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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.
"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."
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.!"
This feature originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of Los Angeles magazine