Sunday, July 10, 2011
The Last Duchess
Sunday, July 10, 2011
There's a guy out here on one of the public TV outlets named Huell Howser. Locals will know and understand immediately the full implications of that statement. He's a tall and very affable fellow in his mid-sixties with a full head of white hair, which he keeps clipped to something just a bit longer than a crewcut. He looks and sounds like what he is--a news reporter gone slightly stocky and more than a bit batty. Though he still has his east Tennessee twang, he's been here in the Southland, as they call southern California, for many years, and appears Monday through Friday at 7:30 in the evening for a half hour dedicated to visits to slightly less-known areas and points of interest throughout California.
With Huell Howser, you just love him or hate him. It's hard to be indifferent. You either think he's a complete moron or you groove on his goofy ebullience. I am in the latter camp. I'm trying to think of people to compare him to. He's a beefier Marlon Perkins on lots of caffeine without (necessarily) the animals. Or a skinnier George Pierrot, showing up in person and just loving the countryside and the food and the ambiance and the people. He fairly explodes with wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm over things that for the average jaded viewer and but for his nearly giggly excitement would be only mildly interesting. To paraphrase slightly the words of Robert Browning from My Last Duchess, "He has a heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad, too easily impressed; he likes whate'er he looks on, and his looks go everywhere."
Huell's been everywhere in California, from the redwood forests to the Mexican border, over a twenty-year-plus career at public TV station KCET that followed stints as a regular news reporter in Nashville, then New York and LA. After his arrival on the coast his infectious enthusiasm and insouciant love of regular everyday stuff and people combined with his new-found love of California, and he created a program called "California's Gold," where he visits scenic locales, fairs, small and large towns, and, well, just about every damn place and thing in the state. And when he gets there, dressed in shorts or slacks topped with solid-colored straight-cut tropical shirts, he just enjoys himself, whether he's sitting on a pile of old tires, visiting a store that sells hundreds of brands of soda, or looking out over a spectacular vista. There's no other way to put it. They guy just has a good time. He's famous all over the state. Matt Groening's regard for Huell Howser has even resulted in several references to him on "The Simpsons."
I recently saw an episode of "California's Gold" where he was visiting the Point Bonita Lighthouse at the Golden Gate in San Francisco. It stands out on the ocean at the mouth of the Golden Gate, which isn't the bridge but the rocky strait between the San Francisco and Marin Peninsulas leading in from the Pacific to the Bay. The iconic bridge spans the inner edge of the Golden Gate, hence its name. Anyway there's an old lighthouse out there on the ocean side, and Huell and his intrepid cameraman are following a park ranger out to it, across a small pedestrian bridge. Along the way he keeps repeating, in the tone and cadences a kindergarten teacher might use, "So, when you say Golden Gate, you're not talking about that"--pointing behind him eastward to the big orange suspension bridge in the distance--"but THIS body of water, which is also the Golden Gate." The ranger affirms the fact, and Huell Howser shakes his head in genuine amazement and disbelief, as if he's just been told there's a race of twelve-fingered trolls living deep under the bridge on which he's standing. Then he says, "Wow. That's a-MAZ-ing"--his trademark phrase--"so wait. So this little foot bridge we're crossing now to get to the lighthouse is the original Golden Gate Bridge then, isn't it?" As he glances at the camera, eyes twinkling and a good-natured smile playing on his lips, you know that he's not at all amused by his own cleverness but is simply bowled over by the uncanny banal serendipity of it all. No child over the age of four could be this ingenuous, this wide-eyed, this utterly impressed by the mundane and the beautiful in felicitous juxtaposition to one another. And somehow, even as you're laughing at him, you're infected by his enthusiasm.
Of course my attraction to him is based in large measure on the fact that he's a kindred spirit. As I write about Irwindale or Lucky Baldwin or the End of the World Dude in Hollywood I imagine that old Huell's been there ahead of me, enthusing away on the very same subjects, and there's a pretty good chance he has. I approach Huell Howser with a fascination that I imagine to be akin to his own feeling of wonder about all that surrounds him. A diminished sense of excitement, or God forbid a tinge of cynicism, would be disrespectful.
Like some of the great television personalities of my own past and perhaps yours--people such as master Detroit home improvement huckster Mr. Belvedere or the great Ron Popeil touting the Showtime Rotisserie--you tend to watch Huell Howser not so much for what he's showcasing as for how he does it. You get the feeling he could become thrilled by an empty box and that after you were done making fun of him you'd have a respect for brown corrugated cardboard you never had before. That's AMAZING, you'd say to yourself, as you gazed reverentially at the container, shaking your head in almost stupefied awe. You mean to tell me this box is empty, and that it's made of cardboard?!? Wow!