(PE.com/FILE IMAGE) Huell Howser signs autographs before filming a segment for his PBS show "California’s Gold" in front of the renovated train depot in Perris in 2009.
HUELL HOWSER: ‘California’s Gold’ host dies
Huell Howser, one of my husband’s favorites, who turned his folksy reporting style – featuring an unrepentant Tennessee drawl and gee-whiz approach – into television gold, died Sunday evening at his Palm Springs home. He was 67.
The Riverside County coroner confirmed Howser’s death Monday, Jan. 7. An employee who did not want to be identified said Howser had been in hospice care.
A staple of KCET public television in Los Angeles for more than two decades, Howser produced several series of programs for the station but is probably best known for chronicling the hidden history of the Golden State in “California’s Gold.”
For Howser, just about anything to do with California was “amazing!”
Ryan Morris, who identified himself as Howser’s “friend, assistant, producer, and sole employee,” said Howser died at home from natural causes after a long illness.
“It was something he was dealing with for a long time,” Morris said. “It was a progressive natural illness.”
Just six weeks ago, Howser announced he had decided to retire. He declined interviews at the time. Morris said Howser wanted to maintain his privacy about the illness.
The retirement marked the end of a career in which Howser produced about 2,000 shows for public television largely focused on the people, history and often quirky elements of California. His everyman persona resonated with a large audience, and he enjoyed it.
“I’m just running around having adventures,” he told a Press-Enterprise reporter in a 1999 interview. “People see me and say, ‘If Huell can do it, I can do it! Huell is us!’”
Howser’s work life was centered in Los Angeles. But he spent a lot of his down time in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. In addition to his Palm Springs residence, he owned a home in Twentynine Palms and the Volcano House, an architectural landmark in Newberry Springs east of Barstow.
He also taped many shows in the Inland Empire. Places he profiled included Old Town Temecula, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, Hemet, Lake Arrowhead, Rialto’s Wigwam Motel, Redlands’ Lincoln Shrine and Historical Glass Museum and Lake Norconian. He appeared at numerous local events, helping to raise funds for various projects. In 2004, he was the grand marshal of Banning’s Stagecoach Days parade.
For 12 years, Luis Fuerte was Howser’s sole cameraman. Viewers often would hear Howser say, “Luis, get a shot of this!”
Fuerte, never seen on camera, lives in Rialto. He said he found out about Howser’s illness three weeks ago and was stunned.
While he characterized himself as opposite of Howser in many ways – Fuerte is uncomfortable in the spotlight – as a team, he said, they clicked.
“We had a very excellent working relationship,” he said. “We had a lot of fun.”
He said the stories were often as impromptu as Howser’s on-camera banter.
“We’d be driving down the road on 395 and we’d see some crazy museum and we’d pull over and just do a story,” Fuerte said.
He said he would most remember Howser’s dedication.
“I think his love for history and how much he cared for this state,” he said. “He loved his work and he loved people.”
Howser also had a passion for preservation. He got involved in an effort to save the historic but deteriorating Norconian Hotel by filming a 2007 episode about the landmark that once hosted guests such as Babe Ruth and Bob Hope.
Norco historic-preservation activist and Councilman Kevin Bash, who spent the day filming with Howser, said the episode put the building back on the map. He said Howser had lost a fight to save another building and wanted to help with the Norconian.
“It’s very important, what he did to try and save that Norconian. He took it to a whole new level,” Bash said.
Behind the scenes, Howser kept up the personality he showed on screen, Bash said. “When he asked you a question, you felt that he really wanted to know the answer.”
The two continued corresponding, and Howser said he would return to Norco to film a segment about the equestrian culture of Horsetown USA.
“He said he was coming back. He said there were so many things he wanted to do on that show and they just kept stacking up,” Bash said. “He was good to Norco and I’m sorry he’s gone.”
Twentynine Palms artist Gretchen Grunt said Howser had interests that went far beyond television.
In an email, Grunt recalled at time that she and her ex-husband visited Howser in his Twentynine Palms home.
“As he gave us a tour of his newly remodeled home we saw these amazingly unique and beautiful assemblages made of curiously strange found objects hanging on his walls,” Grunt wrote. “We asked, ‘Who made these wonderful works of art?’ And Huell answered with an awkward, ‘I did.’ We were floored and exclaimed, ‘You’re an artist!’”
Howser was uncomfortable with the idea, she said, denying that he could be called an artist.
San Bernardino County Museum spokeswoman Jennifer Reynolds said Howser came to the museum in Redlands several times. On one occasion, she and her husband, former museum curator Bob Reynolds, accompanied Howser and Fuerte on a trip to Amboy Crater in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
“We strongly suggested doing Amboy crater in February or March. He (Howser) insisted he wanted to do it in July,” Reynolds said. “He said if it wasn’t hot it didn’t mean anything. My husband and Huell and Luis, carrying his camera and his batteries, made it all the way to the top. Then we went to Roy’s Café and drank so much lemonade. Huell interviewed everyone in Roy’s and everyone knew who he was, even a German tourist. Everybody knew Huell.”
Few people, she said, have done as much to promote an interest in local history.
“I think what he did for awareness of California history is really quite significant,” she said, “just the general awareness that he made of paying attention to what’s in your own backyard.”
Howser also narrated a documentary, “Living on the Dime,” that featured residents of Redlands, Loma Linda and the San Gorgonio Pass. The film told the stories of families whose lives were changed by construction of the longest freeway in the United States – Interstate 10.
In Riverside, he helped spotlight the Mission Inn Museum.
Executive Director John Wordan said Howser contacted him about eight years ago saying he wanted to do an episode on the museum.
“He was on the spot,” Wordan said. “He knew his stuff, but he was so open. He had the curiosity of a teenager, that magical, ‘Gosh, tell me more about it.’ He didn’t allow us to prescript any information. He wanted that spontaneity to come to the forefront. He knew what he wanted, but he wanted it to unfold in a way that was fresh.”
Wordan’s reaction to the news of Howser’s death was shared by many.
“I was just so saddened, and I was so stunned,” he said. “I think of him as one of the most alive people I’ve had the fortune of meeting. I was shocked.”
Morris said Howser is leaving most of his estate, including his three desert homes, to Chapman University. He has an established relationship with the school.
“They are handling his archive” Morris said. “A lot of it is already on display.”
Howser’s assets, Morris said, will fund California Gold Scholarships through the university.
A Tennessee native, Howser began is television career in Nashville. He moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to become a reporter for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. In 1985, he moved to KCET.
According to his website, he had a simple philosophy:
“We operate on the premise that TV isn’t brain surgery. People’s stories are what it’s all about,” says Howser. “If you have a good story, it doesn’t have to be overproduced. I want our stories to reveal the wonders of the human spirit and the richness of life in California, including its history, people, culture and natural wonders.”
Also contributing to this report: Staff Writers Leslie Parrilla and Erin Waldner.