I’ve been touched and saddened by the passing of Huell Howser, the folksy, ebullient host of the popular PBS series California’s Gold. At 67, he was simply too young to leave us–and what a void he has left in his wake! My husband and I used to make fun of his oh-my-gosh!-delight in everything he saw. He was this big, hulking ex-Marine, but he was like a kid in a candy store in his exuberance about everything that caught his attention. His television show took us all over California, introducing us to quirky people, unusual places, and tiny, intriguing stories that would never have seen the light of day had Huell not turned his camera in their direction.
I visited two places because of Huell. My mother spent a couple of years in Taft, California, during her early grade school years when her father got a job with Standard Oil not long after the family had emigrated from Scotland. The job and the California sunshine improved the family’s spirits and belief that they had done the right thing by coming to America. The family left Taft when Mom was seven and she had no memory of the place. Then Huell Howser shined a light on Taft one Sunday evening, showing off some of the central California town’s attractions. Intrigued, I just had to take Mom to visit that place. And, so we went…. Well, let’s just say we both thought the town probably hadn’t changed much since she lived there, which was probably a good thing–for us, anyway.
Some years ago, Huell introduced me to a hole-in-the-wall cafe called The Apple Pan. Located on Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles, the restaurant is about as unassuming as one can get. Walk through the screen door, and it’s like stepping back into the fifties or early sixties. Customers sit on stools at a u-shaped formica counter and are served by male waiters wearing soda-jerk hats and dressed head to toe in white. You quickly realize that these waiters are a no-nonsense breed. You don’t ask questions, you pay with cash, and you don’t make changes to the menu, which consists of two or three kinds of hamburgers and a slice of apple pie. Their surliness (think Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi”) is part of the deal. You get used to it after the first brush with brusqueness. Cokes come in a can. Wait a second and the waiter will pour it into one of those old-fashioned cone-shaped paper liners set in a silver holder. French fries come hot and heaped on a paper plate. The waiter then squirts a mound of ketchup on another paper plate. The main attraction is the hamburger of course, loaded with a thick slice of tomato and an even thicker wedge of lettuce. A white paper wrapping holds all this together, and the waiter presents the tantalizing package to you by propping it on its side on the formica counter. No plates. It doesn’t matter.
My husband and I have visited The Apple Pan on numerous occasions. We have a tradition of staying in Los Angeles for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s. Our hotel is a half-block from a movie theater that shows the kind of movies we like, and so we try to see as many movies as we can during the few days we’re there. The theater–and The Apple Pan–are within walking distance of the hotel. We visited The Apple Pan just two weeks ago–at 11:00 at night. We felt like teenagers again eating hamburgers and fries at that late hour. We talked about Huell Howser. We always talk about Huell Howser when we’re there…and I suspect we always will.
So why would I put this post on a blog about personal history? Because Huell Howser was the quintessential story teller. He knew what made a story good. It didn’t matter how seemingly common the subject matter, Huell’s formula was this: Find the heart of the story and focus on the details that will make it resonate with the audience. A good lesson for all of us.
Other lessons I learned from Huell? The Apple Pan is “AMAYYZING!” Forget Taft.