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Huell Howser and the Gospel of Beauty

"California history and poetry, nobody cares about that."

I knew in my heart he was wrong, but there wasn't much I could say at the time. "It might be romantic, but if you want to write and make a living, write for an advertising agency or write a screenplay. Not California history and definitely not poetry, do you want to starve?" My dad would laugh and tell me not to be sophomoric.

I was 21 years old in my third year at UCLA and on this particular night I was riding in the car with my father to visit my grandmother at her house in Inglewood. Before we arrived, we argued some more about my interest in poetry and career choice as a writer. My studies at UCLA brought into focus my own third-generation Angeleno status, and after studying with Mike Davis and Urban Planning professor Brian Taylor, I had made up mind in spite of practicality or whatever jokes my dad had.

"My son, the poet," he would say with a smirk. We would visit my grandmother and eat dinner with her. KCET was almost always on in her home; I remember that my grandfather always watched the Macneil/Lehrer News Hour, and after he passed in 1985 my grandmother continued too. They were old school L.A. in every sense of the word. I remember they subscribed to the Herald-Examiner rather than the Los Angeles Times.

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We watched Huell Howser together with my dad and her many times over the years. Back in the mid '90s, Huell Howser was about the only thing my dad and I could agree on.
The truth is, we'd visited many of those places over the years, but my dad took it for granted because he was born in Los Angeles in 1941 and seen it all before. He'd lived through the history I was studying about and didn't think it was as significant as I did. My dad had taught me about the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright from an early age. I had a natural interest in maps and geography by kindergarten that was fostered by lots of drives with my dad and both of my grandfathers. My dad and grandmother liked Huell because it triggered the nostalgia of their own childhood and experiences growing up in Southern California while it was still being built. For me, "California's Gold" reinforced my own burgeoning interest in this history; I saw Huell as a messenger to stick to my own California dream.

In my first few years at UCLA, I discovered that looming behind my interest in Los Angeles geography and history was a massive treasure trove of books, film and music. Huell affirmed this interest every time I saw his show. I watched it even more the older I got. Shortly after I graduated from UCLA I emailed him a few of my L.A. poems, but I never heard back from him. Though I had hoped he would respond, looking back I don't mind that he never replied, because just seeing his joyful spirit on television over all these years made me happy and reminded me to keep taking drives and study the landscape. Huell helped me see that my dad and grandparents were an amazing source, and I started taking more drives with my dad and asking my grandmother even more questions. Huell helped me realize I had family roots on both sides that traced back to all four of my grandparents growing up in Los Angeles during the Roaring Twenties.

Before she died in 2003, my grandmother told me many of her memories of early Los Angeles. Places visited by Huell would trigger conversation points and memories every time we'd watch it. She knew Southern California well because she was born in 1917 in Highland Park in a homestead near Avenue 59 and York Boulevard. She attended Polytechnic High School when it was located on the present site of Trade Tech College. She lived the last 52 years of her life in Inglewood.

Her husband and my grandfather, George Sonksen, attended Manual Arts High School and was a carpenter/contractor who built many homes around the San Fernando Valley and also in Inglewood along Crenshaw in the 1950s. He also worked a few years for McDonell Douglas during the Second World War. The more I uncovered my own family history the deeper I got into my studies. Huell's portraits of people and their stories helped me realize how meaningful every story is.

My dad was born in Los Angeles around 87th and Central, and his family moved to Inglewood when he was 10. He attended Washington High School a few years behind Surf Rock legend Dick Dale, known for his band the Del-Tones who were later rediscovered thanks to "Pulp Fiction." My dad loved Huell's portraits of out of the way entrepreneurs like Fosselman's Ice Cream in Alhambra, or the famous donut man in Glendora. Like many other families, lengthy drive missions across Southern California were regular weekend activities for my father and me during the 1980s.

It's easy to see how Huell provided the common ground for people to relate and meet on like he did for my dad, grandmother and me. We had many joyful moments watching Huell Howser. As the years went on and I gradually began to get published, my dad gradually warmed up to my interest in California history, maybe not poetry, but that's another matter. Either way, Huell Howser's show was an important bridge.

Reflecting on Huell's passing I am reminded of the early 20th Century poet Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay espoused a philosophy he called "The Gospel of Beauty." Lindsey walked across America between 1908 and 1914, performing poetry and sharing the gospel of beauty wherever he could. He was called "the Prairie Troubadour." Part of the gospel of beauty, Lindsay declares, is "the new localism: the things most worthwhile are one's own hearth and neighborhood. We should make our own home and neighborhood the most democratic, the most beautiful and the holiest in the world." Lindsay was known for an enthusiasm perhaps unmatched until the rise of Huell Howser.

Huell Howser embodied Vachel Lindsay's wandering spirit of making every site and moment holy. Huell was a California Troubadour and wherever he found himself he was celebrating the beauty of that moment, whether it was the Point Fermin Lighthouse, the Apple Pan, or some small local eatery he stopped by. "Wow! That's amazing!" Huell's gospel of beauty was an ability to shine a bright light on everything he saw and touched. Huell didn't push some predetermined agenda like some reporters or journalists; he just encouraged his subjects to tell their own story and allowed them to shine in their own natural light.

In this age of critics, pundits and know-it-alls, Huell ebulliently showcased real people and cataloged the heartbeat of California, winning fans from all walks of life. Ironically, Huell worked for "Entertainment Tonight" in the early 1980s before he started with KCET in 1985; this makes sense in retrospect because his "California's Gold" segments and his other KCET shows are light years away from the artifice of Hollywood glamour and tabloid television.

After beginning his Los Angeles days in the belly of the artificial beast, Huell ran in the other direction and found California's Gold in the everyday landscape, reminding us to behold the beautiful in our own backyard. DJ Waldie wrote in Zocalo Public Square, "Howser wasn't just pitching the muchness of California, an abundance anyone should be able to see unaided. He was pitching the almost infinite otherness within the ordinary of California, particularly when California is considered with joy."

Considering California with joy could be as simple as appreciating those days when it's clear enough to see snowcapped Mt. Baldy. Huell helped a generation of Californians realize the majesty all around us. There's no question that Huell's influence on the growth of the study of California History is every bit or more influential over the last generation as the work of writers like Mike Davis and Kevin Starr. "California's Gold" has been seen by millions over the last 25 years; there's an archive of 2000 episodes. In 2011 Huell donated all of the tapes to Chapman University in order to be digitized, as well as gifting the school 1800 books on California history for their library.

My dad always saw Huell Howser as a modern-day Zen-master. Huell's love for California transcended party divisions, his enthusiasm for people and places was a powerful touchstone that brought our family together and I'm sure countless others like mine. Similar to Vachel Lindsay, Huell Howser was an emissary for the gospel of beauty.

So long Huell, thank you for reminding Californians to celebrate the gold in our own backyard: You are one of the brightest stars that ever beamed in the firmament of L.A. Letters.


Top: Huell Howser as Grand Marshall of the Nisei Week Parade in Little Tokyo, 2007. Photo by Ed Fuentes. Read Fuentes' tribute to Huell here.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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