Wednesday, Jan 09 2013 03:55 PM

Huell Howser: Good as gold

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    Jeff Nickell, right, gives a tour of the Kern County Museum for Huell Howser, left, and cameraman Troye Jenkins in 2006 for a show on PBS.

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By The Bakersfield Californian

During his tenure at the Kern County Museum, historian Jeff Nickell struck up a warm and lasting friendship with adventurer and bon vivant Huell Howser, who died Monday. Nickell, who now works as a coordinator at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, was featured on a number of Howser's television programs and has agreed to share his memories with our readers:

My first meeting with Huell Howser outside of a large group or on the phone was at the museum to film a segment of "Visiting with Huell Howser."

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The Bakersfield Californian

Huell Howser was the host of several California travel shows on PBS over the years. Though his sense of wonder and aw-shucks charisma make each outing a gem, we've rounded up a list of episodes that focused on our corner of the state. All are on DVD and available for purchase at calgold.com, the source of the following episode guide:

From the "California's Gold" series

"Dry Lake Bed"

Huell visits a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert that is so hard and so gigantic that it is the site of Edwards Air Force Base and a landing strip for the Space Shuttle. In the 1920s and '30s it was also used by hot-rodders from all over Southern California. Though Muroc Dry Lake has remained off-limits since World War II, the Air Force recently reopened the dry lake bed, inviting back all the old-timers for a weekend of racing.

"A Tale of Two Cities"

Huell visits Allensworth, now a state historic park, California's only community founded, financed and governed by African-Americans during the early 1900s. Then he tours old and new Kernville and goes whitewater rafting down the wild and scenic Kern River.

"Things That Crawl in the Night"

Huell encounters the endangered kangaroo rat at Carrizo Plain National Monument, considered the best example of the fragile ecosystem in the San Joaquin Valley.

"Weedpatch"

Huell visits the historic Kern County migrant worker camp immortalized in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and talks with both the Okies who grew up there and the Latinos who now call it home.

"Oil"

Huell finds out how oil made Kern County great, visiting the vast Midway-Sunset Field, the top oil-producing field in the lower 48 states, and the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft, which has one of the last huge wooden derricks in existence. Huell's last stop is the site of the Lakeview Gusher, which at the turn of the century was the largest gusher in the United States.

"Cotton"

Huell spends a day in Buttonwillow, which calls itself the "Cotton Capitol of California" and has a great time out in the fields. For historical purposes, he picks cotton the old-fashioned way, and then steps into the future and learns about a state-of-the-art cotton gin.

"Noriega's"

Huell is off to the Noriega's Hotel, where he not only enjoys an amazing meal, but he is treated to wonderful stories about the Basque culture in the area.

"Shark Tooth Hill"

Huell visits a massive archeological site with millions of fossils dating from the Miocene Epoch, 15 million years ago. Kern County was once at the bottom of a huge sea filled with massive prehistoric sharks called megalodons. Huell also visits the Buena Vista Museum, which houses amazing archeological finds recovered from Sharktooth Hill.

"Kern River Preserve"

The Kern River Preserve, which features natural beauty, wildflowers and turkey vultures.

"Randsburg"

The historic and remote mining town of Randsburg.

"Petroglyphs"

Huell travels to the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake to see some rock art that is arguably the largest concentration within the Western Hemisphere. Though an accurate dating technique is still being sought, it is thought that some petroglyphs are 16,000 years old.

"Lopez-Hill House"

J.J. Lopez, the longtime manager of Tejon Ranch, built a Victorian-style home in Bakersfield in 1909. In the 1960s, the home was occupied by Arlin and Lavern Hill, who migrated from Oklahoma after the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl. Now, this long-overlooked California landmark has finally been renovated and preserved, thanks to local fundraising efforts.

"Oil Workers"

Huell returns to Taft to celebrate its 100 years as an incorporated city and is on hand for the dedication of the oil worker monument, a huge bronze statue that is sure to become a focal point of this historic town.

"Lunar landing"

Huell visits Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, which is NASA's primary center for atmospheric flight research and operations.

"Chavez Center"

Set on 187 acres, the Chavez Center, once home to a tuberculosis hospital, is where the labor leader lived and worked during his last quarter century as he fought for better rights for migrant workers.

"Wasco"

There's nothing like acres and acres of rose bushes to stimulate the eyes and nose. Huell gets a behind-the-scenes tour of how rose bushes are harvested, packaged and shipped to nurseries and home centers all over the country.

"Tejon Ranch"

Huell sees the diverse beauty of the 270,000-acre ranch and learns about its rich history.

"Big Things in the Desert"

A special on California deserts features a segment on Boron, where Huell encounters a big hole and a big truck. The big hole is the open pit mine where about 50 percent of the world's borax comes from. To get the borax out of that huge open pit requires trucks that are two stories high, as wide as a two-car garage and longer than a city bus.

"Windmills"

This special on wind technology includes Enron Wind in Tehachapi, which was the biggest and most modern windmill Huell could find.

From the "Road Trip with Huell Howser" series

"Tehachapi"

Join Huell as he tries to get to Tehachapi, only to keep stumbling across many roadside gems like: a movie set built in the middle of the desert, a lake with no water, the Antelope Valley Indian Museum, and the Mojave airport. Finally, Huell arrives in Tehachapi to visit with Betty Stokoe and her backyard full of railroad signals. Also featured is the world-famous Tehachapi Loop.

"Bakersfield"

Huell samples Basque food, visits a Tule Elk reserve and tours country music legend Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.

"Ridge Route"

Completed in 1915, the Ridge Route was carved from the San Gabriel Mountains by workers using mule-drawn dirt scrapers. From ridge top to ridge top, they cleared a 20 foot-wide roadway, which was the first direct route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

"Oildorado"

Huell attends Taft's 95th anniversary. It's a tribute to the families which make up the community, as well as its rich oil history.

During our Hill-Lopez fundraising drive, I was asked by the museum foundation if Huell might be willing to be part of an auction package: Dinner with Huell Howser. I called him and he said, "You don't ask for much do ya?," before proceeding to agree to it.

He asked me about the history of the Beale Memorial Clock Tower and I gave him some facts. Filming began and he told his camera man, "Cut; let's do that over."

We began touring the museum and I messed up and said "cut" or stuck my hands up in front of the camera to get another take. His response was, "We don't do that on this show. It is meant to be free-flowing. People make mistakes, and there's nothing wrong with it. So, don't do that again."

Thus, began our friendship and I am happy to say he probably filmed more episodes of his various television series in Kern County than anywhere else.

Huell Howser was the ultimate professional. Don't let his friendly and jovial personality lead you to believe otherwise. He knew exactly what he wanted his product to be and had things well-researched before he ever set foot on a site he intended to feature. Some people ask if Huell was just acting on his shows. The answer is no. He was just as friendly off camera as he was while the camera was rolling (I later learned, after my initial filming, that he meant what he said about wanting his shows to be natural; he insisted only that his intros be letter perfect).

My association with Huell -- his staff, at least -- goes back to 1995. As a person new to the museum profession at that time, I watched most of his shows, trying to soak up as much California history as possible. Little did I know then that much of what I would learn about my own backyard would come from working side by side with the man who, in many ways, would become one of my mentors.

Several years ago, Huell's producer called me and asked me to get a historical expert on the Tejon Ranch for an upcoming feature. I gave the producer a couple of names and also said he could call the Tejon Ranch because they have the experts. My phone rang a few minutes later and it was Huell:

"You must not have understood. I want you to do the show with me."

I told him that I knew only general information about the ranch, and he said, "Well, you'll know more after we're finished."

From that point until filming, my nights were filled with reading the "Saga of Rancho El Tejon," which I continued to study even in the back seat while driving the dirt roads of the ranch.

Huell told me, "You can stop reading because I know there is something I will ask that you won't know." He was kidding, and everything went great.

But Huell's efforts to shine the spotlight on Kern County went beyond his television programs. He had a genuine interest in preservation, agreeing to serve as the honorary co-chairman of the fundraising effort to bring the Lopez-Hill House to the museum from its location in Rosedale. Working with Huell on the relocation and restoration was awesome. He was truly inspired by the lives of the families who had lived in the house and in fact called it "the dream house."

During our Hill-Lopez fundraising drive, I was asked by the Museum Foundation if Huell might be willing to be part of an auction package: Dinner with Huell Howser. I called him and he said, "You don't ask for much do ya," before proceeding to agree to it.

Then, after a wonderful dinner at Wool Grower's he said, "OK, go ahead and ask." I asked what he was referring to and he said, "What you want me to do next -- I know you're already thinking about it."

I considered Huell Howser a friend and mentor. He gave me advice on a number of occasions. But mainly what I will always remember was the way he treated people -- genuine and friendly. It didn't matter if it was during a break filming an episode or in a crowded restaurant, he would take time to talk to people, take photos with them, and make them feel special.

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