Legendary southern California broadcaster and on-screen tour guide Huell Howser died unexpectedly today at age 67. I don’t know if his death was unexpected to those in his personal sphere, but it certainly seems to have been unexpected to the rest of us; right up until his recent surprising retirement, he seemed as robust as ever.
For three decades, Mr. Howser brought gosh-golly-gee-whiz introductions to the lesser-known highlights of southern California: little eateries and specialty shops, the misbegotten weed-entangled park beloved by one local caretaker, the guy whose job it is to paint the bridge, and the local bee-keeper and such. (The photo above is from his visit to Pie n’ Burger, also in Pasadena.) He delivered all his stories with remarkable enthusiasm, couched in a Huckleberry Hound accent, but every iota of it was genuine. He was genuinely adored by “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, who saw fit to feature Mr. Howser in not one, but two, episodes of his show. In small towns and backwaters throughout southern California, a visit by Huell Howser meant redemption of some sort.
For those outside the reach of local Los Angeles telecasts, this may help in understanding the odd appeal of Huell Howser:
That’s him two years ago, belting one out on behalf of his beloved adopted state.
Below you’ll find a 5-minute video from a 1988 episode of his early show “Videolog” (pronounced as “Vid-EE-oh-LAWG,” with molasses poured around it). This 5-minute bit, of Howser touring a peach-cobbler shop in Pasadena, sticks with me for several reasons. First, it was one of my earliest exposures to the bewildering phenomenon that Mr. Howser was to become. (I moved to this state in 1988.) Second, I was struck then, as I am now, by how little story there is to be had in the tale of this cobbler shop, and how little he does to find more. His journalistic approach was terribly zen. Third, of course, I was bowled over by his rampant enthusiasm, which surely had to be faked (evidently, it wasn’t). And finally, because I was newly here, and in grad school, and didn’t have children and didn’t own a business, i.e., because whims were my coin of the realm, I got into my car and drove out to Pasadena specifically to sample the wares of The Cobbler Factory after seeing this bit on TV. Here’s what I discovered: The peach cobbler was okay. It was nowhere near the mystical constructs rendered by Mr. Howser in his television program. In fact, I thought it was too sweet — brutally sweet.
I’ll miss knowing he’s around, and catching him on TV now and then. The world has grown a little dimmer without that 1000-watt smile. Thankfully, we still have the Internet. There is a great deal of Huell Howser there for you to enjoy.