Sunday, June 16, 2024

Remembering Huell Howser

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Whenever I drive through Monterey Park, I feel like kicking myself. For years my friend Huell Howser was intrigued by the Cascades, a low-slung waterfall that is a landmark in my hometown. He wanted to feature the Cascades on his KCET show, “California’s Gold.” I maintained that the Monterey Park Observatory would likely be more interesting to viewers. We had a running debate about these two attractions for over 25 years, but Huell never got around to featuring either one before he passed away in 2013. My hometown had missed out, I used to think, on being on Huell’s TV show, and it was my fault.

Huell Howser, long an iconic presence on California public television, passed away on January 7, 2013. The tenth anniversary of his death is today.

I met Huell in the late 1980s, when we both worked out downtown. Back then, Huell was producing short segments for KCET called “Videolog.” His new project, he told me, was a half-hour show about fascinating places in California.  There would be no celebrities, car chases, or crime stories. I remember telling Huell that I doubted whether enough people would watch it.

Angelenos know the rest of the story: “California’s Gold” proved to be a critical and audience favorite, as Huell travelled all over the state expressing wonder at the everyday people and places he encountered.

Through the years, I was Huell’s occasional sidekick on scouting expeditions for stories. We visited places like the Starlight Bowl in San Diego and “the best bakery in Yucaipa.” When we were together and Huell was recognized, people typically said to me, “Hi Luis!”  They usually thought I was his longtime cameraman Luis Fuerte, who was also Mexican American. People who met Huell loved to recite his catch phrase back to him: “That’s amazing!”

Sometimes at Christmas, Huell would drop by my family’s house, wearing a Santa hat and yelling out “Feliz Navidad!” in his twangy voice. He bonded with my older relatives, listening to all the stories I had heard a thousand times.

I was dismayed when I read about Huell’s retirement in 2012. For years, Huell had told me that his life’s dream was to continue doing shows until the literal end of his life. His plan, he used to joke, was to drop dead while taping “California’s Gold,” so that everyone could say that he died doing what he loved. Instead, Huell died peacefully at his desert home, age 67.

In one of our last phone calls, Huell informed me that he had, in fact, featured Monterey Park on his show. “What was it,” I asked him, “the Cascades, or the Monterey Park Observatory?”

It was neither of those places. Huell had done a story in Monterey Park in 1989, about the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College. He hadn’t mentioned it before because it had slipped his mind that East L.A. College was situated in Monterey Park.

I don’t know why this meant so much to me, especially since my family doesn’t live in Monterey Park anymore. But I’ve come to realize that when Huell visited your neighborhood or community, it made you feel proud that he was sharing your world with others.

Sometimes, it almost feels as though Huell is still here. His reruns continue to air on KCET, and I’ve lost track of the times I’ve heard people recommend a place by mentioning that “Huell Howser went there.”

How ironic that this exuberant Southerner became such a beloved figure in the Golden State. His joy at all things California lives on in our collective consciousness – and to me, that’s amazing.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and writer for CNN Opinion and NBC News Latino.

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