When I lived for many years in the green and yellow house on Santa Barbara Street, we had no cable television but persevered through that technological poverty on a steady diet of whatever the media gods fed into our antenna. And the manna that saved us most of the time was none other than Huell Howser, the public television personality who died earlier this week at what seemed to be a very youthful 67 years old.
Like anyone who first sets eyes on his oversized stature while hearing his hokey drawl during an episode of California’s Gold on KCET, we briefly considered the man a clueless goof. But then we realized that, for those of us addicted to the Golden State, he was our mainline into corners less traveled, into histories forgotten, and into personalities worth knowing. We began tuning in as much as possible to see where Huell went next, which always seemed to go great with post-work beers and whatever else anyone had to share. His was a noble plight, to document the road less traveled while revealing the quirks of the better known destinations, and in making such a quest his career, Huell, we also realized, was probably the smartest guy on the planet.
Nearly a decade ago, I was personally able to confirm that suspicion, when I traveled to Anacapa Island to report on an article about the plans to eradicate the nonnative black rats that had taken over. I’d arranged a special trip with the National Park Service, and they doubled up my request with another media team looking for a ride. That turned out to be Huell and his cameraman (not Louie, alas), which meant that I got to spend an entire day basking in the golddigger himself. I wasn’t exactly starstruck — I’ve had that beaten out of me thanks to growing up with a great-uncle named Merv Griffin — but I do recall a sense of awe, like I was about to see the Wizard behind the curtain and learn exactly what made Oz tick.
Upon our introductory handshake — firm, as you’d expect from a man with biceps as big as your head — Huell was one of the most immediately warm people I’d ever met, excited to talk about the islands, Santa Barbara, my job, and everything California. Our conversation was engaging and insightful as could be, and the Tennessee-raised TV veteran turned out to be deeply knowledgeable about myriad topics. And he barely had any drawl at all. The hokey thing, I came to see, was just a smart shtick.
Soon enough, Huell was working his magic, setting up each shot, getting the questions and answers right, and forcing scenes to be taken over and over again until they were to his liking. Because he was also reporting on the rats, which was a controversial and complex topic, one particular scene overlooking the entire island chain must have required a dozen takes, and I remember both the cameraman and the scientist being interviewed reaching a point of visible frustration. For fans of California’s Gold, that method might seem contradictory, as there was so much spontaneity on the show. But while Huell was genuinely excited about everything he covered, he was never the golly-gee half-wit he sometimes played on TV. Even off-the-cuff television takes vision and discipline, and Huell was a true auteur of the travel show genre.
That night, Huell and his cameraman were sleeping on the island, and he expressed sincere disappointment that I couldn’t join them. So we stayed in touch over the phone for a few months. I fed him a couple of story ideas about Santa Barbara when he needed them, and I got close to having a drink with him two times: once we made plans to meet at Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens before it closed for good and another time I invited him to my then-girlfriend’s house for a Summer Solstice party, but he must have gotten too caught up in the revelry to make it our way.
We never talked again after that weekend, but I always figured we’d meet up again. He was such a spry and fit fellow that I figured “California’s Gold” would shine on for many more years, and knowing that he loved Santa Barbara, I thought our paths would cross again. When I heard the news on Monday, I was briefly stunned and remain dismayed, but I am pleased to have witnessed such an outpouring of support and tributes. Huell left a legacy of love for my native state, and I’m happy to have called him a friend, if even for the briefest of times.