Behind the Scenes with Huell: Your Questions Answered (Part III)
You asked the questions and Huell’s production team responded! This is Part Three of a three-part series of questions and answers from Ryan Morris (RM), producer; Phil Noyes (PN), producer; and Michael Garber (MB), editor. See Part One here and Part Two here.
Alex C, Cotati
How often would Huell write out what he planned to say or do? The show has always had a feeling of spontaneity to it, and I’ve been curious if this was by design, or if it really was a show on the whim? What was Huell like to travel with, from the crew’s point of view? It seems like he would have been the best travel companion!
PN: Huell never wrote anything down. He was an “off the cuff” guy and nobody did it better. On the road, Huell was all business. He was very professional with us and there was not much yucking it up. When the shoot day was over, he went his way and we went ours.
MG: In the edit bay, he would always write out the voiceovers that would occur throughout some episodes. He took that very seriously and always fussed over specific words to get the right sound and feel. When watching himself back on air, he was always in awe about how he was able to just start talking on camera without any idea of what he was about to say. Hearing him say that would often make me laugh. However, I think Huell had a very rare talent for being able to keep track of the story, the interview subject, and the camera all at the same time. He was already editing the episodes in his head while he was on set. Also, his talent for doing this was acquired over many many years of interviewing people.
RM: Only the cameraman traveled with him, for the most part. When working, Huell wasn’t much of a travel companion. Off duty, Huell liked to drive through the desert and he’d go into a zen mode, silent for hours. Then he’d see something off to the side and pull over. He might stop for a Coke. Or Peggy Sue’s Diner in Yermo. One time he stopped and noticed a house on top of a cinder cone. The house looked like an abandoned spacecraft and was outfitted with all sorts of 1960s Jetsons-style control panels. So he bought it.
I have heard that Huell does an episode in Solvang. Do they ever air that episode? I hear it’s quite funny & I’ve been waiting for it!
RM: That’s a rarely-aired one-hour episode from 2002 (Road Trip #113 “Solvang”). More than anything, he liked saying the word “aebleskiver” which is sort of a cross between a pancake and a cookie.
Sean, New York, NY
Since I discovered California’s Gold from a clip on an episode of Jake Fogelnest’s podcast. There is a version of the “California, Here I Come” song that plays in a handful of episodes–namely “Under California,” “Kelp,” “On Stage,” “Keeping Cool,” “Hut & Hangers,” “Olives & Berries,” “Life in Death Valley,” “Dry Lake Bed,” “Camel and Bison,” and a longer version appears during the end credits of “Hidden Gold.” Clearly, this song is an earworm for me. Do you know who the artist/band is that performs the song? Huell seems like a really genuine article and loved talking to people and learning about them and what they do. I can only imagine how interesting (and maybe exhausting) it must have been to be his assistant. I’m not holding out much hope that my first question will ever be answered, so I’ll ask a less baffling one here: What are some things that you specifically learned or gathered from your time with Huell that may have helped you in your career and/or life in general? Thanks!
PN: After 19 years working with Huell, my biggest take away was, in Huell’s words, “What we do ain’t brain surgery.” Ask a good question and get out of the way and listen to the answer. Also, never judge somebody before you know their story, as everybody has a tale to tell.
MG: Huell had a very different approach to television. I appreciated that and it helped me rethink how I approach my own work. Also, Huell helped me look at the world in a far less sarcastic way. Sometimes, it’s nice to just experience the awe of something, even if it is seemingly mundane.
RM: From Huell I learned a lot about the art of simplicity. He had this frustration that society is becoming too complicated but no wiser. So you stand out by simply doing the opposite.
Huell Howser Archives (HHA): From a previous response: RM: The most frequently asked questions over the years have been about the show’s music. Call us lousy bookkeepers but we never kept track of those songs. Maybe we should have just released a “California’s Gold” soundtrack album and retired early.
Alexander B, Salinas
Did Huell ever do a bit on Salinas, “the salad bowl of the world”?
RM: I remember Huell wanted to do a one-hour episode about Salinas but it never came together. He might have traced Steinbeck’s history. Call it the show that never was.
PN: Salinas made an appearance in Cal Gold #810 “Bits and Pieces” when we visited a cactus farm.
Robynette R S, Lake Forest
There was a show he did and I can’t remember where it was at & would love to see it about a bunch of old ships that were together out at sea. I thought it was somewhere off of San Diego but not sure. I remember doing the show from a boat that was passing by these ships. Can u please help me if you know what this was?
RM: Sounds like Suisun Bay. But that’s in Northern California.
PN: Here you go, California’s Gold #705 “Suisun Bay.”
RM: Keep in mind you can also view most of these shows through Chapman’s website.
Alexander O, Berkeley
What IS this?!
RM: Everyone had their Huell impression. Huell knew it. But we never did it in front of him. And he knew about the comedians and radio hosts who parodied him but hardly gave it a thought. Some were funny. To me the impressions sound more like Barney Fife.
MG: That video always made me laugh as it was just the complete opposite of his personality. It was like an alternate-universe Huell. And no, I never shared it with him :).
Ryan J, Fresno
What preparations did Huell do before a shoot? How were show ideas developed?
RM: Huell was good at finding the best stories and the best angles on those stories. Beyond that it was just a matter of booking the camera guy and checking the weather forecast. It sounds simple but Huell was a journalist for 20 years before he even started California’s Gold so he had keen instincts. So meetings were short. Discussions were few.
Is there a place that viewers wanted Huell to visit , and he simply did not want to visit ? Did Huell ever say No to anything.
RM: He didn’t like to say “no” but there were too many submissions. We’d get a few hundred stories a week and he’d pick one or two. That being said, he had a strict rule about personally telephoning those who submitted their ideas. He’d spend hours every day thanking people, even when the answer was no. I think that was incredible.
MG: I remember Huell often feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who would make recommendations. Like Ryan said, he was always very generous with his response when then answer was no.
Brad M, Vacaville
Will there ever be a spot for the Oldest fair in the state Dixon May Fair?
RM: We had our California’s Golden Fairs series but Huell never made it to Dixon May Fair. California hosts hundreds of fairs and festivals but we only had one Huell Howser and he was spread pretty thin.
Lance M, Oakdale
When Huell was on location did anyone become annoyed with Huell and did not want to be interviewed?
RM: Huell had a funny way of ambushing people. He didn’t ask if they wanted to be interviewed. If you ask, they might say no. He had been a reporter for 20 years before he even started California’s Gold so he knew how to seize the story.
PN: It was VERY rare, but once in awhile we would find somebody who did not relish the idea of a camera in their face.
RM: And sometimes you can see that in the shows, especially if someone is mid-meal.
Did you guys ever get kicked out of a place or did a fight almost happen?
PN: We were not 60 Minutes or TMZ. If we showed up, generally, you were about to get a free 30-minute show about your spot or your story.
RM: Right, the shows were free advertisement. And off camera Huell liked an argument instead of a fight. It sounds like some urban legend, but during the 1992 L.A. Riots he famously charged into a Circuit City on Sunset Blvd. to ream the looters. Maybe not the best idea but he was a man of principle and he wasn’t afraid to annoy.
Leslie H, Barstow
Was Huell always so easy-going even when he wasn’t on camera? I just love watching all of his shows because of his easy-going attitude. Even if the subject of an episode was something that I wasn’t interested in, he had a way of drawing you in. Thank you for that.
MG: He was much more intense off camera.
RM: Easy-going is the last word I would use to describe Huell.
MG: When working, he was very much down to business. He didn’t like stopping for chit-chat (or even bathroom breaks).
RM: And the shows draw us in because they’re actually real, unlike reality shows. The pace of the show mirrors the pace of life. You become present with the action. Compared to everything else on TV I guess it’s pretty slow but we like that.
Gary S, Lodi
When and where is Huell’s documentary going to be released on DVD for sale?
RM: That’s up to Chapman University. Angel, can we get a sales pitch?
HHA: Yes! The DVD is now available online here.
Penny H, Lancaster
I know how much EVERYONE loves Huell (I DO!!) but wonder did anyone ever flip out, demand he leave or ruin a feature he walked up to cover?
PN: We never had anybody flip out and it was pretty rare that anybody wasn’t excited to see Huell.
RM: Except maybe Koko the Gorilla. Huell read an L.A. Times article that Koko (the gorilla that speaks sign language) liked California’s Gold. Huell and Cameron went up to visit Koko but the trip went awry. Apparently Koko wasn’t happy and Huell scrapped the shoot. We’ll never know what was on those tapes because Huell personally destroyed them. I guess Koko went ape.
Rob D, Burbank
Huell often said on camera that the central coast was one of his favorite places in California. Besides the Disney family museum episode he never got to shoot, what were some other places Huell always wanted to visit and do a show about but never got to?
PN: The story that he REALLY wanted to do was the hike to the top of Mt Whitney. We planned that show on three different occasions and for various reasons it would fall apart. There were so many other places that Huell planned to go, but you can only do so much. There were some years when we would do 60-70 shows. That’s unheard of in this business.
RM: I’m thinking of other show ideas when his health was declining. Mayme A. Clayton’s Library & Museum was booked and cancelled. Another show would have been the Hollywood Walk of Fame but focusing on the less celebrated stars, the ones people step over without stopping. We also planned a show about Thomas Starr King, an unsung hero in California during the U.S. Civil War. King’s statue was removed from the Capitol and replaced with Reagan’s. Huell was always interested in the fleeting nature of fame and legacy. We also planned a show about the plight of 1930s black actress Hattie McDaniel. And Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan. There were many. But they weren’t all heavy; he also thought about doing a show about crows because he heard they make good pets.
We all know Huell wasn’t big on doing shows on celebrities or Hollywood (with a few sincere exceptions over the years of course:), but did Huell ever enjoy going to the movies and/or watching any television shows? Did he have any favorites, classic or new?
MG: Huell was an avid TV watcher. I can’t remember specific shows, but I know he watched many of the popular series that were on at that time. He loved watching old movies on Turner Classic Movies.
PN: I kid you not, Huell’s favorite show was the Andy Griffith Show. Maybe it reminded him of his childhood?
RM: He was a channel hopper. He knew about everything on TV and hated most of it. Then he would settle on TCM, sports, or oddly Californication, which maybe isn’t so odd if you think about it. He also watched his own show every night just to quality check the broadcast sound and video and he’d notice small imperfections.
Lindsey, Thousand Oaks
Huell would usually keep the ball rolling on his projects, even when things did not go as planned. Was there ever a story or show that was cancelled/dropped due to a lack of material or any other reason? What was Huell’s or the productions staff’s general thoughts on the Newberry Springs (Road Trip #107) episode? It is perhaps the most surreal/hilarious of any Huell episode.
RM: Newberry Springs was classic Huell. It’s all about that experience of driving around, stopping in a town where there isn’t a whole lot to do, then you start asking people questions about themselves and a whole world opens up. Some people make fun of that episode but that wasn’t the intent.
PN: I was the one who found the “self-guided tour” online, so when he called from the road and was freaking out that it wasn’t exactly everything we thought, I was very worried, but Huell being Huell, he turned it into a gem.
RM: Some places you visit really are surreal, so it’s good to capture that on the film and leave it alone in editing.
I loved the Happy Wanderers episode (Visiting #418), and I have always been curious as to what has happened to all of those shows? Did they ever end up at an archive (UCLA)? And When did Huell become the most upset / angry during an episode or interview? He always portrays himself as a very calm fellow, but on a few occasions (like when he ate the garlic clove), did he fall out of this character.
RM: He was nervous standing atop that big windmill in Tehachapi for “Windmills” (California’s Gold #3012) And his otherwise red face turned a little green when he flew with the Blue Angels (California’s Gold #903). You ask about getting angry; he’d get hissy about the littlest things but it was always momentary. A big peeve were those people who praised Huell while the camera was rolling. “Huell Howser! I love your shows!” Then he’d snap, “We’re not here to talk about me! We’re here to talk about the town’s oldest milkshake machine!” The story was his singular focus so it aggravated him when fans doted. About “Happy Wanderers”: the answer might be in the files. Thankfully, Huell donated all of his episode files to Chapman’s Special Collections. If you make an appointment, they can pull the folder for you.
I would like to know if you were on Huell’s trip to Cuba (Visiting #415 “Huell in Havana”). If so what was that experience like?
PN: Nope, Huell was alone on that adventure.
RM: Huell filmed in Cuba in 1996, way before it was commonplace. And he filmed in Russia (Visiting #1417 “Hello Moscow”) in 1989. I think it’s funny that he’d do those overseas trips without even an assistant. He also took his handheld camera to the rainforest in Queensland Australia for an episode. It was never finished and we destroyed the tapes. I think he liked being in countries where he wouldn’t be recognized. Then some tourist from California would spot him. He’d get their name and address and write it down on a napkin so he could write them a letter when he got home.