Huell Howser, the broadcaster whose folksy fascination with all things Californian endeared him to millions of viewers, died in Palm Springs on Sunday night. He was 67.
The longtime host/producer of KCET's "California's Gold" and many other PBS programs succumbed to an unspecified illness. Typical of his very private ways, he had retired with as little fanfare as he could get away with at the end of November, after filming some 2,000 television episodes over a quarter century.
An ex-Marine, Howser's broadcasts - delivered in an enthusiastic drawl of his native Tennessee - were known for focusing on the lives and passionate interests of everyday Californians.
"Huell elevated the simple joys and undiscovered nuggets of living in our great state," KCET officials said in a written statement. "He made the magnificence and power of nature seem accessible by bringing it into our living rooms.
"Most importantly, he reminded us to find the magic and wonderment in our lives every day. Huell was able to brilliantly capture the wonder in obscurity. From pastrami sandwiches and artwork woven from lint to the exoticism of cactus gardens and the splendor of Yosemite - he brought us the magic, the humor and poignancy of our region. We will miss him very much."
Howser worked at KCET since 1985 after stints with commercial stations in Nashville, New York, KCBS (Channel 2) in Los Angeles and "Entertainment Tonight."
On Monday, he received an outpouring of appreciation from his home base, Los Angeles, and statewide.
'Although he was originally from Tennessee, Huell loved California more than most natives," L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a press statement. "His long-running television program, 'California's Gold,' shared with audiences the best our state has to offer. Huell would travel anywhere to show viewers the beauty and variety of the Golden State, from its most famous landmarks to the least known sights. And his boundless enthusiasm and curiosity was infectious, making us all see these places with the same amazement he did.
"His death is a loss that will be felt throughout Los Angeles and California. He will be greatly missed."
Kevin Starr, former California state librarian and now a USC history professor, praised Howser's unique approach.
"He was one of the important contributors to the ongoing interpretation of California over the past few decades," Starr, author of the multivolume history "Americans and the California Dream," said. "In terms of the medium of television, he was distinctively the leading interpreter of California.
"He also did it in a way that emphasized ordinary people," Starr continued. "Not just California as an exotic place or an eccentric place. He did schools, he did ranches, he did flower growers, all the different varieties of the state."
He also at times was an activist. He filed a lawsuit in the late 1990s to stop the city of Long Beach from demolishing a closed Naval Station so the site could be used for a cargo container terminal. A Superior Court judge dismissed the suit, ruling that Howser couldn't ask the court to micromanage the city's decision, in essence forcing elected officials to do what he wanted with the property. Howser wanted the site to be preserved as a national park.
Former Mayor Beverly O'Neill said the shipyard was "very sacred" to Long Beach.
"I would have liked to have saved it, too," said O'Neill, who served as mayor from 1994 to 2006. "However, because of the expenses and because of the need to have something that's productive for the city, it didn't work out that way.
"He was doing what he thought was important," O'Neill said of Howser.
To the many he met and profiled, though, Howser pretty much came off as the gol-lee, what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy from his shows. He was the ever-enthusiastic observer who didn't seem to realize his catchword was an ever-ready "Amazing!" And his down-home enthusiasm for the mundane sometimes won him parody in pop culture, including two episodes of "The Simpsons."
When he featured a local landmark on his program, it often resonated for years.
It's been 20 years at least since Howser did a piece on the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro, but the facility still gets new visitors whenever the show is rebroadcast.
"Even to this day people will come up and say, 'I saw that program with Huell,'" said Marifrances Trivelli, executive director of the facility. "It's inspired them to come down and visit. That's quite a legacy."
Howser also did a show on the return of the original lighthouse lens at San Pedro's Point Fermin Lighthouse in 2006.
In fact, he was "instrumental" in making sure the lens - which had been in a private collector's hands for years - got returned to the historic landmark, said Martha McKinzie, a descendent of some of the lighthouse keepers who also started the nonprofit Friends support group.
"Every time they show it (in reruns), we get a big bulge in tours going through the lighthouse," McKinzie said. Asked how they heard about the lighthouse, "They say, 'Oh, we saw that Huell Howser show.'"
He did a segment on the Leonis Adobe historical site in Calabasas in 2010. The site's museum director Diane Ramadan said he was a big hit at a party hosted to celebrate the show.
"He came, the place was jammed, and he went around and shook hands with everyone," she said.
"He continued to stay in touch, always asked how we were doing and helped us to launch a bus fund to get schoolkids here," Ramadan added. "Honestly, he was a really, really personable guy. Everything you saw on TV was exactly what he was. He used to say, 'If I'm having a bad day, I just don't go out 'cause I don't want to be grouchy.'"
The Kaiser Steel plant site of Fontana was the subject of Howser's program in March.
Two years in the making, the program included film from the Kaiser High School library as well as interviews done during a recent reunion of former steel plant workers.
Matt Slowik, a member of the Fontana Historical Society, said Howser captured a lot of historic items that were assembled over the years and that are at the historic Kaiser Steel Museum in Rancho Cucamonga.
"Being the figure that he was and covering many different aspects of California's history, that shed a light on our city and gave great exposure to Fontana in that historical perspective," he said.
"A lot of people recently knew about the great growth and development of the city operations we had, but what Huell did is take everyone back 50 years in time."
Ray Richmond, a former TV critic for the Daily News, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, summed up the broadcaster's appeal:
"Huell Howser was cool," Richmond said. "He elevated the unhip and the unslick to an artform. He deliberately tried to be as unobtrusive and childlike as possible, yet still had credibility. He had the persona of somebody jumping up and down and saying 'Look look look!'
"He stood out very positively in a world where people are overly full of themselves," Richmond said of the TV business."
Huell Howser Productions will continue to archive its owner's material, according to Ryan Morris, Howser's associate for the past seven years at the small production company that bore the boss's name. Never married, Howser donated a wealth of material and personal effects to Chapman University in Orange.
"We can all learn from Huell," Morris concluded. "Finding the extraordinary in things that seem unextraordinary. Meeting people that have cool things to talk about and, maybe they're not famous, but Huell was always trying to teach people that there are so many amazing things out there, you just have to keep your antenna up, and keep your eyes, ears and heart open."