Rafu Wire and Staff Reports

Longtime Southern California television host Huell Howser, who used his folksy interviewing style to introduce viewers to little-known Golden State locales and the state’s unique residents, died Monday at age 67.

He was best known for hosting “California’s Gold,” which ran for 19 years on PBS stations, including KCET in Southern California. Several segments focused on the Japanese American community.

Howser with painter Henry Fukuhara in 2005 at Manzanar during one of the artist’s painting workshops.

Howser, a native Tennessean with twang to match, died in Palm Springs at 2:35 a.m. of natural causes, according to the Riverside County Coroner’s Office. Howser’s spokesman, Ryan Morris, told City News Service that Howser died at his home following a long illness.

Morris, who declined to give details on Howser’s illness, said there would be no public or private services.

“He was very against any sort of tribute or funeral,” Morris said, adding that Howser would joke, “We all have to die.”

He declined to list survivors, saying Howser’s family requested privacy.

“We are deeply saddened by the news of Huell’s passing,” KCET President/CEO Al Jerome said in a statement. “This is a tremendous personal and professional loss to his friends and colleagues, as well as his legions of fans. Huell elevated the simple joys and undiscovered nuggets of living in our great state … 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. We will miss him very much.”

The Japanese American National Museum said in Facebook post, “He filmed several episodes of his show in Little Tokyo, including a special one-hour edition of ‘California’s Gold’ about Japanese American home movies in which he interviewed (curator) Karen Ishizuka and they showed our ‘Something Strong Within’ home movies. Thank you, Huell, for sharing the richness of our community’s history and culture with California!”

Howser visiting with Frances Hashimoto, owner of Mikawaya in Japanese Village Plaza, along with other community members in 2008.

Other segments featured the Nisei Week Japanese Festival, Mitsuru Cafe and Mikawaya in Little Tokyo, the Manzanar internment camp site, “Songbird of Manzanar” Mary Kageyama Nomura, miso-making at Miyako Oriental Foods, New Year’s mochitsuki, Marukai supermarket, the Sawtelle neighborhood in West L.A., the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, and Big Fresno Fair, which was the site of a wartime assembly center.

The staff of the Manzanar National Historic Site said they were “saddened” by the news and that “Mr. Howser helped share the stories of Manzanar through his series … He will be missed.”

Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry said, “He was a true California gem who knew that to truly tell our story, you need to talk to the diverse people who comprise our city and state. We will miss his energy, joy, and true appreciation for what makes Los Angeles a great place in which to live!”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called Howser “a Los Angeles treasure and California icon.”

“Although he was originally from Tennessee, Huell loved California more than most natives,” the mayor said. “His long-running television program, ‘California’s Gold,’ shared with audiences the best our state has to offer.

“Huell would travel anywhere to show viewers the beauty and variety of the Golden State, from its most famous landmarks to the least known sights. And his boundless enthusiasm and curiosity was infectious, making us all see these places with the same amazement he did,” Villaraigosa said. “His death is a loss that will be felt throughout Los Angeles and California.  He will be greatly missed.”

In 2007, Howser rode as an honorary parade marshal in the 67th Nisei Week Japanese Festival parade, waving to the crowds as his car passed through Second Street in Little Tokyo. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

City Councilmember Tom LaBonge also hailed Howser, saying the state had “lost a great one.”

“Nobody comes near Huell in his love of people, his love of California, his love of a manhole cover, a street light, an art deco building,” said LaBonge, who was sworn into office by Howser in 2001. “… If he ran for governor, there would be never another election.”

Often lampooned for his accent and wide-eyed wonder at roadside attractions, Howser became so well known while hosting “California’s Gold” that his character was incorporated into two episodes of “The Simpsons.”

He started his television career at WSM in Nashville after working for U.S. Sen. Howard Baker and serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. The University of Tennessee graduate, whose unusual first name is a combination of his parents’ — Harold and Jewell — became a well-known television personality in Nashville for his human interest stories.

Howser later hosted a magazine-style series at WCBS in New York City before moving to Los Angeles in 1981 to work for KCBS-TV. He later served a stint as a weekend “Entertainment Tonight” host (1982-83) and eventually joined KCET in 1985.

At KCET, he started “Videolog,” short programs featuring people’s unique stories. The series later became “California’s Gold.”

Howser quietly retired from “California’s Gold” late last year, amid rumors about his failing health. Morris told the Los Angeles Times in November that Howser was retiring from filming new shows, saying he “is just trying to get away from television and enjoy some free time.”

Morris told City News Service that Howser donated his work to Chapman University in Orange. He donated episodes of “California’s Gold” and all his other public television shows to Chapman in 2011 so they can be digitized, put on the Internet and “made available free to a worldwide online audience,” according to Chapman’s website.

Howser, who had lived in the El Royale Apartments in Los Angeles, also once owned an unusual Newberry Springs home known as “The Volcano House.”

The KCET show “SoCal Connected” aired a special segment on Howser on Monday night.

In 2008, Howser interviewed local residents when the Los Angeles City Council approved historic cultural monument status for the Aoyama Fig Tree in Little Tokyo. The 50-foot-tall Moreton Bay fig tree was planted in 1920 by members of Koyasan Buddhist Temple. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

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  1. Like many others, he will be sorely missed. I am so glad to have purchased his show #10011,
    “Persimmons” and it will be a collection to be treasured.