I was in awe of Huell Howser long before I first shook his hand.
Huell Howser was the antithesis of the kind of work I produced for a living. At the time, I as a producer in commercial television, working for a celebrity-obsessed network that insisted on rapid-fire edits, short snappy soundbites, and visits to the outlandish homes of the rich and famous. One evening after a grueling day, I came home, put my feet up on the couch and turned on KCET. There was this strapping guy speaking into camera in a pronounced Tennessee accent.
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I remained spellbound while the handheld camera followed Huell up to the front door of a bungalow. Huell introduced himself to the owner of the home, a woman had lived there decades. It was one continuous shot; no edits, no cutaways, no short snappy soundbites here. The camera followed Huell into the backyard and the two shot featured Huell and the homeowner, just having a conversation for the next twenty minutes while standing in front of an enormous citrus tree. Huell Howser, the homeowner and her grapefruit tree. Huell's unique talent is that in the twenty minutes he talked to his interviewee, I learned about the woman, her late husband, the life they'd had in their home, the demographic and socioeconomic evolution of the neighborhood, and the life of that darned citrus tree.
I was hooked on Huell Howser and I told him so when we met in late summer 1998 on KCET's Stage A on Sunset Blvd. I had come to work at the station and one of my responsibilities was producing on-air fundraising. Huell was commanding the screen during a live pledge drive. The camera stayed on him, he spoke passionately about the mission of KCET, and the phones were ringing so loud I could barely hear his "Nice to meet you" when he shook my hand. That killer smile was real. And so was Huell.
When Huell was happy, you knew it. When Huell was displeased, he let you know it too. On one occasion, I had to preempt his show and replace it with a pledge program featuring barely-alive ex-rock stars plodding through their one-hit songs. The next morning, while on phone with my boss, I suddenly felt someone in the room. Even before I looked up I knew it was Huell. There he was, leaning against the doorway. The unplanned meeting went along these lines. "Soooo," he said semi-quietly in his familiar drawl. "Just wondering, how much money did you make last night?" I boasted about the amount we raised while Huell shook his head. "And how much money did you make when I pledged last weekend." Before I could even look at the report on my desk he gave me the amount, down to how many calls we got, the per-minute average, and how many VHS's we'd sold. Huell had trounced every other pledge show we'd aired. By the time he was done with his litany, Huell's already-booming voice was decibels louder especially when he asked how many calls we'd received from viewers upset that we'd pre-empted his show. I learned my lesson. Huell was right because he knew his audience, KCET's viewers, better than any one of us.
I marveled at the success we had when Huell pledged his series about California's Missions. I loved those programs. Huell and longtime camera man Luis Fuerte visited all 21 missions that ran along much of what is present-day California. The series became a staple in schools throughout the state. And the programs resonated with a viewers at a level I'd never witnessed before. The phones just rang and rang and rang and Huell kept talking for hours without taking a break. He didn't need direction nor did he ever accept it.
Some months before KCET left its historic lot on Sunset, we noticed Huell stopped showing up at his office on the third floor. At least not during working hours. He'd pop in late at night for an edit session. I knew he was around because on nights when I worked late, I often spotted his familiar SUV outside the building. Hoping to find him just to say hello, I'd run across the five acre KCET lot. But Huell was always gone by the time I got there. And by the time I walked back to the main administration building his car was gone.
Last year I was in Palm Springs and walked into a popular Mexican restaurant. It's so popular there's often an hour or longer wait for a table. That night luck was on my side. Just as I walked in, I noticed the back of a familiar bright green shirt at the bar. The crowd was thick so I had to push my wait to the front. I gave my name to the hostess and off to the side an always booming, very familiar voice said "My, my, my. Lookee who's here." I loved seeing Huell. I had missed that big smile for too long.
Within minutes, the crowds parted as the hostess led Huell, my partner Michael and me to a booth in front. Huell made sure we ordered because, he told us, he was only staying for a few minutes to catch up and hear how life was treating me. Even though he'd threatened to sit with us only while he finished his drink, Huell wound up staying with us for the entire meal. Life was great, he told me. He was enjoying his time in the desert. That's the most he divulged and then quickly turned back to questions about me, Michael, our house and KCET. I wish so much he'd not turned the tables on me and allowed me to talk. I had so much I wanted to say. I wanted to express my indebtedness to all I had learned through his adventures. But in typical Huell style, he didn't want any of the attention.
A few days ago, a startling thing happened to me. This is exactly how I remember it.
Huell appeared in my dream. Out of the blue, for no reason. I'd not watched his show for weeks nor thought about him. In my dream, I realized I was in New York City with Huell and he was asking me about the place I called home for a decade before moving to California. Huell had lived there for a bit as well. In the dream, Huell drew me into a conversation about the Manhattan I knew and loved. There no short snappy soundbites. Just one continuous shot. Huell asked about what mattered to me most and what made me the happiest. I told Huell he was interviewing me. I caught him. He showed me that big smile. The last thing he said was "I'm going along now. You be well." He embraced me, shook my hand and then we parted.
I awoke from that dream struck by its intensity. And now it's all crystal clear.
Goodbye, dear friend.
Top Image: Bohdan Zachary, Huell Howser and Jamie Smith on the KCET set during a pledge drive for Huell's show "Mobile America."