The man known for making corny cool, Huell Howser was a sweet T.V. personality who admired California and highlighted everything wonderful about it through his T.V. show, California’s Gold. He’s most well known for his folksy demeanor and innocent exclamations of “that’s amazing!” or “look at this!” and finding joy in everyday occurrences.
Huell Burnley Howser was born on October 18, 1945 in Gallatin, Tennessee to Harold and Jewell Howser. The name his parents gave him is a portmanteau, or combination, of their two names.
After graduating from the University School of Nashville in 1963, Howser went to college at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where he received a B.A. in History.
At college, he reigned as student body president. After college, Howser served in the U.S. Marine Corps. In the Marines, he worked as an aide to Howard H. Baker Jr., the Republican senator for Tennessee.
Howser began his career working on a local Nashville news station, WSM-TV, telling stories of human interest. He then lived in New York for a bit, working as the host of WCBS-TV’s Real Life show. In 1981 he relocated to L.A. where he was a features reporter for KCBS-TV. In Hollywood, he remained on T.V., going on to work on Entertainment Tonight and Videolog through the ‘80s.
While much of his work was in the realm of non-fiction, Howser occasionally provided voice work. He was the voice of Backson in Winnie the Pooh (2011). He also appeared on Tracey Ullman’s show Tracey Takes On … as himself.
Starting in 1991, California’s Gold is a T.V. program that traveled around the state, seeking out its native, interesting people and places – the “gold” that makes the state so valuable. Howser traveled to small towns, landmarks, and other places of interest off the beaten track, interviewing locals about these hidden gems and what makes them so special.
The show was inspired by Howser’s vacation across the state, during which he drove to the 13 PBS stations in California. This trip inspired the show’s casual style: impromptu interviews with everyday locals.
The program was produced by Howser himself, keeping costs low, and worked without an agent or a publicist. It was known for its primitive production and awe-struck wonderment at the mundane.
California’s Gold lead to many spin-off specials, like California’s Communities, California’s Golden Coast, etc. It also broke records. California’s Gold was the first production that was allowed full filming access to the Rancho Mirage, the favored home of Frank Sinatra, previously unrecorded.
Relationships and Marriage
Howser never married. While some may argue that’s because he was clearly head-over-heels with California, others speculate that he was secretly gay. Rumors abound over the years with media speculation, but whether or not he was was never confirmed.
Keeping his romantic life out of the public eye led to many assuming it was because he had something to hide, especially during a time when anything beyond the nuclear family was kept hidden.
His lack of wife and children could simply be because he was married to his work and that was enough to bring rich enjoyment to his life.
Newberry Springs House
Howser owned several properties. He kept an apartment at the El Royale, a famous and historic apartment complex built in 1929 and featured in the 2018 movie Bad Times at the El Royale.
Other famous tenants include Nicolas Cage and William Frawley, better known as Fred from I Love Lucy. This was his weekday residence. He owned two other homes in Palm Springs (for weekends) and Twentynine Palms (for entertaining).
His most iconic residence by far, though, was 50451 Silver Valley Road in Newberry Springs, California.
It’s perhaps better known as the Volcano House. 60 acres of land in the middle of the Mojave Desert are home to this architectural masterpiece.
The home sits on top of a 150-foot high cinder cone. Down the road, looking up at the dome feels like an out-of-this-world experience.
Hardly an image you can pair with Newberry Springs, the home of the historic Route 66. The structure, reminiscent of a permanent yurt, is protected by a 5-foot-wide moat that stretches around the home.
There is also a 4-acre lake sat at the base of the cinder cone. Medieval fortress meets contemporary oasis.
The entire house has 360 degree views of the surrounding Californian desert. Built in 1968, Howser acquired this legendary architectural feat in 2003, but never lived there. Upon his death, the house was bequeathed to Chapman University. The school sold the house for $750,000.
Huell Howser on the Simpsons
Known for his gentle enthusiasms, Howser’s sweet demeanor was kindly mocked through a Simpson’s character. Creator of the show Matt Groening admits to being a lifelong fan of Howser, claiming that everyone who works on the show has their own impression of him.
In 2005, their allusion to Howser was thinly veiled in the form of Howell Huser, an undercover T.V. personality who travels to Springfield in the episode “There’s Something About Marrying.” Huser declared Springfield as “The Worst Town Ever,” inciting Mayor Quimby to leagalize gay marriage in an attempt to draw in tourists.
In 2009, Howser debuted as himself in the episode “O Brother, Where Bart Thou?” In the episode, Howser voiced himself as the T.V. show host of “Under the Wrapper” in which he interviews a gumdrop maker.
Illness and Death
In 2012, Howser took his official retirement from the public eye. Rumors abound about him being seriously ill.
Howser died on January 7, 2013. He was 67 years old. Six days later, the Simpon’s aired an episode featuring his character, dedicated to him. Two days later, on January 15th, a memorial was held in lieu of a formal funeral.
The official cause of death was listed as metastatic prostate cancer. He’d been battling with the disease for several years.
California’s Gold Exhibit and Huell Howser Archives at Chapman University
Before his death, Howser donated his personal collection of California’s Gold episodes on videotape to Chapman University.
Along with the tapes, he also donated his own personal papers and a collection of books on California’s history.
The university used this collection to open the Huell Howser Archive which offers free access to a digitized collection.
All 443 episodes of California’s Gold are available to watch on the archive website.
Alongside his plethora of learning materials, Howser donated his found-object art collection that had been amassed over his travels throughout California.
His will bequeathed his two houses to the university, the proceeds of whose sales were meant for Chapman’s scholarship fund.
Howser’s legacy lives on in a lot of bizarre ways. Aside from his admirers at the Simpson’s, Howser’s likeness is featured on Broguiere’s Montebello Dairy milk bottle and a burger at Peggy Sue’s 50s Diner’s two locations in California is named after him.
Back in 2002, local citizens even sought Howser out to run for mayor of Palm Springs, but the celebrity declined. It wasn’t like he didn’t have political ambitions. In fact, way back in 1975 he announced that he considered running for Congress, but nothing more came of the comment and Howser never sought office.
Following Howser’s death, his longtime cameraman Luis Fuerte wrote a book about their friendship called “Louie, Take a Look at This!: A Memoir of My Time with Huell Howser.”