Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Open Up Those Pearly Gates: A Huell Howser Memorial Extravaganza

In my mind and and in my heart, there are three men in the entertainment industry that have helped mold my character, spark my imagination, and develop my sense of humor, fun, beauty, and adventure - Walt Disney, Pee-Wee Herman, and Huell Howser.  What might seem like a disparate group of idols at first, begins to make a lot more sense when one realizes that the unifying characteristic of these men was their ability retain the optimism and wonder of child.

Uncle Walt                                                        Pee-Wee
(Source)                                                            (Source)

Huell Howser

Last week we learned about the death of that legendary broadcaster, Huell Howser; he may not have been world-renowned, but it is hard to find a man more beloved by the Golden State.  He truly embodied the California dream for which so many hope when they come to our state.

Bereft at his passing, we here at wacky tacky headquarters decided to mobilize and create an opportunity for friends and fans of Huell Howser to come together and celebrate his achievements in broadcasting, but even more to celebrate his decency, kindness, and inspiration.  

Huell's shows were about seeking out the odd, interesting, historical, and often overlooked people and landmarks that make California such a wonderful place to live and explore.  With episodes numbering in the hundreds, our choices for a memorial destination were many.  It became clear that the best location for our ceremony would be Philippe's, a historic restaurant in downtown Los Angeles that Huell frequented both on and off camera.

Philippe the Original

With less than a week to prepare, we spread the word about our HH Memorial and switched into high gear to make our plans a reality.

Commemorative buttons were made.

T-shirts were printed

And portraits were lovingly enhanced with colorful pastels.

Normally, when I am in charge of an event, I tend to be a bit of a stress case; Huell's memorial, I decided, needed to be not only stress free, but joyous.  When folks wondered if I had warned Philippe's of our tribute, I decided that the adage of "It's better to ask forgiveness than permission" definitely applied (no stress).  When we pulled into the parking lot and found that the restaurant was packed, I determined we would stake out a spot and just expand our claim as more participants arrived (no stress).  When the large communal tables were populated by strangers, I handed them a button and invited them to join in on the fun (joyous).  I think the spirit of Huell presided over the event and everyone was thrilled to find a place to express their common affection for him.

Erika created our Huell Howser shrine/centerpiece using a vintage California souvenir tablecloth,
Huell's portrait, and fresh flowers.  I'll bet that we are some of the only people in
 Philippe's 104+ year history that set the table using flowers and a real tablecloth!

When our guests arrived, they were offered a "wacky tacky Remembers Huell Howser" button and asked to find a seat among the crowd.  The best part was that people from every facet of my life were represented (coworkers, friends, family, artists, musicians, bloggers, etc.) and the communal tables encouraged everyone to sit with people that they did not necessarily know. 

Tanna, Cary, Cher, Scott, and Marty (Mary's back there too)
Jodi, Teresa, Suzy, and Swimmy
Caitlin, Skip, and Mary

Because it was a fairly-impromptu event, we weren't sure how many people would be able to come.  By the end of it, we had filled eight large tables!  As everyone ate, we proceeded with our program that included extemporaneous remarks, trivia, toasts, and, in true wacky tacky fashion, a singalong.  I wanted to keep it informal so we opened the floor for anyone and everyone to talk about his/her favorite episode, share a Huell-related memory, and give his/her best Huell Howser impression (he had a charming, and heavy, Tennessee accent).

We played some Huell trivia and each winner, including
Steve, received a T-shirt and became "An Official Member
 of the Unofficial Huell Howser Fan Club."
Charles led the toast to Huell's memory.
We toasted using milk from Broguiere's  Dairy;
Huell's image graced many of their bottles.

My favorite part of the day was our singalong.  As I mentioned in our previous post about Huell, every episode of "California's Gold" ended with a version of "California, Here I Come."  You must consider the source here, but it didn't feel the least bit weird to hand out lyric sheets and lead a restaurant full of people in song as Mary accompanied us on ukulele; it felt perfectly natural.

"California, Here I Come"
It might be hard to get from the video, but the room
was filled with love and I could see a couple people 
getting choked up - good thing I was behind the camera.

Riding high on the tide of music and goodwill, Ben and Erika graciously invited everyone over to their house for an after party.

The Huell shrine was part of our traveling show and was only enhanced
by the mid-century ceramics filled with the donut holes provided by Charles.

Cary, Richard, Isaiah, Darla, Lupe, Emily, Mary, and Charles

Uplifted, and still not wanting the good times to end, we had and after-after party by moving our progressive memorial service to a local Thai restaurant.

Jesse, Charles, Emily, Ben, Erika, and Mary.

It is hard to express here, but I was truly moved by the love of everyone who attended.  There are few times in life when we have the chance to be so publicly vulnerable and allow the goodness of humanity to connect us.  I hate to get too sentimental, but I was honored to have the opportunity to host our event and I am extremely grateful for the good friends (and strangers) in attendance.  Even though the circumstances that brought about the occasion were sad, it was a magical day for me and I know we did our best to honor Huell.

Philippe the Original
1001 N Alameda St
Los Angeles, CA

Having heard of the tremendous response we got from our Huell Howser Memorial, the City of Los Angeles caught on and decided to have their own tribute, as planned by Councilman Tom LaBonge  (okay, okay, so maybe great minds think alike).  The service, held on the steps of the Griffith Observatory, continued the feeling of goodwill that was born just a couple of days prior.  Arriving early to find a place among the thousands of projected attendees, we started to meet other fans and discuss our favorite episodes and compare notes on all of the places we have checked off our Huell-went-there-so-I-went-there-too lists.  I'm glad I remembered to take the rest of our Huell buttons because they were the hit of the day and the gateway into great conversations with new friends.

Our new pal Sharon and Mary showing off
their Huell T-Shirts.

Huell made it quite clear that he did not want any kind of public memorial service.  Obviously, his written wishes weren't enough to stop his legions of friends and loyal fans.

When we arrived, we were two of maybe ten people.
By the time the program began, the whole forecourt of the observatory was packed.

Huell celebrated our entire state, but it was ideal celebrating him with
the Hollywood sign in the distance.

Cynthia gets in the spirit. 
Among the politicians and local leaders,
Anne Marie Johnson was a speaker.  Many will
remember her from In the Heat of the Night.
We're not ashamed to say that we recognized
 her from That's So Raven too!

Charles was one of the keynote speakers.
His address was pitch-perfect in every way, but his best line was when he
explained that the etymology of Huell's name was a hybrid of his parents'
names - Harold and Jewell.  "That's like if Lucy and Ricky named their
baby Little Licky."

A particularly-cool moment was the helicopter fly-over performed by the LAPD.

The service culminated in a singalong of what else, but "California, Here I Come."

As a final farewell, we watched the sun set in the Pacific.
Say what you will about smog, it makes for some beautiful sunsets!
California's gold!!!

It was another lovely tribute to a man who touched the lives of and inspired the adventurer in so many.  Not wanting to say goodbye, we stuck around for a little meetin' and greetin'.  The result was a photo-op with Councilman LaBonge and an interview of Mr. Tiny by a local radio station.

Nick & Mr. Tiny even made The Los Angeles Times!!!

Theresa, Mr. Tiny, Councilman LaBonge, Mary, Jesse, and Emily
Even though he appears to have been coerced, this photo was Mr. LaBonge's idea.

Jesse, Emily, Mr. Tiny, Charles, Theresa, and Mary
The answer is yes, we all pretty much wear the same outfits everyday...

Using our new mantra, WWHD - "What Would Huell Do?" - we headed to Hollywood for yet another after party.  We ended up at Miceli's, the famous restaurant at which Lucille Ball is purported to have learned how to throw pizza dough for an episode of "I Love Lucy" (just for the record, nobody in our party is buying that story).

The gang dining at Hollywood's oldest Italian restaurant, Miceli's (est. 1949).

Our dinner was accompanied by a very talented pianist who played a range of American standards and Broadway hits.  It was my hunch that someone who played at his skill level would most certainly know
a little, corn-fed ditty like "California, Here I Come."  I went over to him to explain all the events that had transpired and our desire to honor Huell's memory.  Having met Huell several times in the restaurant, he graciously accepted my musical request.  What else could we do but sing along?

"California, Here I Come"

1646 N Las Palmas Ave
Los Angeles, CA

After all of that I think we feel confident that our respects have been paid to Huell Howser.  It is our duty now to carry on his tradition of discovery, adventure, and respect for our history.  It is Huell's duty to pave the way for all the adventures that are to come in the next life; so we say "Open up those pearly gates, Heaven, here Huell comes!"


Mr. Tiny


  1. What a great send off!!!! I must admit I had never heard of this fellow before your previous blog post, but it is clear that he was a very much loved and revered gentleman. It's so nice to see that there's still a sense of community spirit, and how these remembrance ceremonies brought together people from all walks of life.

    1. Thank you! It is tough writing about someone who is so regionally specific in a forum that luckily gets readers from all over. I thought the themes of optimism and community and the celebration of history were pretty universal. I'm glad the message came across!

  2. Wow! You guys really kept the memorial celebration rolling! Wouldn't it be cool if everyone had parties and sing-alongs put together to remember them when they pass? I bet he was looking down at you all from his new vantage point and giggling with glee. He may have started out here in my neck of the woods but I'm glad that he ended up there in California with y'all. It seems like he ended up in the right place for sure.

    1. I'm always planning my memorial service. It's not uncommon for me to ask someone, "Will you tap dance at my funeral?" I want it to be a fun, silly, and uplifting. I hope we did Huell's memory justice; he was a really great guy! Thanks!

  3. Looks like so much fun. Wish I could have attended, but moving furniture that day tuckered me out. What a great and fun tribute.

    1. We wish you could have joined us too! It was great fun and only would've been heightened by your presence. Hopefully, we'll have more wacky tacky field trips/meet-ups in the future!

  4. I’m crying - this is such a touching post. I’m so happy that your memorial for Huell went swimmingly and that the memorial at Griffith Park was also a success. And how cool that you got to sing “California Here I come” 3 times! I’m sorry I missed the Phillipe’s extravaganza; it sounds like a remarkable time.

    1. Oh, you are so kind. We would have loved to have you but it was definitely a last minute deal, making it hard to coordinate a perfect time. Undoubtedly, music always has a stirring effect and it was my favorite part of every celebration. This event inspired us to host more wacky tacky field trips so we'll keep you in the loop! Hope to see you soon!

  5. I had no idea that Mr. Howser had passed! I absolutely adored him and California's Gold. His sense of wonder and love for the state was a treasure to be sure. He will be much missed. Kudos to you for putting together such a fitting tribute.

    1. It was a huge shock to all of us! Wasn't he the best?! My goal for this year and every year to come is to have just a small fraction of the excitement and optimism that Huell exhibited. Thanks!!!

  6. to quote Lawrence Welk, it was "wonderful, wonderful"!

    1. I knew there was a fourth member of my dream team - Mr. Welk!!! It was wonderful!

  7. Great post, Chris. I wish I could have gone to Philippe's and celebrate with you all, but I had to work on Sunday. UGH!

    Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.

    1. Thanks RBH!!! We really missed you. It was a tough call trying to choose a date that would work for everyone - impossible rally. We are brainstorming for future wacky tacky field trips/adventure days/meet-ups and you will definitely be invited. Your ideas for such are always invited!

  8. Hi, I sat in front of you and your sister at the memorial, thanks for the button.

    Here's my video of the entire memorial, I hope people that couldn't be there enjoy it as much as we all did.

    RIP Huell.

    1. It was great to meet you guys! I noticed that you were filming the entire service - a brilliant idea. Thank you so much for sharing the link! Maybe we'll run into you guys again someday!

  9. What a wonderful and touching tribute!

    1. Thank you! Creating and attending the memorials and writing about them has really helped me deal with his corny as that sounds.

  10. I missed this post - but just now read and listened to it all! What a fun time you all had at your memorial(s)!!! Love the buttons and T-shirts and sing-a-longs. Loved Mary on her uke! (My niece in Calif is teaching herself to play a uke also!!!) I'm SURE Huell is smiling down on you with tears in his eyes for being such great fans.

    1. I'm glad you saw it RS! It was such a wonderful time and I hope we made him proud. I bought the uke for myself but being totally inept at musical instruments more complex than a tambourine, it became Mary's by default. That girl can play just about anything!

  11. Oh my, I had no idea he had passed and got teary eyed at my desk as I read your post just now. Those shirts you made are amazing! My husband and I will be paying tribute to the greatness of Huell Howser when we head down to Hollywood next month. I still have not seen the episode when Huell came to Alameda where we live in the Bay Area and must track it down!

    On a side note, just came across your blog and am really enjoying it!

    1. Hiya Elisa! Thank you so much for finding wacky tacky! We are so glad to have you join us! Huell's passing was a great loss for everyone in our state. I took it hard but decided that in our grief we needed to be proactive and celebrate all the great information and history he brought to us. His whole archive of shows can be found on the KCET website (our local PBS station). Thanks again!

  12. That is, KCET-- our local station which USED to be PBS...

  13. January 2018 will be the 5 year anniversary of his departure. Any memorial ideas for fan getogethers?