Over the course of nearly three decades, the journalist Huell Howser filmed about 1,500 programs about California. Virtually all of it aired on PBS affiliates like KCET, where Howser worked for most of that time. But most people don’t know that some of Howser’s earliest work in California (he moved here in the mid-1980s) was done for Southern California Edison (SCE).
In 1989, SCE hired Howser to film a quarterly video magazine called Crossroads. The show–which was basically just Howser interviewing SCE employees about their often-unusual (or even dangerous) jobs–was for SCE employees and their families, who watched it on videotapes the company sent them every few months. Howser eventually filmed eight episodes of Crossroads, all of which were recently donated to the Huell Howser Archives at Chapman University (click here to watch all eight episodes).
The footage was largely forgotten within SCE itself, according to Ed Hume, who’s worked for Edison for 30 years and writes for the company’s Inside Edison publication. But Hume told me that Aldis Garsvo, who’d helped put the show together with Charles Basham, had saved the footage after the company laid off its video production unit in the 1990s.
Today it seems like hiring a guy like Howser (who rarely had a bad thing to say about anyone) would be a no-brainer to film internal corporate public relations content, but at the time it was apparently a controversial decision with the largely conservative Edison executives.
“They weren’t comfortable paying somebody–they hadn’t gone to outside talent before,” said Hume. “There was a lot of pressure from executives. When Charlie hired Huell, he was not a celebrity. They didn’t like his down-home attitude.”
Basham, who is now retired and living in Placerville, didn’t recall how much Edison paid Howser, though he said it wasn’t much. “He was a hard sell,” Basham said. “But I fought hard to sell him to our executives. They warmed up to him after a while. He was humanizing the company.”
But according to Garsvo, money was also an issue with the executives–and Howser was getting a lot of it. In fact, Garsvo (who lives in Idaho now) told me that Edison was paying big money to Howser to do Crossroads. “He got $750 a day,” Garsvo said. “And another $350 to do voiceover bridges.”
And that was in 1989 dollars. But Howser’s attitude and interviewing style made him a natural at talking with SCE employees. Garsvo said they loved the Crossroads series.
Each episode runs just five minutes. The first episode focused on three line workers out in Ridgecrest–Bill Brzezinski, Carl Smith and Eddie Brock. Their not-quite-serious answers to Howser’s questions made for something far more interesting than your standard employee-of-the-month interview:
HOWSER: Do you ever run across things out here in your territory when you’re out on a job that you didn’t know were here, that you’ve never seen before, that you’ve never heard about?
SMITH: Yeah. They’re filming the Playboy magazine down here when we stumbled into that.
SMITH. Yeah. Right there–Randsburg.
HOWSER: They were doing Playboy in Randsburg?
SMITH: Yeah. The Playmate or whatever, yeah.
HOWSER: Well, I’m sure you just moved right along in your truck.
SMITH: It broke down!
At the time of Crossroads, Howser was filming Videolog shorts for KCET. They were short films with the same folksy interviewing style and subject matters as everything else Howser eventually produced in California (including Crossroads). But former Crossroads producer Garsvo said Howser told him he had bigger plans.
“While traveling to Kaweah Hydro in Edison’s video production van, Huell told me about a new 30-minute show he was planning which, at that time, had no name,” Garsvo said in an Inside Edison video that commemorates the footage donation to Chapman University. “In the course of our conversation, Huell spoke about featuring stories across California—people and places, the ‘gold’ of California. We looked at each other and Huell said, ‘How about California’s Gold?’”
California’s Gold, which Howser started in 1990, ended up running 24 seasons.
Hume said Howser did other work for SCE besides Crossroads, but company records are spotty on much of it (according to Hume, the company’s film library database became corrupted a few decades ago). But Hume said he also located some of Howser’s interview footage that he chose not donate to Chapman University.
“He shot it for us at a cancer walk–a fundraiser,” Hume said. “It never aired. I couldn’t find the footage in the final edit section, which means it was probably never edited. But it’s a particularly touching piece of film.”
According to Hume, the footage shows Howser interviewing an Edison employee and her young daughter, who was then getting treated for cancer. “I didn’t feel comfortable sharing it,” Hume said. “I couldn’t identify the employee, and [making it public] could have been really painful for the family. It was hard to watch, but it was really well done.”
By the way, KCET will air a marathon of 20 rarely broadcast Visiting With Huell Howser episodes on Sunday, Aug. 5. Amazing!