It took research for a new KCET program to discover a lost, long-ago episode of channel 28’s California’s Gold With Huell Howser.
Juan Devis, a senior vice president with the Los Angeles-based television station and creator of the Emmy-winning series Artbound, was doing research for an episode on Charles Fletcher Lummis, an under-appreciated cultural icon in LA from the 1880s through the 1920s.
Lummis, who died in 1928, was an expert photographer, a writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times, an avid collector and preservationist, an American Indian rights activist and the founder of LA’s first museum, the Southwest Museum of the American Indian.
Among the artifacts in El Alisal, Lummis’ 4,000-square-foot rustic American Craftsman stone house that is now next to the Pasadena Freeway in Highland Park, were turn of the century wax recordings of Spanish folk songs. The research for Artbound took Devis to some musical archivists digitizing those recordings, and they mentioned in passing that they’d been interviewed by Howser for a California’s Gold episode that never aired.
The next stop for Devis was Chapman University, which houses the Huell Howser Archives that include tapes of all his KCET shows that he donated to the Orange institution before he passed in 2013. Sure enough, Devis was informed there was indeed a “lost episode” of California’s Gold from July 1998.
“I am not so sure why it never aired,” Devis told me on the phone. “I think Huell had a very particular way of doing things. This was a subject he was really in love with, really intrigued by. It had three or four different endings. It could be he never made up his mind [about the ending] and then probably went on to to other things. I don’t think it is because of the quality or content.”
I’d beg to differ. The folks at KCET arranged for me to see the episode “Lummis House,” which is extremely fascinating. Does Huell say “amazing” during the 30-minute run time? You betcha. Is there a “Come here, Louie” for cameraman Luis Fuerte? Absolutely.
Unfortunately, the sound becomes spotty at critical points in the episode: the actual playing of a recording Lummis made and the recreation of making one by a modern day singer and guitarist performing the same Mexican tune based on a Spanish folk song. It’s not so bad that you are not enthralled, but I could imagine Howser decided it was not up to his show’s usual standards.
Devis thinks otherwise.
“I think he had too many options,” he says. “It was pretty much untouched on our end. Huell had a very particular production model. He went out into the field with very few people. He almost did in-camera edits of what he imagined the edits to be. It was a very fast flow.”
“Lummis House” premieres Monday night. Here is the preview clip:
It repeats Tuesday night before the one hour season premiere of Artbound, “Charles Fletcher Lummis: Reimaging the American West.”
“One of the reasons I wanted to begin our new season of Artbound with Charles Lummis is he was a very important figure in the cultural life of Los Angeles 100 years ago,” Devis says. “He founded the Southwest Museum, which is considered the first museum in LA, and was a crusader for Indian rights.”
The museum was founded in 1907 and opened seven years later, around the same time the LA Aqueduct and Natural History Museum were established.
“Charles really had two very important characteristics,” Devis says. “One, he was a very keen observer of the indigenous Mexican and Spanish history we had in the Southwest. He was a preservationist, an Indian rights activist, one of the first editors of the LA Times, the chief editor of the magazine Land of Sunshine. At a certain point, he was a booster of LA as the next big capital of the growth of culture in the U.S. At the same time, he was trying to figure out how to preserve the history of the Southwest.”
Lummis’ embrace of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and American Indians would be startling now, given the current immigration debate. But that embrace evolved in his writings. Legend has it he walked from Ohio to Southern California after being offered a job by Harrison Gray Otis, who’d become editor before “Daily” was dropped from the Los Angeles Daily Times in 1886.
The Artbound episode includes snippets of a story, which was syndicated for newspapers around the country, where Lummis (pronounced lumm-es, not loom-es) displays bigotry toward Mexicans and supremacy toward his one “Saxon” race when he first arrives in Colorado. But he was later taken in by a large Mexican family, who he grew to admire and respect. He experienced the same shift in perception when it came to American Indians. It changed his mission in life to photographing, recording and preserving Spanish, Mexican and Indian culture in the Southwest. This included the California missions; when Howser visited El Alisal, a photo hung on a wall of the master of the Lummis House posing with people at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
“With that context in mind, look at what is happening in California right now with the opening of the Broad Museum and LA considered to be the creative capital in the world. Some really think that happened in the last 10-15 years. Actually, we have a really, really long history of people putting LA on the cultural map independent of the movie industry.”
Devis is proud of achieving his goal of having Artbound be the first outlet to present the Lummis story to a mass audience.
“I fell that at this point in the 21st century, the Latino population is seeing a dramatic shift. They are really re-considering these really great, amazing modernist historians of Southern California. I think it’s very important to look at people like Charles Lummis and see the relevancy today.
“I’m very proud of the documentary. It’s very, very well done. It’s very emotional; when I saw the final cut of the film, it made me teary eyed. Most historical documentaries don’t do that with me.”
See if it does that with you when the lost episode of California’s Gold With Huell Howser is shown at 7 p.m. Monday. It repeats at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, before the new season launch of Artbound, “Charles Lummis: Reimagining the American West.” KCET/Channel 28.