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Remembering TV’s Huell Howser, Even His Big Open Secret

Three years after the California-promoting TV host's death, his personal life remains off-limits, but isn't there more value in acknowledging it?

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January 9, 2016 :: 8:30 AM

I have to admit, when I first starting working at KCET, I didn’t know much about Huell Howser. I didn’t get PBS where I grew up, and consequently I wasn’t raised watching this ebullient man talk about the wonders of California. But while promoting the station’s shows and taking charge of its social media, I quickly learned that people adored Huell. They’d done so for years, they regarded him as a friend and they took it hard when he died—on Jan. 7, 2013, three years ago this week.

I left KCET in 2014, but I think of Huell often, especially when I happen across a place he profiled on California’s Gold or one of its spin-offs. When it comes up today that I worked at KCET, people without hesitation confess how much they love Huell’s shows and how much they love him. But I’m often surprised to learn that many of these lifelong fans didn’t know he was by many accounts a gay man. Of course, saying so can be controversial. I didn’t know the man, and he was not openly gay. However, the subject of Huell’s sexuality comes up often with the people who did know him—usually in an offhand, matter-of-fact manner—to the point that it’s treated like an open secret.

I remember attending the public memorial for Huell at Griffith Observatory days after he died. I went as a representative of KCET and interviewed people who’d made the trek out. Every type of person showed up: teenagers, elderly couples, families, all of them a testament to how effectively Huell had communicated to the masses. At one point, I happened upon a friendly, bearish couple from Long Beach. These two men were happy to talk about how they’d taken trips out to see sites Huell had visited on his shows. They were listing off his virtues when one of them blurted out, “And he was gay!” And as they talked about how much it meant to them that a gay man had been so warmly embraced by the whole of California, it struck me as unfortunate that this portion of the interview wouldn’t make it into the post I’d write later. They had no idea that many people had no idea, especially about something that, to them, was obvious. But because Huell had been private, I wouldn’t be allowed to touch on the topic while writing about his memorial.

I can anticipate responses to my discussion of Huell’s sexuality already. Since he had chosen to keep his personal life separate from his public persona, it would seem justifiable to respect his wishes, even in death. But here’s the thing: Before he died, Huell stated he did not want a public memorial held, presumably because he didn’t want people to venerate him so much as he wanted his work remembered and his legacy continued.

The public held a memorial anyway.

In fact, a second one was held on Jan. 7, 2014, no less. It seemed strange to me that people would have collectively chosen to override an explicit wish but would have continued to regard his sexuality as taboo.

Running KCET’s Facebook page, I learned that many of Huell’s most ardent fans happened to be older. They skewed toward the right, politically speaking, and often the same people who would respond enthusiastically to posts about California’s Gold episodes would also be the ones objecting to posts about issues like immigration rights, global warming and gay people. And it always struck me that it could have been a valuable teaching moment for these folks if they learned that a man they thought the world of could have been a gay person himself.

In many ways, Huell’s personal life doesn’t have any bearing on his work. He encouraged people to look outward—to venture into the place they lived and discover something amazing. And he did it with a level of earnestness that is rare today. Comedian Thomas Lennon wrote that Huell Howser was “the opposite of the internet,” and I think this is the best-ever summary of Huell’s public persona: instead of being so quick to say why a given thing is terrible (as many people do online today), he was the first to say it was great.

But watching Huell today, on TV or in the online archives, I see a charming, boisterous gay guy. I can’t unsee it, whether in the most education-focused installments of California’s Gold to the bits of his pre-public TV career that surfaced since his death. I mean, watch this 1981 interview between Huell and Richard Simmons and tell me what you see.

Or this 1980 interview with Ed Koch.

Or this late-’80s interview with David Hockney.

Being gay myself, this aspect of his life matters to me, because I think it’s important to be able to point to a successful, well-loved figure like Huell and be like that guy from Long Beach and blurt out “And he was gay!”

There are those to whom it never would have occurred that he could be anything other than 100% heterosexual. (I think of one of our online commenters, who’d once asked why he never brought his wife along on any of his outings.) And there are those who know but would prefer it not be stated out loud. But three years after Huell Howser’s death, I think there’s more value in acknowledging it. He meant so much to so many people, and he can mean something even more to the longtime California’s Gold viewers who also just happened to be gay.

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