Tuesday, January 08, 2013

CALIFORNIA GOLDEN: DRIVE-IN MOVIE MEMORIES WITH HUELL HOWSER (1945-2013)



This week aficionados of colorful local folklore and the nooks and crannies of California culture lost one of their most vocal and sympathetic proponents. A Tennessee native, Huell Howser eventually came to make California, and the promotion of its working-class people, their arts, crafts, businesses and other contributions made under the relative radar of the culture at large, his very own sort of populist crusade. Armed with a single camera, a microphone and enough genuine enthusiasm and awe to either choke or convert the most hardened cynic, Howser spent the better part of 30 years traveling the state, visiting with the sort of folks usually found on the periphery of, or far away from the spotlight and producing programs for local public broadcasting hub KCET like California's Gold, California's Green, Downtown, Road Trip with Huell Howser and, yes, Visiting. 

Last month Howser abruptly (or so it seemed then) retired, a prelude to his eventual death just a month later. On the occasion of that retirement author D.J. Waldie, in his fine remembrance entitled "The Darkness Beneath Huell Howser," identified the plain-spoken celebrity with a movement of Golden State immigrants known as "folks," a term coined by historian Kevin Starr to designate late 19th-century citizenry who came to California from Eastern and Southern parts of the U.S.-- Protestant, fundamentalist, mildly evangelical, narrow in conventional ways, stoic but also secretly yearning in melancholy for the quality of life they had left behind in their home states. It was this melancholy binding of the value of these common folks with which Waldie so eloquently tied Howser's legacy:

The “folks”—however much they were mocked by later, big-city migrants for their provincialism—defined the everyday culture and politics of California past the mid-20th century in their expectation that the state would remain permanently theirs. They managed one last triumph: the passage in 1978 of the Proposition 13 property tax limitation measure. State demographers now chart the back-migration of the last of the “folks” to former hometowns in Kansas, Missouri, southern Illinois, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Oklahoma—perhaps as many as two million departures since 1991...
Howser—Tennessee-born, drawling elongated vowels, bursting with enthusiasms—chose not to leave. He has never, despite playing the part on television, been genuinely one of the “folks.” For one, he’s better off than most of them, thanks to his business skill and a natural parsimony. He’s also fiercely unprejudiced. But the melancholy behind his fierce public niceness, the cheer that was supposed to make up for the regrets of the transplanted, still binds him to the “folks.” And it was in their service that he went everywhere in California and embraced every quirk of local circumstance, all the while delivering warm gusts of wonderment that were only partially synthetic. He showed them the California that they had dreamed of—completely harmless but always interesting. He wanted them to fall in love with their state. If only they had loved California as much as he needed to.

In 2006 the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society, cofounded a year earlier by myself, Sal Gomez, Kathy Beyers, Lanna Pian and Chris Utley with the goal of promoting the mini-renaissance of California drive-in  movie culture that was flying in the face of the national downward trend toward extinction, played host to Huell Howser when he brought his Visiting with Huell Howser program to shoot an episode at the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, California. On that night we saw up close and personal that if Howser's legendary gregariousness, which had endeared him to working-class Joes and hipsters alike, was even partially an act, then it was a damn convincing one, and one that Howser seemed to wear as comfortably as the casual shirts, khakis and short pants in which is most often appeared on camera. Here's what I wrote on SLIFR back in 2006 about our evening with Huell raiding the snack bar and watching movies under the stars:

"Sal and I met (owners) Teri Oldknow, Frank Huttinger, Dave (the guy who is designing all the superb tiki decorations that are now on display at the Mission Tiki—with still more to come!) and new MT manager Todd out at the Tiki box offices, where we were joined by none other than KCET-TV’s own Huell Howser, producer and host of the very popular California's Gold series on KCET. Huell has made a very particular and popular art out of highlighting various wonderful, unusual, unheard-of aspects of California culture on his program, and thanks to Sal’s efforts, last night he and his cameraman (Cameron, perfectly enough) were there and shot an entire episode of California's Gold centering on the rejuvenated Mission Tiki and, yes, indeed, the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society. 
It was great watching Huell go all guerilla-camera-tactics on unsuspecting folks who were in their cars waiting for the box office to open. In person he’s exactly the way he presents himself on camera—genuinely interested, fascinated, inquisitive and uber-friendly—and it was marvelous to watch the way he got people to open up and gab with him on camera. (At one point, he ambushed a little girl waiting with an armload of goodies as she came out of the snack bar line and demanded to know what she’d chosen from the voluminous menu—she giggled and detailed every item.) He spent a lot of time talking to folks in line, outside and inside, visiting the projection booth and telling stories of drive-ins of his youth. When it came time for his dinner, he sat down with us at the SoCalDIMS table and sampled (nay, pounded down enthusiastically) the premium chili dog with utter delight. 
Then it came time for Sal and I to jump in the spotlight. Just before dusk, Huell and Cameron hustled us out to the lot on screen #3 and gave us our own little moment. And again, I feel it’s a tribute to Huell’s particular way of putting his subjects at ease, but I think both Sal and I comported ourselves rather well—pretty gregarious and well-spoken for a couple of drive-in geeks—and we breezed through our little segment, which Huell punctuated with continued praise when we finished (“You guys were greaaaaaat!”—Come on, you can hear him saying it, can’t you?)"

Howser did us one better by not only inviting us to come to KCET to watch him host live when the program aired as part of the end-of-summer fundraising drive. He also helped spearhead a KCET fundraising event at the drive-in a couple months later-- two screens and two great classic movie double features from which to choose. It was an honor then to have been able to talk with this local legend, and it's even more of one now that he's gone. And if you missed the drive-in episode, or any of the other scores of programs Howser produced, they've all now been made available online through the Chapman University Huell Howser Archive

However, since you've taken the time to read this far, I've saved you the click by posting our drive-in episode right here. My favorite part of the show is not, in fact, the interview Huell does with Sal and I just before the sun goes down-- it's actually the part of the evening when our hosts ambushes unsuspecting patrons in their cars who have lined up for the evening's drive-in offerings-- the best is the man who casually admits that he' packed up his family of pre-teen kids to come out for opening night of the Miami Vice  movie. Didn't faze Howser one bit. (Come of think of it, the part when Huell and his cameraman get lost on the Mission Tiki's vast lot is pretty choice too.)

Enjoy this episode, our SoCalDIMS encounter with Huell Howser, just one of the "folks" who just happened to make it his life's work, and our pleasure, to document the life in California that was familiar to most everyone in one form or other, but rarely celebrated with appreciation so unsullied by ironic winks and cooler-than-thou condescension. We missed Howser when he retired, we mourn him now, and we remember with this episode of Visiting just how much he contributed to the state of being a Californian.


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3 comments:

le0pard13 said...

The man will be sorely missed. May he rest in peace.

Juanita's Journal said...

I've enjoyed his show very much. And I'm glad that he made the effort to express a great deal of appreciation for California. I hope that he knew that some of us shared his appreciation. Good-bye Mr. Howser.

wwolfe said...

I've read several good appreciations of Howser since his death. This is the best, for my money. Thanks.