California lost one of its treasures this week when Huell Howser, best known for hosting the PBS travel show California’s Gold, passed away in Palm Springs Monday at the age of 67, after a two-year battle with cancer.
Born in 1945 in Gallatin, Tennessee, Howser was given a first name that was a portmanteau of Harold and Jewell, his parents’ names. After earning a bachelor’s of arts degree in history from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he represented its student body as president, he served in the Marine Corps and on the staff of Sen. Howard Baker.
Howser’s television career began at Nashville’s WSM-TV, where he produced a series of “human interest” stories. After a stint in New York, he relocated to Los Angeles in 1981 to work as a reporter for KCBS-TV. In the next few years, he also took on a weekend hosting and correspondent job for the television program Entertainment Tonight. In 1985, he joined Los Angeles’s then-PBS affiliate KCET, where he produced short segments for the show Videolog.
His public-TV series that followed included Visiting, Road Trip and Downtown, but the one for which he would best be known is California’s Gold, which explored the state’s cultural and geographical features. Overseen by Howser for its entire 18-season run, the show aired from 1994 to 2012. Last November, two of California’s biggest newspapers began reporting that Howser would be retiring by the end of the year.
Ryan Morris, who has worked as Howser’s producer for the last six years, attributed his boss’s success to his affability, a trait that Morris says stayed with him throughout his career, as well as his attentive ear.
“Huell was well liked early on, when he was a reporter at WSM in Tennessee, when he was in his 20s,” Morris said. “There was something about him that was different that people recognized immediately, and maybe what was different about him was that he let everybody tell their stories.”
Morris indicated that it was a controversy in Long Beach that was the only time the characteristically easy-going host was embroiled in any type of public dispute.
In the mid 1990s, the Long Beach Naval Station was facing demolition, through orders fromPresident Bill Clinton’s administration, in order to convey the land to the Port of Long Beach for use as a terminal to accommodate the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO). After Howser got wind of the demolition plans, he produced a segment about it on his show Visiting…With Huell Howser. The website for Huell Howser Productions describes the episode as follows: “Huell spends the day at Long Beach Naval Station, which is threatened with demolition due to military downsizing. Many people want to save the site and turn the historic buildings into a park for the city.”
In addition to devoting air time to the cause on his program, Howser filed a delaying action with the Los Angeles Superior Court, but Judge Peter J. Lichtman dismissed his case against the state’s Lands Commission, which the TV host criticized for wasting public assets by allowing Long Beach to tear down historic buildings on the historic Naval base. Some of those structures had been designed by the prominent African-American architect Paul Revere Williams.
Although those who sided with Howser included former Long Beach Mayor Eunice Sato and environmental advocate Ann Cantrell, he would be criticized by some Long Beach officials for intervening in a city where he wasn’t a resident and for seeking publicity.
“That was the one time that Huell got involved in a controversy,” Morris said. “Typically, Huell’s career was without controversy, and he was only interested in showing people’s stories and different perspectives, but he was always very concerned with historic preservation. And the failure of that attempt in Long Beach was something that was so painful for him that he rarely or never spoke about it after that. It was very difficult for him because he was so concerned with preservation, he took it personally when something of historical significance was either destroyed or altered.”
Other Long Beach features that Howser covered were more light-hearted. He reported on the Soundwalk art event in downtown Long Beach in September of 2008 and the Long Beach Coin, Stamp & Collectibles Expo at the Long Beach Convention Center in 2011. He also highlighted the dryer-lint art created by Wrigley artist Slater Barron, with whom he became friends.
Long Beach photographer Matt Robinson shot a picture of Howser during Soundwalk (see page 1). Upon hearing the news of Howser’s passing, Robinson shared his photo with the Signal Tribune and remarked: “Mr. Howser was truly California’s Gold.”
As for what lies ahead for Huell Howser Productions, Morris is optimistic.
“There’s a great future for the show,” he said. “We feel that the value of the show will only increase over time and with each new generation discovering the show, it’s something of a time capsule. Right now, people watch the show, and they learn from it. But, in 20 years, 50 years or 100 years, these shows will have great historical significance as being possibly the only true representation of California during this time period.”