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Huell Howser: 'The real deal,' on and off camera

January 08, 2013|By Paul Thornton
  • Huell Howser, with cameraman Luis Fuerte, profiles Robert Gomez in the first segment of his KCET series. Howser died Monday at age 67.
Huell Howser, with cameraman Luis Fuerte, profiles Robert Gomez in the… (Los Angeles Times )

Those who knew Huell Howser, both personally and as a regular presence in their homes illuminating the far-flung corners of our state as the host of "California's Gold," are sending their eulogies to letters@latimes.com. Howser died Monday at age 67, following his sudden retirement from television in November.

My first exposure to Howser was as a middle school student sitting through a classroom lesson on Islam. Our teacher turned on the TV and let Howser do the explaining. In this episode, he visited a group of California Muslims and conducted several one-on-one interviews. Naturally, he stuck out like a sore thumb, Tennessee accent and all. But what struck me was the  way he made a point to highlight some of the differences between Islam and Christianity -- he noted to one interviewee that he was a Christian and what that entailed -- for his audience to gain a greater understanding of a faith and culture that, at the time, was exotic to most of his viewers. He was 100% Huell, and still not a bit divisive.

Here's what readers have to say about their experiences with Howser.

Former Times television critic Howard Rosenberg says there was much more to Howser than a camera-ready folksy style:

"Huell Howser was no hick with a microphone. Far from it. I knew him for more than 30 years, and believe me, what we saw on TV was only part of him. Yes, the exuberance was sincere, as was the delight, almost childlike, in each discovery. He was extremely bright and complex, however, and tough-minded too, with an edge to his thinking and personality that that never surfaced on the screen. He was intensely critical with strong opinions about many things, including historical preservation, of course -- that was his passion. And also media.

"Privately, he was savagely critical of contemporary media, especially local TV news, which he felt, rightly, observed Los Angeles almost exclusively through a distorted prism of street violence and celebrities. To him, the true celebrities were the ordinary people he profiled, however obscure, and he showed his viewers how special they were. With each telling, it seemed like he had dug up a patch of earth we walked on every day and showed us the teeming life just beneath the surface."

Steve Paskay of Los Angeles says Howser's enthusiasm wasn't just a TV shtick:

"I had the good fortune of working with Huell for two years in the early 1980s, and I can tell you he was the real deal. It didn't matter if Huell was interviewing Oscar-winning actors or fry cooks; his enthusiasm and interest in what they told him was genuine, and he brought that to the audience. California has lost a great storyteller.

"I hope Huell is buried with a microphone in his hand, because I'm sure he's not done talking to 'amazing' people."

Fullerton resident Suzanne E. Feighery recalls the moment she and her daughter met Howser:

"Several years ago my daughter and I had the wonderful privledge of meeting Huell Howser in Twentynine Palms. Howser was warm, genial and genuine as he certainly reflected his TV personality. His passing is a great loss for everyone who had the pleasure of meeting him or watching his informative show.

"Howser was a true gentleman and had the unique gift of making every person that he interviewed feel valued, respected and appreciated. We need more Huell Howsers in this world."

Arleta resident Billie Barron recalls Howser's personal kindness:

"My in-laws owned and operated a family restaurant in Burbank for more than 40 years. They catered to the studio industry, aerospace as well as the local residents. Their restaurant was known for its pancakes, pies and homey ambience.

"Howser 'visited' the restaurant on two occasions. The televised episode resulted in a surge of  new customers and a boost to the modest business that was a family affair. Sometime later when my father-in-law was hospitalized, my husband and I met Howser as he was leaving the hospital, having 'visited' once again with my father-in-law. He was warm, personable and more subdued than the jovial demeanor we had come to know. His kindness and compassion touched us deeply.

"We will miss this gentle man and his genuine awe-struck enthusiasm that brought spectators to their feet and made them 'visitors' to share the wonder and simplicity of their surroundings."

Harvey Jordan of Toluca Lake recalls a professional favor Howser did for him:

"It was with great sadness that I learned of Huell Howser's death. Like many others, I was a total devotee of his show and after 19 years came to perceive of him as a compassionate individual.

"Knowing his love of California sagas, I contacted him a few years ago about 'Bible Storyland,' an unbuilt theme park from early 1960s Southern California. Surprisingly, he had never heard about it but showed sincere excitement.

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