By Karen Ocamb
California TV icon Huell Howser died Sunday night, Jan. 6 of “natural causes” after a “long illness,” according to KCET, citing Ryan Morris, Howser’s producer and long-time friend. Howser was 67. (See SoCal Connected’s obit here).
For nearly two decades, Howser was a fixture on Southern California public television with shows such as California Gold in which his delight in exploring the simplest details of life made him the quintessential ambassador of wonder. “We operate on the premise that TV isn’t brain surgery. People’s stories are what it’s all about,” Howser said in a post on CalGold.com, the website of Huell Howser Productions, NBCLA noted. “If you have a good story, it doesn’t have to be overproduced. I want our stories to reveal the wonders of the human spirit and the richness of life in California, including its history, people, culture and natural wonders.”
I worked with Huell Howser briefly in 1982 during a summer vacation stint at what was then KNXT, the CBS News affiliate (now KCBS) in Los Angeles. A handsome Tennessee native with a Marine bearing, a quick smile and Southern drawl, he was a feature reporter for whom I wrote 10 second introductions for either anchor Jesse Marlow or Connie Chung to read. He was very nice and steady in a tumulus environment—he reminded me of a trimmer West Coast version of CBS News On the Road icon Charles Kuralt.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that Huell was gay. Of course, one couldn’t be gay and have a career in television news in those days—so no one said anything. I certainly didn’t since my “gaydar” was often way off. After I officially moved to West Hollywood a year or so later, however, I chose to believe Huell was gay and had decided to stay in a glass closet so as not to detract from the story he was so excitedly sharing.
I could be wrong—perhaps he wasn’t gay or perhaps he was still so deeply Southern that he was ashamed to come out—hence all the references to him being a “very private” man who never married. I don’t know. But in this instance, in this time and place where so many of us celebrate being LGBT—I didn’t want to lose him to our history, this man who brought so much joy and wonder to so many people, this man who for so many years I had wished and believed to be of our tribe. May he rest in peace.
Here’s an obit from KNBC featuring an interview with openly gay KPCC radio Off Ramp host John Rabe about Huell Howser, followed by a music video of Howser singing “California, Here I Come” with students from the Musicians Institute.