Today we visit the Chapman University exhibit of the archives of broadcaster Huell Howser, of “California’s Gold” PBS fame. If you don’t recall the name, you’ll probably remember the face: iconic sunglasses perched on a pleasant tan visage, cheerful smile (with perfect teeth), all solidly topped by steely (and precisely) cropped hair. There’s that linebacker build, those muscular arms and barrel chest, clad in a Polo or button-down short-sleeved shirt and a pair of chinos (or shorts). He looked like he should be playing football on a beach somewhere in Southern California. You know. HUELL HOWSER. Ok. Well, then, the voice will jolt you back to memory lane…you didn’t expect it when you saw him, but as soon as you heard his Grand Ol’ Opry Nashville roots “That’s amazing!” catchphrase, you couldn’t help be settle down for a homestyle good time as Huell presented – with all his heart and soul – his latest find somewhere in the state of California.
If you grew up in the 80s and 90s in California you would have to work pretty hard to miss seeing a Huell Howser human interest piece. At one point his shows aired 6 nights a week on KCET, with over a million viewers, including overseas military via the American Forces Radio and Television Services. If you weren’t learning about the next hidden gem in “California’s Gold” you could be “Visiting…With Huell Howser,” taking a “Road Trip With Huell Howser,” learn about all the county fairs, parks, and vast coastline in “California’s Golden Fairs,” “California’s Golden Parks,” and, you guessed it, “California’s Golden Coast.” Huell may have originally hailed from Nashville, TN, and even worked in New York for CBS and CNN for awhile…but when he landed in Los Angeles, CA, in 1980, broadcast gold was made. Forever.
The world became a bit less bright, and definitely less amazing on 7 January 2013 when 67 year old Huell succumbed to the prostate cancer he’d been privately battling. After he was diagnosed with cancer, he began making arrangements to leave over 5,000 videos of raw and edited footage as well as show notes, personal papers, knickknacks, mementos, books, art and furniture to Chapman University in Orange, CA, which was finalized in 2012. He never got to see the exhibit as it is today, which he originally intended to just be a donation for digital archival purposes. He had no idea his death would lead hundreds of loyal fans searching for his much-needed goodness to traipse into the Chapman University library, disrupting students’ studies to view the lobby displays of his legacy. University top-brass took note and (thankfully) dedicated a permanent archival exhibit just one floor down in what is now known as the California’s Gold Exhibit and Huell Howser Archives.
So. That’s where we went Saturday (Leap Day!) with our trusty Tascom digital recorder. Oh… yeah. Well, Kris hasn’t learned the ins and outs of recording on the fly with the digi handheld. So, sound quality is a bit…meh, BUT! It’s real, it’s raw…just like our morning walk episode, you’ll feel like you’re right there with us as we descend the echoey stairs in search of the archive only to discover Huell’s AMAZING industrial found art…seriously. Probably the best thing we learned that day – and there were a LOT of a-ha moments – was that the man saw beauty in EVERYTHING. He took junkyard scraps and transformed them into gallery-quality art pieces and functional furniture that he kept in all his houses (yep, plural…including a Volcano Rock House).
Walking through the door of room B11, the first thing you notice is the prominent “THAT’S AMAZING!” photo of Huell greeting you. At your feet, the black floor contains a large white outline of the state of California with labels overlapping each other pinpointing name after name after name AFTER NAME of alllllll the towns Huell visited and showcased over the years.
Along the wall is a timeline mural and in the center of the room are thick columns – all of this covered with photos and blurbs about all the wild, whimsical and wonderful characters Huell met along the way. You can see what his office looked like – right down to the hand-drawn calendar, and the homemade coffee mug used as a pen holder. And right there right in front of you is The Camera. Yep, the one Luis Fuerte used to film all the episodes of “California’s Gold.” In the Artifact Room there are displays of personal items from childhood (Boy Scouts handbook, a miniature pop gun), broadcasting gear such as his camera bag from his early days in Nashville, favorite baseball hats (the SPAM hat is the best), art and findings from his travels, a boatload of books, and even an original John Romita hand-drawn comic of Huell meeting Stan Lee.
And because we’re kind of getting the hang of this interview stuff, we took advantage of being the only visitors left in the room, and asked the resident pro, John Carlo, Archivist, if we could pick his brain and man, he was a wealth of knowledge. So BONUS! You don’t have to listen to us gab for 45 minutes like we usually do. If you visit the archives, DEFINITELY see if John is available to chat you up.
So, folks, if you remember Huell fondly, we hope you enjoy this episode. Yes, we realize we did a poor imitation of Huell’s accent too many times (KRIS), but rest assured, we did it out of pure joy and love for the man, never, ever as ridicule. And of course, we unironically say, “That’s Amazing!” all throughout the episode because the archives truly are…amazing.
It’s fitting that the man who spent 30+ years highlighting little-known, quirky treasures up and down the state of California would inspire exactly the kind of place he avidly searched for and shared with the world. We can almost hear Huell walking down those stairs, stopping often with Southern-boy giddiness, asking Luis, “did you get that?” as he wanders and wonders through the three-room hidden gem showcasing his life.
If you’re local or visiting Southern California, you can’t miss a visit to Old Orange. If you want to visit the archives (Yes. Yes you do.) they are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. You might want to call ahead just in case to be sure the archive isn’t closed for a special event. Large groups can call ahead to make arrangements with the archivist. The displays rotate some items every few months, so multiple visits are totally necessary.
Chapman University is just north of the circle (The Plaza) on Glassell. You can park in the lower level of the parking garage off Walnut street (at the time of this writing you can get 4 hours for $3) or you can find a spot in one of the many parking lots in the area (and another new parking structure off Chapman near Ruby’s). That means you can enjoy the neighborhood as you make your way to the school. Just be very careful if you want to try your luck parking on the street. There’s some funky rules about who can park where, and if you park in the wrong place without a parking permit, the fine will set you back over $30 (uh…last time Kris checked, about 6 years ago that was the going price for not paying attention to her surroundings…so it’s likely the fines have gone up). Just watch for the signs. Leatherby Libraries (yep, not library, it’s plural) is right next to the field. To access the archives, take the stairs or the elevator to the basement (not gloomy whatsoever…true story) and you’ll find yourself face to face with that smiling photo of Huell.
When you’re finished with those archives, be sure to check out the Center for American War Letters Archives display near the entrance to the Huell Howser Archives. Each month they highlight the service of a soldier, sailor, marine or homefront warrior, displaying letters and other personal ephemera. The actual archives room has the same hours as the Huell Howser Archives, and their entrance is to the immediate left of the stairway.
To rejuvenate after you visit with Huell, Old Orange is chock full of delicious restaurants, antique stores and small shops selling art, pottery, home goods, comic books, vintage clothes, and toys. There’s even TWO Starbucks.
We urge you to visit the archives. And we urge you to watch reruns of Huell’s shows. This world needs more Huells…we need more unabashed joy in the adventure of discovery and human connection.
Today’s episode is released twice: in audio-only mp3 format AND in an image-enhanced mp4 format. Not all podcast apps support enhanced podcasts (Spotify, for instance), and we discovered if we only release an enhanced episode, it’s not that the images don’t show up, the entire episode won’t publish to that platform! So…two versions it is. If you are interested in viewing the images while listening, you can go to your app store and download Apple Podcasts, Overcast, or Pocketcast. We’re not sure if Google Play or Stitcher support enhanced shows, so let us know if you listen on those platforms and can view the photos.
As an added bonus, here’s some of the images we share on the episode today:
Check out The Mugly Truth Podcast’s episode “That’s Amazing! Huell Howser Archives, regular and enhanced versions, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Libsyn, Pocket Cast, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you listen to podcasts. Then all you need to do is 1) subscribe 2) download and 3) listen! AND!!! 4) If you enjoy what you hear, please leave a rating and a review (pretty please?). The more subscribers and reviews we get, the more opportunities we get to grow this podcast and bring you richer content.
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© The Mugly Truth 2020 and © The Mugly Truth Podcast 2020. All rights reserved.
Intro and outro music, “Clever as a Fox” by Espresso Music through premiumbeats.com.
All photos are courtesy Kym Wagner and Kris Core. All rights reserved.