Huell Howser touched a lot of people. Literally.
Howser, the late “California’s Gold” host beloved for his genial manner and celebration of avocations and places others might consider ordinary, would clasp the shoulder or the hand of an interviewee. That touch would ease a public-park visitor’s or ice-cream shop employee’s shock at suddenly being on camera.
Howser’s tactile approach “instantly drew a warmth between him and his characters,” said Jeff Swimmer, director of “A Golden State of Mind: The Storytelling Genius of Huell Howser.” The hour-long documentary opens the 15th Sacramento Film and Music Festival at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre.
Howser, who died of prostate cancer in January 2013 at age 67, “had an incredible ability to put people at ease,” Swimmer said. “He was so effusive, and his curiosity was very genuine.” That curiosity fueled nearly three decades of California travelogue shows for public television, including the long-running “California’s Gold.”
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That there also was function in the touching was part of the “genius” description in the film’s subtitle. Howser was not a fan of the editing process, Swimmer said. So he would pre-empt it.
“He went in and he would move people within the frame to get them where he wanted to be, to the backdrop he wanted,” Swimmer said. “He knew how to work on camera in such a precise way that he had very few edits.”
Sharp as he was, Howser was good-natured about being perceived as a wide-eyed, indiscriminate enthusiast. After “The Simpsons” featured a reporter character named “Howell Huser” falling off a turnip truck, Howser contacted series creator Matt Groening. Instead of complaining, Howser said the show could use his real name and voice – which it later did.
Groening, a Howser fan, relates this story in “Golden State of Mind.” Swimmer also interviews one-time Howser interview subjects Slater Barron, who makes art from dryer lint, and Richard Pink, from Los Angeles hot dog restaurant Pink’s.
“There was no class system with him,” Pink says about Howser in the film.
Few Gold Rush-era ghost towns or eccentric hobbyists escaped Howser’s notice. He also could find a needle of quaint in a haystack of suburbia. He did this several years ago with the Orange County city of Orange and its Old Towne section.
James Doti, president of Chapman University, a private school in Orange, noticed Howser’s report did not include a visit to his campus. He sent Howser a hand-written note, which led to a friendship and many subsequent visits by Howser to the Chapman campus.
Though Tennessee-native Howser once was student body president at the University of Tennessee, he left the bulk of his estate, including his “California’s Gold” master tapes and two houses, to Chapman.
Swimmer, a professor in Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, made use of those archives in shooting “Golden State.” Underwritten by the Auto Club of Southern California, the documentary debuted earlier this year along with a permanent Howser exhibit at Chapman.
He also interviewed producers and camera men from “Gold,” as well as high school friends from Gallatin, Tenn., one of whom describes how Howser wrote good-humored stories for their school newspaper.
Yet Swimmer’s research only would reveal only so much about Howser.
“It was paradoxical,” Swimmer said. “On the one hand, he was a very public figure. Everyone seems to know him. (But) he was also an intensely private person. He never gave away anything at all about his private life or his private personality (on the show). If he didn’t have that thick Southern accent, you might not even have known he was not from California.”
His “Gold” colleagues talk about Howser’s work ethic. He might wrap up a day of shooting, then spot a sign leading to an ostrich farm, or a special doll collection, and he and his camera man would pull over to shoot some more.
Howser was fiercely loyal to his production team, Swimmer said, keeping the same people for years. But he did not hang out with them after work.
“When the camera was off, he led his own life,” Swimmer said.
Swimmer will appear at the Crest with “Golden State of Mind,” technically one of two opening-night films at the Sacramento Film and Music Festival, running through Sunday. “Headless,” a psychological thriller shot in Amador County and directed by Sacramento’s Toby Lawrence, plays at 9 p.m. Friday.
Howser and “Headless” make an unlikely pair. But SFMF directors Nathan Schemel and Tony Sheppard have learned a few things about programming over the years. The festival once was 10 days long. But attendance sagged during the weekdays bridging weekend programs.
Sheppard, a recreation and leisure studies professor at California State University, Sacramento, and Schemel, a film instructor at the Art Institutes of California – Sacramento, finance and program the festival themselves. They do it for the love of film. But they still need people to show up on all the festival’s days.
Last year’s event was five days. This year, Schemel and Sheppard are trying just three days but “packing it to the gills,” Schemel said.
Thus an opening-night double feature. And one with a strong local presence – if you count footage of Howser climbing into the Capitol dome.
Schemel and Sheppard program films from all over the world. But what brings in the bigger audiences, the pair have learned over the years, are locally based projects. Whether it is a feature-length narrative like “Headless,” or the long-running festival shorts programs Sac Music Seen (6 p.m. Saturday), which pairs local bands and filmmakers to make music videos, and “10 x 10” film challenge (6 p.m. Sunday), which gives directors 10 days to shoot 10-minute films, people want to “support their own,” Schemel said.
That desire thankfully has corresponded with a rise in quality among local films. The festival got started just as digital filmmaking technology was taking hold.
Now, there are “better cameras, better training from the colleges around town and just a more supportive community” than existed 14 years ago, Schemel said.
“Headless” should bring with it a built-in audience from the Art Institute. Lawrence, a film instructor there, shot his film over seven days in early 2013 in Sutter Creek and the tiny Gold Rush town of Volcano. The shoot included snow on the ground Lawrence had not anticipated given his locations’ elevation. “Headless” featured a production crew that was “about 90 percent” Art Institute students, he said.
The film stars Emily Jackson, who has appeared on the TV show “Fringe.” She plays a woman investigating the death of her sister under the guise of devoting her academic thesis to the legend of a frontier girl beheaded in the 1800s.
Lawrence said “Headless,” despite a horror-declarative title, is not pure horror.
“I am trying to bring the genre people and the people who love art film together” with “Headless,” he said. Holder of a directing MFA from Southern California’s California Institute of the Arts, Lawrence said he comes from an art-film background.
“Headless,” upon close inspection, is not all that removed from the Howser film preceding it on Friday evening. Howser also visited Volcano, and in “Golden State of Mind,” Volcano resident Adam Gottstein speaks eloquently about Howser’s populism.
Imagine what might have happened had Howser stumbled upon “Headless” director Lawrence and crew on location in Gold Country, shooting a chiller made more chilly by unexpected snow.
Seeing a Mother Lode of potential puns and opportunities for historical lessons, Howser no doubt would have pulled over immediately and told his camera man to start shooting.