July 10, 2013

California State Fair celebrates Huell Howser's amazing life

The late Huell Howser never lost his Tennessee accent, but he became California gold.

The late Huell Howser never lost his Tennessee accent, but he became California gold.

With quirky travelogues, the longtime television host made us slow down to marvel at little gems in our great big state, not an easy feat in our hectic world.

At the 160th State Fair, Howser is expected to be among the most popular attractions.

As he would say, "That's amazing!"

A life-size cardboard cutout of Howser will stand in for the ever-smiling host at "That's Amazing: A Celebration of Huell Howser." The new 1,000-square-foot exhibit will be housed in the California building near the county exhibits.

"Without a doubt, Huell Howser is someone California will always be proud of," said Rick Pickering, Cal Expo's new CEO. "He was a very special person."

Howser died at age 67 on Jan. 7, just six weeks after abruptly announcing his retirement. The cause was later revealed as prostate cancer, a disease he had been battling in private for several years.

Cal Expo worked closely with Chapman University, the home of the Huell Howser Archive. He had bequeathed his entire estate to the Orange County college before his death.

The State Fair exhibit expands on a tribute that originally appeared at the university, said Greg Kinder, Cal Expo's deputy program manager. Chapman's Mary Platt and Randolph Boyd helped coordinate the exhibit.

"This was a natural," Kinder said. "This tribute will celebrate Huell for all he'd done for California.

"He was such a cool guy," said Kinder, who had met Howser and got one of his "That's Amazing" caps. "He had that ability to treat everybody like a VIP. He gave you his complete attention. No. 2 reason why he's so appealing to so many people: his demeanor and accent. You always felt comfortable with him like he was an old friend."

Howser himself was a pretty interesting character, the kind of guy he'd like to interview.

He liked unusual homes and owned one that could rival any of his subjects. His Volcano House – near Newberry Springs off Highway 40 east of Barstow – was built in the caldera of an extinct volcano. Photos of the home as well as artwork, photos and memorabilia – including a piece of the famous "Hollywood" sign – will be part of the State Fair tribute.

"His Volcano House is like something out of the Jetsons," Kinder said.

"It's quite an extraordinary space. He had a very electric art collection, very unusual."

The show also features a re- creation of Howser's office including his favorite Tommy Bahama shirt and a vintage video-editing bay that he used for decades.

"I look at that thing, and I can't believe how much work he did on it," Kinder said. "He was definitely very old-school."

Howser's approach to capturing California's character was decidedly old-school. He got out and met people, then listened to their stories.

He told people his job was simple: He traveled the state with an open heart, an open mind and open notebook. All he needed was a microphone and a handheld camera.

"We operate on the premise that TV isn't brain surgery," Howser once wrote of his work. "People's stories are what it's all about. If you have a good story, it doesn't have to be overproduced. I want our stories to reveal the wonders of the human spirit and the richness of life in California, including its history, people, culture and natural wonders."

Howser made hundreds of episodes over more than two decades. Los Angeles Times columnist Howard Rosenberg called Howser's shows "intimate, magnificently unslick, utterly charming, absolutely irresistible."

Actor and comedian Thomas Lennon, who met Howser at his neighborhood dry cleaners, ranked among those Californians who were deeply touched by his unvarnished charm.

"Huell was as excited to meet me as he once was to meet the lady who makes aebleskivers in Solvang," Lennon wrote in an appreciation of Howser for Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET, Howser's longtime TV home. "He was as excited to meet me as he once was to see a real butter churn in action or that time he saw that cool player piano, which is to say: He was overjoyed 100 percent.

"This was Huell Howser's nature," Lennon added. "To be intrigued, enthralled, amazed – by things that might seem ordinary."

Howser had the power to make the commonplace instantly special. His enthusiasm seemed endless.

From his beginnings, Howser was one of a kind. "Huell" was a unique blend of his parents' first names, Harold and Jewell. A native of Gallatin, Tenn., he majored in history at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. After service in the Marine Corps, he worked for U.S. Sen. Howard Baker and then moved into television.

Howser's first show matched his relentlessly upbeat personality: "Happy Features." He worked his way cross-country on TV, hosting news programs on CBS affiliates in New York and Los Angeles (plus a stint on "Entertainment Tonight") before landing in 1985 at KCET.

The series that would become "California's Gold" started innocuously as "Videolog," offbeat short subjects that Howser collected with relish. A rambling travelogue to points never suspected, "California's Gold" became a video treasure chest, packed with memorable gems.

Howser didn't stop with "Gold." His franchise also included "California's Communities," "California's Golden Fairs," "California's Water," "California's Green," "California's Golden Coast," "California's Golden Parks" and more California nuggets than any videographer could mine.

Howser's work on the "Golden Fairs" series brought him to Cal Expo.

"Unfortunately, Huell got ill before he could complete that episode," Kinder said. "But he had a real affection for the State Fair."

Said Pickering, "Huell was a great cheerleader of what makes California special. People really love him."

In his will, Howser insisted that there be no memorial service, according to his friends and colleagues.

"He made it clear he didn't want a memorial," Pickering added, "so we're going to celebrate Huell."


Where: 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento

When: Friday through July 28

Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays

Admission: $12 general, $10 ages 62-plus, $8 children 5-12, free for children 4 and younger

Parking: $10

For more information: www.bigfun.org

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

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