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KCET's Howser Chronicles L.A., Its People

August 21, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Charley Franks the elephant man died last week.

He was 87. You may have seen him in a "Videolog" on KCET. You know, the Los Angeles man reunited in 1988 with Nita, the elephant he gave to the San Diego Wild Animal Park when he retired from the circus 15 years earlier.

It was beautiful. After all those years, Nita still knew Charley and walked across the elephant enclosure to greet him like an old friend. She even performed some of her old tricks. And when it was time for Charley to leave, Nita went with him to the fence, as if to say goodby for the last time.

"That was my favorite," said Huell Howser the "Videolog" man.

Elephants were Franks' business, people are Howser's. Each year since 1985, he's been making 40 to 50 of these wonderfully humanistic features of up to 10 minutes for airing on KCET as regularly scheduled filler. If KCET buys a series whose episodes fall short of the hour, in go the "Videolog" segments, Los Angeles footnotes chronicling the city and its residents in an honest and charming way unique to TV here.

"We've never been promoted, we've never had a regular time slot, we just kind of pop up," said Howser, a 38-year-old Tennessean who gets high on textures of life that most of us pass by without noticing.

Despite his easy manner and soft Tennessee accent (Howser rarely meets a "g" he doesn't drop, as in "singin' " and "dancin' "), this is no good old boy whittlin' wood in the big city. "He could be real tough," a former competing reporter recalls about Howser when he was at KNXT (now KCBS-TV).

A strapping weightlifter, he can be real tough now on local newscasts for ignoring "real" stories.

Local stations are dedicated to narrowly defining life in slickly packaged minibites that satisfy only TV's appetite for action and superficiality. Would any local station have the vision to do the kind of scintillating piece Howser did on Leader's Beauty Shop in Fairfax, eight rich minutes on that now- defunct, lively and historic gathering spot for colorful women and multicolored rinses? Hardly.

"For them to go there, they would have to find toxic waste in the back," Howser said.

Instead, "toxic waste" often describes their news product. Local stations spend too much time inciting fear, Howser insists. "If you were locked in a room and all of Los Angeles you ever saw was on newscasts, you'd never want to leave your room. In a city with an influx of people that are so different, if there is a challenge to local TV, it's to make us not afraid of these people, to show them as they are. But local stations have dropped the ball."

And, on an annual budget of $150,000, "Videolog" is running with it.

"These stories are all around us, everywhere!" Howser exclaimed. By phone and by mail they arrive, and occasionally by accident, like the time he was taping in Griffith Park and "saw this story unfoldin'."

Who but Howser would see a mother giving her toddler son and a neighbor child their first pony ride as a story? But the resulting "Videolog"--the kids on pony-back and the camera-oblivious mother reacting to them, embellished by Ponderosa and Roy Rogers music--gave off a wonderful glow.

Howser is that rare reporter who can become part of his story without eclipsing it, and his affection for his subjects is on the screen.

Last Christmas, he put together a reunion "Videolog." Charley Franks came. So did the fruit cobbler-making couple, the yogurt man, the juice makers, the singing Del Rubio triplets, the basset hound picnic gang, Ruggie the dog's owner, the music teacher who plays a tiny violin, the miniature windmill maker, the balloon makers and the daughter of the man who opened the city's first parking lot. The judge who jumps rope couldn't attend, so he sent his wife.

Recently, Howser got a call from David Letterman's show requesting a list of "Videolog" subjects. No way. "I laugh with them," Howser said. "He'd laugh at them."

From the roof of the 60-year-old El Royale on Rossmore, where Howser rents an apartment a few floors below actor Nicolas Cage's penthouse, he surveys and absorbs the city as if looking down on his "Videolog" subjects.

"Buildings reflect part of the fabric of what the city is all about," he said. "It's not only this building, it's the corner deli, the school where you went as a kid. The people of a city give it its fabric, too. A city is only as strong as its neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods are the people who live there."

Many of them elderly, judging by "Videolog." However, Howser cherishes antiquity in objects as well as people.

He sleeps on the handsome four-poster bed that his parents slept on in tiny Gallatin, Tenn., sits in a polished wood chair that occupied his dad's law office, admires the bell (on his wall) that his mother rang to call in his sister and him from play. Howser carries his deceased parents with him, too, not only mentally but in his name, which is a combination of their names, Harold and Jewell.

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