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.
The location, overlooking the expanse of L.A. and countless spots that Huell had visited during his long TV career, was especially appropriate, said observatory director Ed Krupp, because it was a place that Huell had visited many times, a place where the public can gather and a place where people can connect with the cosmos. "Huell was not a public official, but he was a tireless promoter of this state, this city, and this observatory," Krupp told the crowd. "He knew the attractions of California better than anyone. And he was not a celebrity, but everybody knew him and, more importantly, liked him. ... Will you forgive me for reminding you of the obvious? I am the city astronomer, and I know a star when I see one, and Huell Howser was one of the first magnitude."
In his remarks to the crowd, KCET president Al Jerome acknowledged that the event had been organized in spite of Huell's wishes that there be no public memorial: "He wanted his work to stand on its own merits, and we can understand that. The problem was Huell was a very, very private man, and those of us who [worked with him] knew him through his work, and the work and the man were inseparable. While he was so private, he was remarkably self-confident and completely at ease standing in front of people with a camera going, and he could just create something like nobody else." Jerome added that Huell excelled at "getting excited about [people's] everyday stories and their homes and their jobs and their families and most of all, perhaps, their food -- all food, with the sole exception of menudo," referencing a famous episode of "Visiting."
LaBonge explained that the day of the tribute, he'd received a call from actress Jane Lynch. When LaBonge told Lynch about the event, she explained to him, "I got to know California through Huell's eyes." And it was in that sense of Huell as the great educator that LaBonge declared his wish that there one day be a Huell Howser High School in Los Angeles -- "And they should be known not as the Tigers or the Lions or the Bears but as the Historians!"
Pop culture historian Charles Phoenix, who did a spot-on impression of Huell, noted "Today is also a sad day in California, because we have lost our greatest documentarian and our golden boy." Phoenix, who reminded the crowd that Huell's name was a blend of his parent's names, Harold and Jewell, touted Huell as a hero and bemoaned that so many fans never got to tell him how much they appreciated his work. "We all wish, though, that we had the chance to tell him how much we loved him and to say 'Thank you, Huell,' for sharing the stories and the glory of the greatest state in the country, like nobody else before or after him."
Other speakers included actress Annemarie Johnson, who read a statement that Rep. Janice Hahn had had shared on the house floor. "[Huell] fell in love with his new home, and created his own television show dedicated to life in California. ... His folksy charm was disarming, and his folksy interviews were lighthearted and friendly. He talked to nearly everyone he met and found the most incredible stories, ranging from tragic and touching to pure and wonderful."
Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, praised Huell for informing the public about California's past. "Before there was Facebook, before there was YouTube and even before there was Yahoo, there was Huell Howser. He was the first social media," Dishman said. "Huell caught us all up in his web through his interactions, his sharing and his explorations of the wide world of Los Angeles and all of California."
And public works commissioner Capri Maddox enthused, "He shows us 'California's Gold,' and we're going to continue to enjoy it. We let him into our hearts -- sometimes for 30 minutes at a time, sometimes just for a moment -- and we learned so much about this city. We learned to appreciate the beauty of California... places we'd never seen or places we just drove by and ignored."
Attendees agreed with the sentiments. La Mirada resident Constance Leong said she learned to love Huell by watching his shows with her family. "We'd be flipping through channels, and we'd always end up watching Huell." Pasadena resident Carrie Bass said Huell's shows were mandatory entertainment for her and her grandchildren. "I've admired Huell for many years. I think he was the ultimate storyteller." Steve and Kris Jenkins, also of Pasadena, said they even go "Huelling" -- that is, taking daytrips inspired by their favorite Huell Howser outings.
Foremost among the fans gathered, perhaps, was Rob DaGasta, a Burbank resident who had taken it upon himself to distribute forms to locations Huell had visited -- among them, Pink's Hot Dogs, The Donut Man, Philippe's, and Galco's -- so that staff and clientele could write messages to Huell. DaGasta, who has also transformed his Facebook page into a live-updating memorial, displayed the autographed sheets on picnic tables at the observatory parking lot, and said this style of remembrance seemed appropriate to honor Huell. "It's low-key, low-tech and it's not slick," DaGasta said, noting that put it in line with Huell's signature style. "I've been out here [in California] 18 years, and this the most fulfilling thing I've done since I came out here."