When I moved to California about 25 years ago, I knew little about the state. Over the years, I learned more about its remarkable diversity, history, natural beauty and people from one man–Huell Howser. Whenever I happened to turn on the T.V. and land on one of his PBS shows, mainly California Gold, I always found myself drawn into his casual interviews with fascinating people the regular media overlooked. I learned about Watts Towers, vernal pools, desert oases, Slab City, cactus gardens, biker bars, See’s Candy, off beat road trips, on and on. Despite his twangy accent and annoying abuse of superlatives, I grew to love Huell.
Huell, an ex-Marine who grew up in Tennessee, sought out and revelled in ordinary people doing extraordinary things, often in the most remote and undervalued parts of our state. He found wonder in the mundane. Several years ago, when I was involved in the fight to stop a toll road being built through one of our local state parks, Huell stepped up and made a video for the cause, even though he wasn’t supposed to get political on his show.
Like most of his fans, I was shocked when I learned he died in early January at age 67. I’m usually not a celebrity chaser or groupie, but there was no way I would miss the chance to pay homage to Huell at a tribute last Friday at Chapman College in Orange. It was great. Many of the quirky people he featured showed up in his honor. This was his favorite donut from Stan’s Corner Donut Shop in Westwood–stuffed with peanut butter and chocolate.
Pink’s Hot Dogs in L.A. was there handing out their famous weiners.
They even have one named after Huell.
The Lint Lady was there. Slater Baron of Long Beach makes everyday items out of dryer lint, such as sushi and Valentines chocolates. Huell used to call her on her birthday.
And here’s the woman from The Bunny Museum in Pasadena, showing some fans how Huell interviewed her.
The Whistling Champ, a world champion whistler and hair salon owner named Carole Ann Kaufman from Monrovia, was whistling pop hits with her band, and Fosselman’s Ice Cream in Alhambra and Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in L.A. were dishing out tasters. They also had some of Huell’s souvenirs from his 900-plus shows, and part of his impressive found art collection on display.
They even set up his working office, using furnishings he donated to the college. The story goes that Huell did a segment featuring Old Towne Orange, but didn’t have time to visit Chapman. The president invited him to return to see the college, and Huell followed up weeks later and fell in love with the school. Huell donated over $1 million, two of his desert homes (including his mod “Volcano House“) and also started a scholarship fund (the first recipient, a young women named Mayra Gonzalez who was the first to attend college in her family, gave a little thank you speech) at Chapman, as well as his entire archive of PBS shows. They are all digitalized for anyone to access and free: www. Huell HowserArchive.com.
Thank you, Huell. Corny as it sounds, you helped me learn to love California’s gold. And you are part of it.