Huell Howser, the homespun host of public television’s popular “California’s Gold” travelogues, has died at age 67.
Howser died at his home Sunday night from natural causes, said Ayn Allen, corporate communications manager for KCET. No other details were available.
For years, “California’s Gold” took viewers to many parts of the Golden State, with Howser doing folksy, highly enthusiastic interviews and narration in a distinctive twang he brought with him from his native Tennessee.
Howser’s friendly interview format was characterized by a gentle inquisitiveness and a love for little stories punctuated by his hallmark exclamations of “That’s amazing!” or “Look at this!”
Howser made two visits to Lodi in 2008 and dedicated one of his shows to “Livable, Lovable Lodi.” He spent about a day and a half in Lodi in February 2008.
Nancy Beckman, president and CEO of Visit Lodi! Visitors and Conference Center, took Howser on a tour of A&W Root Beer on Lodi Avenue, Michael~David Winery, Micke Grove Zoo and Japanese Tea Garden, and Downtown Lodi. Howser also got his boots muddy while watching Sandhill cranes.
“He was so genuine; he was truly a gracious man, very gracious,” Beckman said Monday after hearing about Howser’s death. “He was so full of life when he was here. People stopped and wanted their picture taken with him. He took time to greet everybody.”
Howser wrote on his production company’s website that his show was operated on the premise “that TV isn’t brain surgery.”
“People’s stories are what it’s all about,” he wrote.
Beckman recalls Howser calling her on her cellphone shortly after the Lodi episode aired.
“Hey, Nancy, how did you like the show?” Howser said in his typical Tennessee twang.
“Every time they replay the Lodi episode, a lot of people visit Lodi, and they say they came because they saw the show,” Beckman said.
The Lodi episode runs about twice a year on PBS.
Four months after visiting Lodi, Howser returned to dedicate a plaque depicting A&W’s debut in June 1919, when Roy Allen served the first frosty mug of creamy A&W Root Beer at the restaurant’s original location at 19 W. Pine St.
Howser didn’t bring a production crew for the dedication — he just came on his own, Beckman said.
More than 100 residents, city leaders and a roaming A&W bear gathered to await the unveiling of a plaque that commemorates the original location.
“Sometimes it takes a while, but things get done in Lodi,” Howser said at the dedication.
With little more than a cameraman trailing him to little-known corners of the state, Howser’s programs didn’t have slick production values but drew viewers in with his intimate, conversational interviews.
“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,” he wrote.
His charm and enthusiasm tickled viewers wherever he went. When Howser visited the U.S.-Mexico border, he playfully taunted a federal guard by tiptoeing back and forth over the international boundary. In Southern California, he wandered through a grove of avocado trees, exclaiming over a dog’s ability to lick the green flesh clean from the fruit’s shell — and noting the animal’s thick, lustrous fur.
Howser also appeared in other series about California, including “Visiting with Huell Howser” and “Road Trip with Huell Howser.”
“Huell elevated the simple joys and undiscovered nuggets of living in our great state,” a KCET statement said. “He made the magnificence and power of nature seem accessible by bringing it into our living rooms. Most importantly, he reminded us to find the magic and wonderment in our lives every day. Huell was able to brilliantly capture the wonder in obscurity. From pastrami sandwiches and artwork woven from lint to the exoticism of cactus gardens and the splendor of Yosemite — he brought us the magic, the humor and poignancy of our region.”
Howser received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee and began his TV career at WSM-TV in Nashville, according to the Huell Howser Productions website. He hosted a magazine-style series at WCBS-TV in New York City and then went to Los Angeles in 1981 to work as a reporter for KCBS-TV.
In 1987, he moved to KCET to produce a program called “Videolog,” the predecessor to “California’s Gold.”
In 2011, Howser donated his entire catalog of episodes to Chapman University so that they could be digitized, posted to the Internet and made available free-of-charge at www.huellhowserarchives.com.