#632 – Huell Howser’s Retirement!
Terrible news: Huell Howser is retiring!
Could I offer any better tribute to the man who has celebrated Los Angeles (and all of California) for over a quarter century – covering places and people and events that often make me think (however fleetingly) “Maybe this city isn’t such a bad place after all” – than to label his retirement as #632 in a non-sequential list of reasons to get the hell out of LA?
If Huell ain’t doing new shows, brother, that’s one less reason to stick around.
For those of you outside of California, for more than twenty-five years, a friendly fellow name of Huell Howser hosted a series of informal travelogue-y shows on public television in California. They’re nearly each and every one a delight. Earlier this week came the sad and very unexpected news that he has retired from making new shows.
Every so often, there’d be a story in the paper about Huell and his enduring appeal. After reading a number of them over the years, I realized that when writing about Huell Howser, nearly all California newspaper style guides (or editors) apparently require the reporter to specifically point out the following things:
• He says “Amazing!” a lot. Yes, well, I suppose he does.
• Many people do an impression of him and/or make fun of him. And most of those impressions begin and end at the word “amazing” delivered in a poor approximation of a Tennesseean drawl, the same way when back in the mid-80s it seems all impressions of Billy Crystal’s impression of Fernando Lamas were limited to a cringe-inducing “You look mahvelous.”
• He has a folksy, unpolished, unsophisticated, unpretentious charm. The man is guilty as charged. As such, all articles must describe him or his style as at least “folksy,” but most articles manage to cram in all four adjectives.
• He brings an unbridled “gee-whiz” enthusiasm to his shows. It’s absolutely mandatory to employ the phrase “gee-whiz” as an adjective when penning articles about Huell. Close second and third: “my-gosh” and “aw-shucks.” Though of the three, Huell only actually says “Oh my gosh!” with any regularity.
• The author genuinely – not ironically! – likes watching his shows. It’s unfortunate that we live in an age where one feels the need to point out that one’s enjoyment of Huell Howser’s programs is sincere. Why the hell else would you tune in? You can chuckle at his occasional overt goofiness – and yes, you’re laughing at him, not with him – but his approach is honest and straightforward. It’s doubtful anyone’s watching because they appreciate him on some, eugh, “meta” level inaccessible to the rest of us.
That said, it’s quite a different thing to take Huell’s stuff out of context and edit it or whittle it down for comic effect. Two of my, and now your, favorites:
For me, there’s no such thing as a single favorite episode because there are too many gems, especially when you include the old “Videolog” segments (with their glorious 80s intro).
But among the contenders, in my book: The lint lady. Vincent Price and his art collection. A visit to the Ackermansion. Musso & Frank Grill (where Vic “Theme Song” Mizzy wanders into the shot and introduces himself as a chief surgeon). Rubel Castle in Glendora. Swimming in the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle. The Salton Sea. The batty woman in Ventura with all the crap in her front yard overflowing onto the street that she considered art. (A particularly delightful rarity because Huell actually glances sidelong at the camera at one point with raised eyebrows.) The trip to Cuba. The amphicar. And a few dozen others at least.
Is there anyone who saw the episodes about the teardrop trailers and the peanut butter donuts in Westwood and didn’t immediately want to buy one of the former and fill them up with the latter? Answer: No.
Huell would often re-introduce specific old segments as “Classics.” Why bother? They’re all classics. Well, except for the one about the guy and his jalapeño pepper plants. I always fall asleep during that one.
A 1997 episode saw Huell visiting with the cameraman of “The Happy Wanderers” – a California road-tripping program with a good-natured and slightly goofy host – which Huell seemed to realize was very much a 60s and 70s precursor to his own shows. All but forgotten today with very little about it online, not a single clip of the show even exists on YouTube – all the more sad because the “Happy Wanderers” cameraman mentioned he had 16mm prints of the episodes in his garage and was hoping to transfer them to a more modern format and make them available. Who knows what happened?
With clips galore on YouTube, Huell’s own website, and KCET announcing they’ll continue to air his shows (for a while, anyway), we should all of us be thankful, is what, that Huell Howser’s body of work won’t suffer a similar fate.
Enjoy your retirement, Huell! I’ll raise a forkful of turkey sandwich at the Tallyrand in your honor.