It's no secret that Huell Howser met a great many people during his time in front of the camera. But while he clearly delighted in talking to normal, un-famous people, he had a way with celebrities too. In the above clip, watch Huell interviewing comedy great George Burns at the 1980 Country Music Awards. Why was George Burns, of all people, attending the 1980 CMAs? Well, you probably have forgotten about Burns' country-twinged 1980 novelty hit, "I Wish I Was Eighteen Again."
In the short clip, Huell actually calls back to Dolly Parton, whom he interviewed in the previous clip we posted here on KCET. Huell asks Burns if there's any truth to the rumor that George Burns would work with Dolly Parton. Burns' three-word response reminds you how great he was at thinking on his feet: "The three of us?"
Monday @ 7:30 p.m. -- "Sauerkraut"
In 1896, the Kruegermann family started making pickles in Germany. The family immigrated to California in 1965 along with their secret family recipes for not only pickles but sauerkraut as well. In this episode, Huell spends the day with this wonderful family at their 25,000-foot facility, where he learns all about the art of sauerkraut!
Watch a preview:
Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. -- "Culver City"
Huell travels to the small city with a big history. Did you know that all the little people who portrayed the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz stayed at the Culver Hotel? Huell visits the Culver City Historical Society Archives and Resource Center, which boast two MGM costume cases. We'll also get a special tour of an historic "tower" that is something to see!
Watch a preview:
Believe it or not, Huell Howser had a life before he arrived in California. For fans of his public TV work in this state, that can be a hard concept to wrap your head around -- kind of like the childhood realization that your parents had a life before they had you. Recently, Howser's assistant and producer, Ryan Morris, began uploading videos of this early work to the Huell Howser Youtube account. For Huell fans or for anyone in love with pop culture, it's a kick to watch these. We'll be posting them here on TV Talk.
In this first video -- a segment titled "Country People," filmed for a New York CBS station back in 1980 -- Huell tours the New York penthouse of Dolly Parton. The intro also mentions joining John Ritter on a visit to the Grand Ole Opry and chatting with some regular folks, too, and while those segments don't appear in the clip, you can see the beginnings of the career that made him a star in California.
Of course, you have to stop and appreciate Huell's brilliant head of dark hair. And yes, at one point Dolly Parton does threaten that she will "get that gun of mine, and I'm going to change you from a rooster to a hen, and don't think I can't do it." That is a thing that actually happened.
Check back at TV Talk for more write-ups of Huell's pre-KCET adventures, and get more Huell Howser content at kcet.org/huell.
And if you haven't yet checked out the Huell Howser memorial page, have a look at what your fellow Huell fans had to say.
This story was originally published on Jan. 7, 2013.
As the world learns of the death of beloved KCET icon Huell Howser, endearing tributes and praise for the incomparable cultural figure have flooded social media platforms, online publications, and television. Huell's passing reverberates in the minds of all those who were enchanted by his charming and curious enthusiasm for spotlighting the diverse people and places of California. Coverage of Huell's life and reactions to his death may be found below:
Fans of the late Huell Howser gathered at Griffith Observatory Tuesday afternoon and watched the sun melt into a vibrant sunset -- a poetic literalization of "California's Gold." Organized by Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge, this salute to Huell's career drew hundreds out into chilly temperatures to sing "California, Here I Come" once more and to say goodbye to a TV host they considered a friend.
Monday @ 7:30PM -- "Happy Wanderers"
Huell spends a day with the cast and crew of the popular 60s TV travel show, "The Happy Wanderers," and meets Henrietta, wife of the series star Slim Barnard.
Tuesday @ 7:30PM -- "Hollywood Ladies"
Huell visits with five ladies who were all actresses in the 40s and who have remained friends and walked together every Saturday for 50 years.
The name alone -- Huell -- could be so easily drawled into two syllables in parody of the Tennessee accent he declined to straighten into the broadcast standard. And his ebullience -- his gusts of wonderment at all things great and small -- was made for caricature. But he didn't change that, either. It took strength of character to be Huell Howser.
His death this week is being treated (at least by some) as the passing of a beloved uncle -- the one who never married but who always sent the best Christmas gifts, the one who would go with you on the scariest rollercoaster rides, and the one whose story seemed to have too many blank pages.
Howser's biography is plain enough: born in Gallatin, Tennessee in 1945, a conventional small town boyhood, graduation from high school, and afterwards college and a degree. But Howser was keen to be more than conventional. He got an appointment as a Congressional page. He worked as an aide to Howard Baker's Senate campaign. After high school, he joined the Marine Corps reserves. But at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he was a history and political science major, he became a leader of anti-war protests. He once considered running for Congress.
When I moved to California, nobody had to tell me about Huell Howser. He was just there, ubiquitous. And I was instantly a fan.
I have always loved regionally-produced television. I grew up in Chicago watching the numerous original shows made by WGN, and it was always important to me that Fred Rogers never left Pittsburgh and that "Mystery Science Theater 3000" was shot in Minnesota. I liked that good TV was being made in the boonies, that there were exceptional shows that weren't being pumped out of the Hollywood machine. So it is ironic that it was when I moved to Los Angeles to "make it big in show business" that I was introduced to my favorite creator of outsider television, Huell Howser.
I don't remember which episode it was, or even which show of his it was (when I watch Huell now I still don't know whether I'm watching "Road Trip" or "California's Gold" or "Visiting...", nor does it particularly matter to me) that first exposed me to Huell's work, but I was immediately taken with the charm and humility of both the show and the amiable man with the linebacker build who hosted it. There was such an affecting lack of polish, such an earnestly homemade quality to the show. And Huell was so full of genuine enthusiasm and wonder over whatever, wherever or whomever was his topic. An utter lack of cynicism. An infectious boosterism for his, and now my, adopted home.
If you haven't seen it, watch the episode where Huell visits a place called Newberry Springs, a desert town that one could judiciously call the middle of nowhere (the now beloved Bagdad Cafe segment happens here). This episode isn't just a simple travelogue, it's a universal existential portrait. Everything goes wrong. Everything Huell and his crew have come to see (which isn't much to begin with) is either closed or no longer exists. But he pushes on with aplomb, eventually resorting to just pulling the van over and knocking on doors when they spy something (anything!) of interest. He sees two guys doing yardwork and ends up having a spaghetti lunch on their back patio. He finds an old guy with a yard full of rocks, some of which the man licks in order to help Huell recognize their potential beauty. The episode even includes a segment in which Huell stops at a roadside store that he describes at length as chock full of interesting attributes, but of course the punchline is that it's closed.
Any other show would have cut that segment out; indeed, most shows would have probably deemed the whole episode a bust and never aired a moment of it. But Huell shows us the whole thing, and the viewer gets to share in his experience -- the initial excitement, the disappointment and frustration, and the eventual triumph of his relentless upbeat optimism. He truly makes something out of nothing. It is one of the most uniquely compelling and entertaining hours of television I have ever seen.
My friend James Adomian wrote a lovely tribute to Huell earlier this week, and in it he notes how it seems that everybody in L.A. has a story about a personal brush with Huell Howser. My family and I used to frequently see him eating breakfast at Du-Pars in the Farmer's Market, which we always felt was a perfect place for a Huell sighting (he always ordered the same thing as far as I could tell: a short stack and a huge glass of milk). I never played the "Hi, Huell, I'm on TV, too" card. We would always just say hello anonymously and let him enjoy his meal. One time, when he was seated behind me, I eavesdropped on an exchange he had with a woman who recognized him. She approached, and with no preamble just announced, "You ought to do a show about me. We live in Burbank and raise miniature horses in our backyard." I sat in my booth and rolled my eyes. This lady doesn't understand how show business works, I thought. You can't just stroll up in a coffee shop and book yourself on a TV show. But a minute or so later I heard Huell's voice say, "Well, all right! We'll see you Tuesday at nine o'clock!"
I was wrong. You can just book yourself on a TV show when that show is hosted by someone as open and curious and unjaded as Huell Howser. His kind of attitude is something to aspire to. I will miss seeing him on new adventures, but I am glad that he has left behind such a vast, impressive body of work. I didn't know him personally, but as a viewer, I do think I knew him well. And I feel safe in saying that he was a very good man who made a lot of very good television.
The world is filled with snarky assholes. I've been one myself on several occasions. And sarcasm. There's so much sarcasm around these days that sometimes it's hard to believe anybody is capable of being sincere anymore.
Huell Howser was not a snarky asshole. And as far as I could tell, Huell Howser didn't have a sarcastic bone in his body. How else could he get that excited about apple cider or a quilt or an old wooden floor? What else could explain how he could, without irony, beckon his faithful cameraman Louie to get a shot of some small detail the rest of us wouldn't notice with the same enthusiasm most people save for the discovery of a one hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk?
Huell Howser was our friend. The friend who makes us laugh, many times unintentionally. The friend who always seems to be more awake and in a much better mood than the rest of us. The friend who pushes us to do things we don't think we'll like which we then end up enjoying very much. The friend who always knows how to cheer us up.
Sometimes we worried about him, like the time he went to the kitty litter factory and enthusiastically asked each of the tough guys working there if they owned a cat. Sometimes we braced ourselves for the possibility that his upbeat energy might rub someone the wrong way and we'd have to watch that person be mean to him. But they never were mean to him. What kind of monster could be?