‘Almost Geek Cool’: Visiting With Huell Howser’s Superfans

Huell Howser with Shawniece Swain. Photo courtesy Shawniece Swain

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, but I can barely see my hand in front of my face. It’s dark inside La Cita, the famous ranchero bar in Bunker Hill, but I’m not here for the cumbia. Instead, I make my way down the long bar, past many Stetson-wearing dancers, and back out into the sunlight. There, on La Cita’s back patio, is a woman seated next to a life-sized cardboard standup of the late journalist and TV personality Huell Howser.

Her name is Shawniece Swain. She’s a production assistant, longtime KCRW volunteer, and operator of the Where Would Huell Go? Instagram and Facebook pages. On this summer afternoon, Swain has organized a meet-up of Huell Howser superfans.

Though I’ve never met her, she’s easy to spot: She’s wearing a gray shirt with a photo of her meeting Howser at KCRW in 2011 and the words “Hug Life.” The cardboard standup is also hers, as are the stacks of AAA maps of California that highlight places Howser visited during his nearly three decades of work here that Swain has placed around the patio. Old episodes of Visiting . . . With Huell Howser are playing on a projection screen and on TVs over the bar (made possible by that day’s marathon of old Visiting episodes on KCET).

It’s the kind of party at which you overhear phrases such as “It’s 40 miles past Indio” and “If you had gone a little farther, you would have found the world’s tallest flagpole.” Everything around me seems specially created to summon Howser’s ghost.

Even Swain’s selection of La Cita is calculated—a longtime customer of the place, Howser featured the bar in a 2009 episode of his Downtown series. Even its bartenders are in on the act, and they’ve playfully renamed the Cadillac margarita—apparently Howser’s favorite drink—the “California’s Gold Margarita.”

Swain is a Huell Howser superfan, but that description doesn’t do her justice. More than five years have elapsed since Howser died, but people like Swain are devoted to celebrating not only Howser the man, but also the way he told stories about California.

“I try to meet people who were in episodes with him,” Swain says. “There’s nothing like sitting down with someone who was in an episode.”

Though I could find nothing like an official “Huell Howser Fan Club,” I did find a fair number of people around Southern California who try to follow in Howser’s footprints. Here in Orange County, Robert Covington is one of the founding members of the HuellAgains (also the name of their Facebook page), a loose group of guys who use old California’s Gold episodes as the inspiration for their desert dirt-bike trips. And in Palm Springs, a Reiki instructor named Kay Adkins enjoys revisiting places Howser highlighted during his more than 2,000 television programs (she keeps track of it through her Facebook page Revisiting Huell Howser).

“We love California,” Covington told me fairly early on while researching this story. “Huell had a way of making the simple and mundane seem wonderful. He’s loveable in that way. He’s almost geek-cool. Corny, but cool-corny.”

In many ways, Swain, Covington, Adkins and the rest are doing what Howser always wanted them to do.

“We have two agendas,” Howser told LA Times TV critic Robert Lloyd in 2009. “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 back yard. Let’s go down to Koreatown and buy some kimchee.”

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Huell Burnley Howser, the quintessential Californian, was born on Oct. 18, 1945, in Gallatin, Tennessee. After a brief stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, Howser worked on the staff of then-U.S. Senator Howard Baker (R-Tennessee). Though Howser spent the majority of his adult life in TV journalism (first in Tennessee, then briefly in New York before moving to California in the early 1980s), I always wondered why he didn’t go into politics. His compulsive need to meet people, talk with people—grab people by the shoulder—were the marks of a politician, not a reporter.

In 2011, Swain saw this firsthand when she arranged for Howser to guest-DJ at KCRW. “Most people come in, do their 30 minutes, and then leave,” she says. “Huell got there early. He started at one side of the building and went into every room, every cubicle, and met everyone in the building. After he did his guest-DJ thing—all the music he chose were the ladies of country music, by the way—he started a receiving line. He shook hands and took pictures for about two and a half hours. He was so warm and generous.”

Howser’s famous exclamations during even banal revelations—“That’s amazing!” and “Oh, my gosh!” probably topped the list—were legit. Though Howser amassed a considerable library on California in his career, he was famous for doing very little research before interviewing someone on camera. He apparently felt too much preshow knowledge would dampen his onscreen enthusiasm.

Before his death in early 2013, Howser had filmed more than 2,000 programs about California, according to the archives at Chapman University that bear his name. The locations ranged all over the state, though the highest concentration took place in Southern California. The subject matters were beyond eclectic—everything from a visit to each of the state’s geographic corners to an interview with an old man who attributed his long life to the homemade yogurt he dutifully consumed each day, and all things in between.

Every episode was “an adventure,” Howser would say, regardless of whether he was standing atop the Golden Gate Bridge or exchanging pleasantries with a woman who made art out of lint. No museum, mission or historic home was off-limits. He was best-known for showing us quirky people and oddities, but he also brought attention to the need for historic preservation. In fact, he’d been disciplined very early in his career for daring to editorialize that replacing an old Tennessee governor’s mansion with a Popeyes Louisiana Chicken restaurant was a bad idea. Of course, in later years, Howser shilled for redevelopment (the California Redevelopment Association Foundation actually paid for his 2008 California Communities series), but for much of his career, he simply tried to bring attention to individuals, places and small businesses he thought needed a bit of publicity.

Howser’s always-present-but-never-seen partner for his first dozen years was camera operator Luis Fuerte. For every Howser devotee, Fuerte is a legend—he’s the famous “Louie” that Howser often asked to “take a look at this” during his shows.

Last year, Fuerte’s memoir of his time with Howser—appropriately titled Louie, Take a Look At This!came out, and Fuerte estimates it has sold about 8,000 copies. Attending the La Cita meet-up with his wife, Gloria, Fuerte says it was a far greater sales figure than he expected. In fact, both Fuerte and his wife say they’re still shocked at how many people attend their book-signing events. “We’ve had 50 to 60 book events,” Gloria says. “We had an event last night in Corona, at the public library. There were 100 people there!”

“We had an event in Ridgecrest,” her husband adds. “Eighty to 90 people showed. And they’re buying the book.”

Gloria glances at the projection screen. “We talk to the fans,” she says. “Twenty years from now, they’ll still be watching these episodes.”

For many Howser devotees, meeting Fuerte is the closest they’ll come to meeting Howser. HuellAgains members often attend his book-signing events. Ironically, Fuerte and Howser weren’t particularly close. Sure, they worked well together and respected each other immensely, but their relationship was entirely professional. They never really hung out, even after a long day of traveling and shooting. “Once in a while, Huell would ask me to go to dinner or a meeting with people who were in the program we were shooting, usually to add my 2 cents about technical stuff, and of course I’d go and enjoy it,” Fuerte wrote in his book. “But after that, I’d head back to my room and settle into my routine. Most of the time, I didn’t know what Huell did after a shoot or when he eventually went to bed, but a few times, I could see that he hadn’t slept much.”

Fuerte is as quiet and unassuming as Howser was outgoing and charming. “He had his Tennessee accent and was very down-to-earth,” Fuerte says when asked why so many people were still keeping Howser’s memory alive. “People were at ease talking to him. He had a way of making people seem very comfortable.”

No one who has visited the Huell Howser Archives and Exhibit, located in the basement of Chapman University’s Leatherby Libraries, would be surprised at how many people are showing up these days to see Fuerte. In fact, curator John Encarnacion says that about 300 people check out the exhibit each month.

“Almost everyone who comes in is a Huell Howser superfan,” Encarnacion says. He estimates that most who come through are middle-aged or older, though a few have been younger. Encarnacion often gives 30-minute tours of the exhibit, which includes a timeline of Howser’s professional career, reading room of his books, display cases with mementoes, many pieces of the “found art” he collected over the years (including a chunk of the old Hollywoodland sign), a re-creation of his KCET office (using his actual furniture!) and a peek into the archives, which includes the raw footage of pretty much everything he shot for KCET as well as boxes of his old correspondence, notes, and even a few of his Tommy Bahama shirts and hiking boots. During these tours, Encarnacion says, visitors often have three questions:

1) Why is Huell Howser’s stuff at Chapman University?
2) What was the cause of his death?
3) Was he married, and did he have any children?

The answer to the first question is that Howser and former Chapman President Jim Doti struck up a friendship after Howser did a show on Old Towne Orange and didn’t mention Chapman (he had apparently never heard of the school, but warmed to it considerably after Doti gave him a tour). And the second answer, as has been well reported, is that Howser died on Jan. 7, 2013, at the age of 67 of prostate cancer. But the third is a touchy subject, given Howser’s very private life.

The short answer is no, Howser never married and had no kids. But the answer wasn’t simply because Howser was gay. He also loved dogs, had grown up with dogs, but, to my knowledge, he never owned one out here. The reason, as best as I can explain, is that Howser just threw himself into his work. He was always thinking, working, editing and traveling for his shows. And when he wasn’t doing all that, he was preparing to speak at some civic-group luncheon or emcee a panel or something (his honoraria, which I found in his papers at Chapman, ranged from a couple of hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the organization).

“He loved the job so much that he really didn’t make time for anything else,” Encarnacion says.

Now, this isn’t to say that Howser lacked a social life—it was the opposite case, in fact.

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Huell Howser with superfan Shawniece Swain. Photo courtesy Shawniece Swain

At La Cita, Swain introduced me to Jeanette and Robert, a married couple from Los Angeles who have recently begun to retrace Howser’s many, many footsteps. So far, they’ve gone to Salvation Mountain, Occidental College, Heritage Square and Galco’s soda shop. She said that somewhere at home, she and Robert have T-shirts emblazoned with Howser’s famous exclamation “That’s Amazing!” but couldn’t find them before they came to La Cita.

“I wish I could have met him,” Jeanette says. “He seemed like the nicest guy.”

“I hear that all the time,” says Shawniece, who met Howser twice.

At this point, I should probably disclose that I, too, met Howser. It was back in 1996, when I was a 24-year-old reporter assigned to do a story on the city of Long Beach’s decision to turn the old Long Beach Naval Station into a massive container yard for the China Overseas Shipping Co.

Howser, who normally just had nice things to say about everyone he met, had become something of an activist on the matter. It was his fight over the Tennesee governor’s mansion again, and Howser was really mad the city was preparing to demolish the entire station, including some wonderful sports facilities, apartment buildings, and beautiful structures designed by the famous Los Angeles architect Paul R. Williams.

“It’s all so ludicrous,” Howser told me with more than a little bitterness. “I may end up chaining myself to a wall for this. It all comes down to accountability. Long Beach is just not accountable to the people.”

Though he’d already shot an episode on the station, Howser agreed to give me a tour around the base. When we were done, Howser asked me if I’d like to go bar hopping one night. Awestruck, I quickly agreed.

Howser had me meet him at his Los Angeles home, an apartment in the historic old El Royale in Hancock Park. There, the doorman in the lobby phoned Howser to announce my arrival, then told me to ride the elevator up to his place.

When Howser opened the door, I saw he was wearing only a T-shirt and boxer shorts.

Ever the nai•ve kid, I thought I’d arrived early. In any case, it probably didn’t take Howser long to see I was only there to hit a few bars with him and talk shop. He got dressed, gave me a quick tour of his apartment (which included many of the incredible pieces of “found art” that are now on display at Chapman, as well as what he unnervingly referred to as “the bed I was conceived in”), and then we went out.

We went to just two places: the tiny Tiki Ti on Sunset and the famous restaurant Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard. The instant we walked into the Tiki Ti, which has only a dozen barstools, customers immediately called out his name and rushed to shake his hand. A few moments later, a guy looked at me and asked, “Are you Louie?”

“That happens everywhere I go,” Howser said after we sat down. “Every time I’m with someone, people always think that person is Louie because no one has really ever seen Louie.”

We were out but a few hours, and we never hung out again. But I had a great time. I was just starting my career in journalism, and Howser was reaching the apex of his. His knowledge of California, Los Angeles and people in general were incredible, and spending even a couple of hours with him was a treat. Of course, once Fuerte’s book came out, I realized I wasn’t exactly the first person Howser had flirted with during his work.

“Huell was gregarious—he loved to be around people and schmooze, and after a shoot, he’d often meet up for a drink with people who’d been in the show we were shooting,” Fuerte wrote. “He liked to party—that was his nature, to be with people, talk with them and have a good time.”

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For Covington and the HuellAgains, their fascination with Howser drives their having a good time. The group first coalesced about five years ago.

“It’s a fun organization,” Covington says. “It was almost not serious at the beginning. We used to make a big deal [about] going to places featured on his shows. We’re big on Barstow. We just did a ride to Pinnacles. It’s a weird geologic formation—Huell did an episode where he went to a couple of places in the Death Valley area. But we don’t just go to places Huell has gone. We go to places that are in the spirit of Huell.”

According to Covington, the HuellAgains were officially born in April 2013, a few months after Howser died. About a dozen people, all wearing commemorative yellow shirts made for the event, began with a memorial desert bike ride. They started at Howser’s “Volcano House” in Newberry Springs near Barstow, then headed about 180 miles away, toward Randsburg. (Howser donated his Volcano House and another home in Twenty-Nine Palms to Chapman University upon his death; both were later sold and helped to pay for his archives and a California’s Gold scholarship at the school for students who wish to do philanthropic work.)

After a series of fortuitous events, the HuellAgains were able to get permission to enter the Volcano House itself. “The house was amazing!” Covington later wrote in an unpublished account of the journey. “It looked like how the future was perceived in the ’50s.”

The rest of the trip, according to Covington’s account, went great—except when one HuellAgain wrecked his bike and broke his arm. But in keeping with their spirit of going where Huell might have gone, the HuellAgains pressed on. “The next morning, it was another 50 miles off to the Husky Monument,” Covington wrote. “It’s a memorial for the fallen rider where the centerpiece is a vintage Husqvarna buried to its axles in cement. When we first found it years ago, there were maybe a half-dozen memorials. Now, there are probably 100. . . . The Husky Monument is 20 miles north of Interstate 58, midway between the 15 and 395 freeways. Huell had never been there but would’ve appreciated it.”

After the trip, which also included a stop at the famous Bagdad Cafe in Newberry Springs, the HuellAgains did other trips, often wearing new commemorative T-shirts made especially for the occasion. Eventually, member Steve Bamberger also created official HuellAgains cards—each one numbered and including a Huell Howser quotation.

Covington says the HuellAgains want to do more trips, but they are somewhat worried about opening their organization to wider membership. “We live in a litigious society,” Covington says. “A guy could go to one of these places and say, ‘I tripped and fell!’”

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Photo courtesy of the Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University. Design by Richie Beckman

Howser retired from KCET, from all his work, in late 2012. Whether he knew he had just weeks to live, I can’t say. According to Encarnacion, Howser’s final research files dealt with Brussels sprouts, the Cliff House in San Francisco and a guy who collected celebrity pay stubs.

It’s been more than five years since Howser’s death, more than five years since he produced an original program on some quaint, slightly odd aspect of California. His audience demographic never skewed young, and the fact that most of the people Encarnacion gives archive tours to are middle-aged or older isn’t a good sign.

“I was worried last year when someone told me that Huell’s fan base is dying out,” Swain says. But she also says that many children sit with their grandparents to watch Howser.

In my case, I was a child when I first saw Howser. My dad called me into the living room to watch one of Howser’s earliest KCET Videolog short films; it was on the Balboa Island Ferry, with which I was very familiar. His patient cadence and charm made him instantly accessible to even a youth. I recall him popping up on TV here and there, but after the 1992 LA riots, Howser seemed to be on KCET all the time. By that point, my family was hooked.

“I understand that Huell was a multifaceted human being,” says Adkins, who played a large part in getting Howser a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Fame. “But that persona he put out was curiosity, enthusiasm. He gets to go places, places most of us don’t get to go to. He’s playing, or being, that innocent child, looking at everything with fascination and wonder. You go to a museum, and you’re not supposed to touch things. But Huell does! He makes things fascinating. He can spend time with a man making yogurt in his kitchen and make it fascinating. He proves that it’s okay to take a moment to be enthusiastic about the things you’re enthusiastic about.”

Look, I know we live in bad times. The Earth’s climate is getting more unpleasant by the year, white supremacists are running wild, and the Trump administration is nothing more than an Olympic-sized spinning wheel of corruption.

Maybe this is why people not only want Huell Howser to remain on TV (KCET still runs his show twice a night), but also try to be Huell Howser in their own lives. And honestly, where’s the harm in that? How does going out and learning about their neighborhoods and asking strangers about their lives do anything but bring cheer and heart to your little corner of the world?

“Huell was the absolute antithesis to everything that’s going on right now,” Swain says. “The people he chose to champion tend to be so kind, so warm, so open. It makes me wonder what it was like to look at the world through his eyes. What did he see?”

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