Huell Bleepin’ Howser!
California’s favorite citizen talks Orange County, Trestles and the evil TCA
Word of advice to anyone who interviews Huell Howser: Don’t do it in public. The longtime host of PBS’s California’s Gold talked to the Weekly in an exclusive interview between bites of delicious charbroiled chicken at El Pollo Fino in Anaheim—or, at least tried to talk. Almost everyone eating—judges, cops, laborers, cooks, Mexican moms with sleepy kids in tow—stopped to shake the man’s hand and share their favorite Howser episode, stretching what was supposed to be a 15-minute interview into two hours.
Howser was in town to promote two California’s Gold episodes airing this weekend that focus on historic Anaheim and Tustin. Boy howdy, did Huell love us!
When was the first time you visited Orange County?
It was 1981 when I moved to California. One of my earliest experiences was driving to Laguna Beach for the Pageant of the Masters. Just to drive to Laguna, through the canyons, and you end at Main Beach with the lifeguard tower, the basketball courts and volleyball nets, and the palm trees—it was quintessential California!
Did you have an opinion of the county before visiting?
What I thought of Orange County was from seeing Disneyland on television and from my political-science classes in college—that it was filled with conservatives. And then there was chamber-of-commerce stuff: bikinis, surfers and beaches. That’s still the image most marketing of Orange County uses. Is it a lie? No. But is it the whole picture? No way. That’s what I tried to show with the shows: the unseen richness.
Why did you choose Anaheim for a profile?
This lady [pointing at Cynthia Ward, president of the Anaheim Historical Society] had written to me many times. We keep all our viewers’ letters on file, and we read them. I thought, “She’s a lady who can show us all the layers of a place most people still think is only Disneyland and that didn’t exist until Walt Disney showed up.” Cynthia took us on a tour of an orange grove, old houses and other great things. My editor and cameraman both saw the finished show. They’ve lived in Southern California for decades, and both sheepishly admitted they knew nothing about this Anaheim.
I get you picking Anaheim, but Tustin???
There’s your provincialism showing! Have you ever been to Old Town Tustin? It’s just a couple of blocks, but the Tustin Preservation Conservancy has done a great job maintaining it. They have a museum, a blacksmith shop that still forges tools. Beach Pit BBQ sells great food and is in a building that until a couple of years ago was the oldest continuously operated service station in California. The Hewes House is named after David Hewes, who donated the golden Transcontinental Railroad spike. For years, I’ve been driving down the 5 freeway and saw the Tustin blimp hangars—which I’ve done a show about—and I always thought there was nothing in Tustin until those structures. Truth is, Tustin’s been around for decades before that, and it’s right off the freeway. Thirty years I’ve lived in LA, and I didn’t have a clue this existed!
How many episodes of California’s Gold have featured Orange County?
About 20. One was a program on the Madame Helena Modjeska house. Most people only know that name whenever there are canyon fires, but she was a household word across the country in the late 1800s. And I didn’t even know she had a statue in Anaheim! I also recently did a weeklong series on Orange County this spring that’ll air the week of Nov. 9.
In February, you called KPCC-FM 89.3’s show AirTalk With Larry Mantle to criticize a Transportation Corridor Authority official about their plans to build a toll road through San Onofre State Beach.
I have no problem with the concept of the 241 extension at all. It’s where they want to build it. In my mind, San Onofre is off the table—a park is a park is a park. California made state parks so people have the security of knowing they’re always going to be there. They’re not supposed to be there until someone decides to build on it. It’s a park.
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I had done a show on Trestles. KCET told me that someone from the TCA asked them to delay the airing because it was supposed to show just before the California Coastal Commission met to decide whether to approve it. The official said my show would prejudice the public against the toll road. [Asked for comment, TCA spokeswoman Jennifer Seaton acknowledged they asked KCET to delay the airing of Howser’s San Onofre episode until he “got our side of the story.”] But all I did for the Trestles episode was interview the park ranger. He talked about the park. Then, at the end, he said that officials are proposing a toll road. And I ended the show by saying the future of the park is up to you, the viewers. I don’t get involved in politics, but San Onofre State Beach is a park. As far as I’m concerned, it’s sacred land. When you start chipping away at parks, the concept of state parks falls apart.
Final question: Everyone whom I told that I was going to interview you said they want your job. How do they do it?
[Laughs, then becomes stern] They can’t take my job.
California’s Gold airs on KCET-TV. Episode on Anaheim, Fri., 10 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Tustin, Sept. 25, 7 p.m.