Say the name Huell Howser and you’ll know if the person you’re speaking with is a Californian because he or she is sure to smile.
For 18 years, Howser beamed into living rooms sharing his travel adventures on KCET’s “California’s Gold.” His Tennessee accent and easygoing manner charmed viewers, but it was Howser’s heartfelt interest in learning about the offerings of our environs and people’s passions that kept viewers tuning in.
Howser explored Orange with his television show several times, but somehow always failed to include Chapman University, said Rand Boyd, head of special collections and archives librarian for the college. At one point, the school’s president, James Doti, sent Howser a handwritten invitation to visit the campus. Howser filed the letter away, but remembered it when he was seeking a place to care for his collection of “California’s Gold” videotapes. He met with Doti and toured Chapman, which began a relationship between the school and Howser. He ultimately decided the college was the right place to assure his archives would be put online and made available to anyone for free.
“He wanted to make sure his show was available to the public, but he didn’t think that anybody was really interested in him as a man or any of his stuff,” Boyd said.
Boyd sought to add more to the institution’s Howser collection and persuaded Howser to donate items from his travels, as well as his personal papers. When Howser died, it was discovered that he had given the bulk of his estate, including his personal photographs, to the school.
“Huell always told me he wanted all of this not to be about him, but about ‘California’s Gold’ — and that it’s not the kind of gold that can be found in a gold mine or in a gold ring, but in the hearts and minds of the people of California, and especially our students,” Doti said.
Howser spent time at the college and met many of its students. He created the California’s Gold Scholarship Fund to assist with their education costs.
In February 2013, Chapman hosted an event to honor Howser posthumously, which featured an exhibit curated by Boyd.
“It was very successful, and that’s what gave people the idea that maybe we should do something permanent, and also we were having fans call,” Boyd said.
The public wanted to see more on Howser, so Boyd stepped in as curator, working with college staff to select the items that would be on display. The resulting exhibit boasts a timeline, a behind-the-scenes look at the television show and memorabilia Howser collected.
“The exhibit was driven by what we had on hand because the bulk of the materials are all the tapes from the aired shows and, more importantly, all of the camera masters, the raw footage that he had shot for each show. There are approximately 5,000 tapes of those, but they don’t make a good exhibit. It’s hard to put shelves out there and make them interesting for folks,” Boyd said.
One of the highlights of the display is a re-creation of Howser’s office. This is a favorite of Mary Platt, Chapman University director of media relations.
“This was a guy who did his own work,” Platt said. “It’s really touching to see that we have his desk and all his equipment that he used to cut those shows together and some of his personal items that were on his desk ... It’s like you could see him walking right back in any time.”
Visitors also will see the microphone and camera used for “California’s Gold” and a plastic cow given to Howser by Fosselman’s Ice Cream Co. About 3 feet long and 29 inches tall, the cow is emblazoned with Howser’s portrait on one side and the company’s logo on the other.
Another memento was given to Howser by an ironworker involved in a maintenance project on the Golden Gate Bridge. When Howser visited, the rivets were being replaced and he was given one of the original rivets that had been removed.
Boyd’s favorite piece in Chapman’s collection is one that will not be on display, although it is telling about Howser’s humanity. It is a photograph taken in 1967 by a photographer from the Tennessean newspaper during a civil rights conference at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Howser, who was in the Marine Reserve at the time, is in uniform sitting in the crowd next to African-American members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization instrumental in the civil rights movement.
“It’s a great photograph,” Boyd said.
Boyd’s other favorite, which is on display, is a cartoon drawn for Howser by Stan Lee. The two men worked together in New York and when Howser was leaving for a job in Los Angeles, Lee gave him a drawing of them shaking hands.
“I found it in his papers. It was wedged in between some newspapers,” Boyd said.
Currently, there are no plans to rotate objects on display in “That’s Amazing! Thirty Years of Huell Howser and California’s Gold,” but there will be a changing exhibit in the display cases in the adjoining reading room. There visitors may see items that require special preservation and can be on display only for short periods of time, such as Howser’s yellow shirt made memorable in his famous poppy fields portrait.
“He had a point that the important thing is the show, but I think it’s important that we memorialize the man, too, because he did a great thing — he recorded the end of the 20th century in California. He recorded it at a level historians normally ignore,” Boyd said.
The exhibit will be launched with special events on its opening day. There are expected to be guest appearances by people who were featured on Howser’s show, such as the Lint Lady, Whistling Diva and the owners of the Bunny Museum in Pasadena, as well as food vendors, such as Pink’s Hot Dogs.
“A Golden State of Mind: The Storytelling Genius of Huell Howser,” a new documentary film, will be screened.
“I think only people in California understand the impact Huell had on California and how much people just adored him and still do,” Platt said.
Other campus collections will be open to view during the event as well, including Chapman’s Holocaust artifacts, artworks and outdoor sculptures.
Chapman’s next venture is the Center for American War Letters. When journalist Andrew Carroll wrote “Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters,” he asked military families for their correspondence and amassed a collection of 50,000 letters. Chapman will be archiving, digitizing and placing as many of the letters as possible online for the public.
“It doesn’t do any good to have these materials if you hide them behind locked doors,” Boyd said.
That’s Amazing! Thirty Years of Huell Howser and California’s Gold
What: Chapman University’s new permanent exhibit, “That’s Amazing! Thirty Years of Huell Howser and California’s Gold” will kick off with an open house Saturday. There will be appearances by some of the people featured in Howser’s shows, food vendors, tours of the exhibit and more. The Automobile Club of Southern California will be giving out free copies of its new “California’s Gold” tour map. There also will be screenings of “A Golden State of Mind: The Storytelling Genius of Huell Howser,” a documentary by Chapman professor Jeff Swimmer, at 10 a.m., noon and 2 and 4 p.m. in Memorial Hall.
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, beginning Saturday.
Where: Leatherby Libraries, Chapman University, 1 University Drive, Orange.
Tickets: Exhibit is free. Film screenings $12-$15.