Thursday, January 10, 2013

Another fine example of California's gold

It was the best of television, it was the worst of television.

Either way, California's Gold was must-see TV. Creator Huell Howser died this week at 67, and I'll miss him and his show. Judging from the Internet uproar, so will many, many others.


Huell took public television viewers along on his dream job, to feature every corner and cranny and nook of California. And he just about did.

"We have two agendas," he once told the Los Angeles 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."

I counted on Huell to show me my state, because at this rate I won't see much of it otherwise.

He showed me China Camp, all right, among dozens of state parks and California's national parks. He took me land sailing in Mad Max contraptions across El Mirage Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert … a mile deep into the earth near Nevada City to hear the caroling descendants of Cornish coal miners … a mile above the earth soaring near Mach 1 with the Navy's Blue Angels … and, of course, high atop a tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, among the sisyphean painters in the razor fog and wind.

That's aMAZing!

Huell went to places we could not — with the descendants of William Randolph Hearst on their ranchland and homes below Hearst Castle, say, and out on the protected Farallones far west of the Golden Gate. He showed us with new eyes our own backyards: Our hometowns and their doughnut shops and fruit stands … our county fairs … what William Least Heat-Moon would call the "blue highways" of our state.

He showed where the Zamboni ice grooming machine is made, where In-N-Out Burger plans its fast food empire, where Hot Dog on a Stick started on a Santa Monica beach, where an Oakland family perfected the squeegee that professional window washers rely on.

He roamed where John Muir and Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson had roamed, and paid his respects where thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned east of the Sierra during World War II — always with experts to answer his questions, which were our questions, because Huell Howser was going to these places for us. 

He showed what even Californians have a hard time believing: It's an extremely diverse state, in its many meanings.
All the while, Huell Howser infected his stories with unconstrained, sometimes infuriating, enthusiasm. He was never not delighted at everything he covered, at almost every moment.
A hulking man, he carried a comically small microphone and towered over many of his interview subjects. He frequently shouted, in a skirling Tennessee drawl, the phrases that have endeared and inured him to viewers. "That's aMAZing! Isn't that aMAZing? Oh my GOSH! Get a SHOT of that, Louie (Luis Fuerte, one of his longtime camera operators)! AhhMAZing! How about THAT!"


He'd look into the camera and repeat mundane facts just given him, elevating them as if epiphanies. He'd ask a question and then not wait for the answer, seeing some shiny distant object and immediately running over to look at it, his subjects running along behind. He'd talk right over an expert's answer, quashing juicy information.

People (me too) made fun of him. Comedians made a living off him ("Look at that! You say that's water?! Look everybody, it's WATER! And boy, is it WET! AhhMAZing!") A drinking game was built around his Howser-isms.

But he knew his corn-pone persona sold. He made a guest appearance on The Simpsons, after all. Homer even paid Huell tribute. And he sold California. He was the state parks' best ambassador, standing in for us. I was really surprised news of his death didn't go national.

Corny as he was, he sold me. I'll watch his show and its many spinoffs ("California's Green," "California's Water," etc.) whenever they're on.

Huell went to my hometown more than once, to explore Mission La Purisima and Vandenberg Air Force Base, and endorse Lompoc's effort to draw tourists with giant murals.

He even helped me get the part-time gig I enjoy, leading tours of Sacramento's Underground. Thanks to a computer glitch, many more people than the venue could hold showed up at a speech he was giving several years ago in Old Sacramento. Parks officials entertained the overflow with an impromptu tour of the underground, which spawned the formal tours today. Huell then produced a show about the underground tours, which I still haven't seen; somehow I've missed many of them.

You and I have a second chance, though: Huell donated his archive of California's Gold episodes, available for viewing, to Chapman University.

One obituary this week called Huell Howser the Charles Kuralt of California's highways, which maligns both men. Kuralt's stories were tightly edited monuments to his bright writing and concise storytelling, while Huell Howser rambled, stories searching for an ending; sometimes he'd just have his interview subjects stand in front of a sign or a landmark and wave, like something out of a soundless home movie. His shows could have used more editing. His was Arthur Godfrey TV in the 21st Century.

Kuralt also sometimes faintly mocked his subjects, softly and cleverly suggesting to viewers, "Isn't this silly?! Aren't we better?"

Huell never ridiculed the people he met. Maybe he thought their life's missions were loopy, but he delighted in meeting everyone.

Someone should take up his mantle. Exhaustive as Huell's search was, more stories await.

Because of Huell, I hope someday to kayak through the sea caves of Santa Cruz Island. Because of Huell, I'm going to buy one of those squeegees and save myself some work washing the windows.


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