The Sacramento Bee reported today that roving reporter Huell Howser — the host and soul of such much-beloved, sometimes-mocked public-television series as "California's Gold," "California's Green," "Downtown," "Road Trip" and "Visiting" — is retiring. The newspaper quoted an email from Ryan Morris, who works for Howser's production company, in which Morris stated, "Huell is retiring from making new shows but does not want to make any formal announcements about it."
With his happy public face, his amazing sense of amazement and his wide Tennessee drawl, Howser is easy enough to lampoon. You quite possibly have a Huell Howser imitation up your own sleeve, or wherever it is that imitations are kept. But I am an unabashed fan of his work — his unpretentious attention to small things and ordinary people, his celebration of his adopted city and state, the local nature of his reports. He's been part of what makes L.A. L.A.
But I like his aesthetic too. (I am quite prepared to call him an artist.) There is a deceptive subtlety to his wide-angle, long-take style, and more intention than you might imagine. In 2009, for a Times profile, we sat down for breakfast in his mid-Wilshire neighborhood and discussed his method.
"We have two agendas," he told me. "One is to specifically show someone China Camp State Park or to talk to the guys who paint the Golden Gate Bridge. But the broader purpose is to open up the door for people to have their own adventures. Let's explore our neighborhood, let's look in our own backyard, let's go down to Koreatown and buy some kimchee. We won't do a story on what it's like to spend the night in a $10,000 hotel suite. We do things to put the spotlight on the fact that every single person we meet potentially has a great story to share. Can I repair a car? No. Can I cook a meal? No. Can I paint a picture? No. Can I talk with people? Can I help them tell their stories? Absolutely.
"I don't have an agent. I don't have a manager, I don't have a press agent, I don't have a wardrobe guy, a makeup guy, a parking space, a dressing room. It's basically me and a cameraman and an editor and a couple of guys in the office. I can go out between now and noon and do a full 30-minute show just talking to people on the street and have it on the air tonight. It's an economic model that's a production model, but it's a model that I believe in philosophically as far as what the viewer should see ....
"We always shoot wide because I want the viewer to see what you would see with your eyes if you were there, so when I'm sitting here talking with you" — meaning me, across the table — "I see you but I also see the bush over your shoulder. I see the Brinks trucks behind you. That's life."
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