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I think of Huell Howser often when working on Orange Juice Blog, because based on the search results we get from the Intertubes, interest in him rarely wanes for long. After midnight on many days, before our California readership kicks in, our “top 10” list will include some stories from the backlist that someone made their way into someone’s search engine. A fair amount of the time, one of them references Huell Howser. He seemed to fascinate people, in part for his speech and demeanor, which many took for homosexual — type in “huell howser” in google and the second option that comes up for a search is “Huell Howeser wife,” as in “does he have one?”, which is the poorly calibrated red state way of asking whether he’s gay — and in part for his gentleness, enthusiasm, and fascination for the world around him. He reminds me of my former Pittsburgh neighbor Fred Rogers, who brought a similar (though lower-key) infectious delight to children through public television.
Huell was from Tennessee — and his specialty was in finding those parts of small town California that fit the sorts of things one might find in Tennessee, or Arkansas, or Indiana, or any other state — the quirky, off-the-road things that don’t make our state stand out from the rest of the country, but that make it fit in.
One of the perennial stories that keeps skulking along in our Top 10 list at those brief minutes where 1 or 2 hits might qualify a story to be included along the bottom is a rather one-sided 2008 “discussion” with him by Larry Gilbert. [Update: I hadn’t checked the stats when I wrote and published this. Sure enough, it edged into the #1 slot yesterday after the news broke and it is far and away our top story today.] Gilbert was irritated that Huell (does anyone call him “Howser”?) had a new series coming out, California’s Communities, that was funded by the California Redevelopment Authority, and appeared likely to focus solely on redevelopment “success stories” rather than including failures. It was a fair challenge. As Gilbert recounts it:
In our discussion Huell told me he has “no political agenda” and that he “keeps politics out of it,” a reference to his multiple TV series.
Well, longtime readers of Gilbert can guess how well that played.
Of course Huell “had politics” — just as Fred Rogers did, as shown in his testimony before Congress that perennially makes the rounds of Facebook. They weren’t partisan politics; they were the politics of acceptance and inclusion and — I can’t seem to avoid this word — delight in the world around him, taken on its own terms. Yes, in a world of sarcasm and fearfulness and bitterness, that’s taking a kind of stand.
I think of Huell as being like the best kind of museum docent — knowledgeable, good-natured, accessible, and enthusiastic — who brings out much more than meets the eye from whatever one is viewing. In his case, though, his museum was the whole of California — though, especially, the more overlooked halls and exhibits. Orange County is lucky that his papers and more will be archived here at Chapman University.
A few years ago, when my stepkids came here from the Philippines, Huell Howser’s shows on KCET were some of the first ones outside of their accustomed prime time fare that they came to enjoy. One of them, I recall, was his show on old San Juan Capistrano — which allowed us to follow up the next weekend or so with our own visit there. It was on TV — and then we were there! We were in the place that had been on TV! His delight in it (and of course SJC truly is delightful) gave added meaning to what was already around us, showing that Disneyland and the beaches were not the only sorts of spots to cherish in Orange County. I hope that someone — KCET? Or would it now be KOCE? — shows a marathon of Huell’s shows soon; they’re something I’d like to record, and save, and watch together.
Hail and farewell, Huell. We’ll miss you, but you’ve also left us much to remember you by.