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: