Birdwell Blog

Mining California’s Gold with Huell Howser
In California #015

          In “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” the artist Ed Ruscha photographed the mile-and-a-half-long Sunset Strip and presented it in a 25-foot-long, accordion-folded book that takes the viewer on a scene-by-scene tour of both sides (viewed on the top and bottom of each page) of that iconic street. Made in 1966, it broke new ground in the traditional artist’s book. It also beckoned us to look closer at that which is right under our noses. Ruscha is not from California but Oklahoma. In 1956 he followed the rainbow that was Route 66 to the pot of gold that was/is Los Angeles. He’s been living there ever since. LA figures largely in his work.

 

 

 

 

          One Sunday morning while living in the Point Dume neighborhood of Malibu, I did my own version of “Every Building.” I hopped on my bike and rode down “Every Street in Point Dume.” I did not take photos, but I rode slowly and looked closely at the homes, trees, cars, barking dogs, elaborate landscaping, fortress-like gates, etc. In the early days of COVID I expanded it to “(Almost) Every Neighborhood in the Santa Monica Mountains.” I started in Malibu and worked my way east: Topanga, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, etc. I grew up in LA. I was astonished at how many neighborhoods I’d never seen. And while I was effectively in my home city, some of these places felt foreign and almost exotic. I had the sense of travel—without having gotten on an airplane.

 

 

 

 

          The late LA-based artist John Baldessari taught for many years at UCLA. He had a game he’d play in which he’d blindfold one of his students and have them throw a dart at a map of Los Angeles. Wherever it landed, there they would go, on a field trip. Same theme as the Ruscha book: there’s gold right under our noses, we just have to look close enough—or break out of our routines—to find it.

 

 

 

 

          Which brings us to Huell Howser and “California’s Gold.” Born and raised in Tennessee, Howser was a TV host. He got his start in Nashville, worked for a stint in New York City hosting CBS’s “Real Life,” then moved to LA in 1981 to work on a series of shows, among them “Entertainment Tonight” and “Videolog.” The more time he spent in California, the more he fell in love with its north-to-south diversity and seemingly bottomless human-interest stories. There was so much there that had yet to be wrangled into a single TV program.

          He obsessed over this, and in 1991 he pitched to PBS his dream show: “California’s Gold.” 

          “We had an instinctive feeling that if we just went out with an open mind and an open heart,” said Howser, “we were going to uncover this vast treasure—this untapped, unmined treasure—of California stories.”

          PBS loved it. Off Howser went.

 

 

 

 

          “California’s Gold” would take him to the top of the 746-foot-tall Golden Gate Bridge, and about a thousand feet down into the 16-to-1 gold mine, which has been in operation since the California Gold Rush days. He’d climb to the top of a 20-story windmill in Tehachapi, and paddle a kayak around Lake Manly, in Death Valley, in what’s known as the lowest spot in the continental US. He hung out with a team of senior citizen ukulele strummers in Newport Beach. He made an entire episode about kelp.

          “I’m convinced that if you put a spotlight on any person or subject and you’re genuinely interested in it, you can make it interesting, and something that people enjoy watching,” said Howser.

          Insatiably curious and oozing childlike wonder, Howser’s Tennessee-bred twang perfectly fit his fascination with California. His geekiness was far bigger than any need to be cool, and there are times in the show where he comes off like an earnest eleven-year-old. Think a less dude-ish Anthony Bourdain, feasting not on roasted sheep’s testicle in Morocco, but FDR’s yacht in Oakland, and the Bunny Museum in Pasadena, and the remnants of the Egyptian set for Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” 

          “Lots of people will say, ‘How do you find all these places?’And I try to be polite and just say, ‘All you have to do is just open your eyes, they’re all around you.’ Even though they’re kind of obscure—they’re there for everybody to uncover,” said Howser.

 

 

 

 

          “California’s Gold” ran for two decades. All up he made almost 450 episodes. At the end of “Huell Howser – California’s Dreamer,” a PBS documentary, Howser says, “I’m never going to retire. I have this vision of someday standing there and ending one of the programs by saying, ‘I’m Huell Howser, and I want to thank everybody for joining me on this adventure, and I’ll see you next time as we continue our search together for California’s gold.’ And then I’m just going to fall over dead in a sand dune right there, and the camera will keep rolling, and the credits will be the sand blowing over my dead body, and people at home will turn to each other and go, ‘Well, I guess that’s Huell’s last show.’”

          His vision was not too far off. Howser died from prostate cancer in his Palm Springs home on January 17, 2013. He was 67. Just six weeks before his death he announced that he’d decided to retire. But he worked in the editing room on “California’s Gold” right to the end. And he bequeathed his archive to Chapman University. Check it out here—https://blogs.chapman.edu/huell-howser-archives/

 

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