. Then the two of us get to talking about his fame. Fame can be double-edged for people like Howser, who if they’re anything short of effusive, run the risk of being called phonies or monsters. Howser admitted it sometimes got to be too much even for him. The show has even caused him to lose friends over the years. “My background and my income put me in one category but my heart and soul is with the people,” he says. “I went to a Christmas party in Pasadena a few years ago, and the hostess opened the door and I said, ‘Feliz Navidad!’ and she goes, ‘Well. I guess that’s the way we’re supposed to be saying “Merry Christmas” in California these days.’ You know, basically saying all these illegal immigrants are flooding into California and ruining our way of life. And I just kindly said, ‘Actually, they were here long before we were, and it’s a proud part of our heritage and we should be lucky to have them back.’ You know? History is history. Fact is fact.”
I ask Howser whether he is lonely. “I’m in a no-man’s-land,” he says after a moment. “But it’s a safe place where I’m comfortable. The truth is, I have a short attention span, and I find myself getting bored easily and not getting into the swing of any one thing. That’s why the show is such a big part of my life. It provides me with stimulation and excitement. Like tonight, it’s Friday night and I’m home alone. I’ll tell you exactly what I’m going to do. I’ll probably take a shower, watch my show at 7:30, and head out to the Tiki Ti lounge. What I love about the Tiki Ti is you absolutely never know who you’ll meet there. I’ll probably have a couple drinks and get a little silly and meet and talk to who knows what about what. Then I’ll probably go to the Dresden Room. And then I’ll probably end up at the Pantry eating ham and eggs at two in the morning. But see, I don’t know. ‘Cause I don’t know what will happen at the Tiki Ti.
“I love going out by myself. It gives me the freedom of going left or right or up or down. Last week I met this guy and his girlfriend at the bar who freaked out when I came in. The guy said, ‘Don’t move! I’m calling my roommate.’ And we spent the evening together. I took them to Philippe’s. And the idea is, it was a pleasant, wonderful encounter and we all had a pleasant time and we’re going to have at least one more pleasant time together and then if we want to move on, fine.” I asked Howser if he thought he might not have become drawn to the random encounter after pursuing so much of it in his professional life, and he said he didn’t know about that.
But clearly Howser understands the commodity of joy. That short, bright bursts of it die fast when the parties know too much about one another. And how gratifying it is for viewers to watch a grown man squealing with delight and never have grounds to dismiss him. Therein may lie the key to Howser’s success: always the campaign stop, never the campaign.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE taping at St. Vincent’s Court, Howser calls me up and shouts, “It’s another beautiful day in paradise and I’m in the mood for goat!” Today he wants to try some goat tacos at a Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown, but first he takes me to Broguiere’s Farm Fresh Dairy in Montebello so he can show me the profound effect he’s had on the people of Los Angeles. Two years ago Broguiere’s, which is the last family-owned dairy in L.A. and sells milk in bottles that boast MILK SO FRESH THE COW DOESN’T KNOW IT’S MISSING, decided to put Howser’s likeness on the back of the bottle in gratitude for the shows he’s done and the specials he airs every Christmas about the dairy’s eggnog.
The drive to Broguiere’s is spectacular—one of those cold Southern California wintry affairs with sunlight glinting off every windshield, snow-capped mountains not there the day before, and every cloud a poodle. As Howser drives, he sips milk from a coconut he picked up at the farmers’ market and says he drank too much the night before at the Tiki Ti. But Howser doesn’t look hung over. He is dressed in a black turtleneck, khakis, and loafers, and when we arrive at the dairy he steps jauntily out of the car. The crowd has no idea he is coming, and it is stunned by his presence. These are not the harpists and rich ladies one expects public television watchers to be. These are bikers and mechanics and real estate agents, and they have come from as far away as Las Vegas and Bakersfield, owner Ray Broguiere says, watching the pageantry from his doorway. His eyes fill with tears as he explains that business has gone up 10 percent a year since Howser aired the first show. “We call it the ‘power of Howser,’” he says, looking out over the crowd, where Howser is signing milk bottles and people are telling him their life stories. “My wife died 22 years ago,” one man says, apropos of nothing. Another woman begins to weep. A teenage girl shakes his hand and says she’ll never wash hers again. Soon Howser can be heard joshing, “Leave me alone, I don’t want to run for office. I got the greatest job in the world.” Then he belts out a “Ha!” as if it were another show, and we leave for the restaurant. Howser eats his goat with gusto and has two pink horchatas with pecans on top, falling under the spell of two brothers singing Mexican ballads. His eyes are bright and childlike, and he says, “This is where I want to be! This is where I want to be!”
Howser knows that he will have to retire some day, and he fears it. “I’m not sure I could enjoy a sunset as much if I knew I couldn’t share it,” he says soberly. The thought of walking down the street and seeing something amazing, or meeting some amazing person with an amazing story and not being able to broadcast it, disturbs him. “Seriously” he says, “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.”
When Howser finishes eating, the waiter brings us the check along with two candies, and on the way out Howser gives his to a child at the next table. “Hello!” he yells, and she and her parents recoil slightly, evidently unaware of who he is. Howser turns to me and says, “I wish I spoke Spanish. I’d be out of control.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of Los Angeles magazine.