Local Lifestyle

Saturday, Jan 12 2013 10:34 PM

HERB BENHAM: Huell Howser made a big, friendly impression

By The Bakersfield Californian

I met Huell Howser at Dewar's more than 10 years ago and maybe once after that. Howser looked like he had just come out of the ocean after a morning surf, lifted weights for two hours and then taken a bracingly hot shower.

The television host, who died last week at 67, was supremely alive, somebody you could not imagine dying. If you could imagine it, you'd have to come to the grim conclusion that you were a goner too.

Howser was the creative and physical force behind a number of programs on public television -- "California's Gold," "VIDEOLOG," "California's Green," "Downtown," "Road Trip" and "Visiting" -- that had him traveling California with a hand-held microphone and a cameraman so as not to intimidate the people he was interviewing. No town was too small, no story too insignificant and no person too anonymous.

The news that Huell Howser had come to Bakersfield that day to tour Dewar's swept through town like a benevolent tsunami. We might as well have been receiving a blessing from the Pope. We were not used to visitors like Huell Howser, here ostensibly to do what he did everywhere else -- praise rather than bury us.

Normally when out-of-towners of some stature come to report on Bakersfield, the story might contain the word "hardscrabble" and reference our awkwardness, backwardness or just plain lack of couth (and, yes, we can be thin-skinned).

I met Howser at Dewar's and the ice cream shop's employees seemed as excited as the rest of us. The Tennessee-born Howser was a rock star. Count us as Bakersfield groupies.

Howser marveled. He marveled, he cooed, he complimented and he swept through Dewar's, ending up in the back room, where Rosie Anderson Dewar was hand-dipping cherry cordials.

Although Rosie was George Dewar's aunt, this was not a woman who sought the limelight. She was content to show up every day, walk quietly to her perch far from the madding crowds and hand-dip the chocolate-covered cherry cordials, a skill she had learned from her father in 1951 and continued to perform until her retirement in 2007.

Howser treated Rosie as if she were a star. He fussed over her, marveled at her craft and after tasting a cherry cordial, he declared the candy sublime.

It wasn't just journalism, it was love. He loved on that woman like he had probably loved on hundreds of interview subjects before her.

The stars have their publicists. Their work and every move is covered in newspapers, magazines and the electronic media. However, people like Rosie Dewar, who worked diligently hand-dipping chocolates in a small candy shop (albeit an incredibly successful candy shop), could never reasonably expect to see a microphone and the back light of a film crew if not for people like Howser.

There was nothing condescending about the way Howser did it. He wasn't a phony. Howser thought that what his interview subjects did was important and that viewers should know about it.

Like Studs Terkel, Howser understood the value and sanctity of work and he celebrated that with that healthy, fresh-out-of-the water, just-from-the-weight room look.

After touring Dewar's, Howser walked into the parking lot with Heather and George Dewar. Their next stop was Luigi's for lunch. As he was getting into the car, Howser stopped and shook his head.

"I forgot to say goodbye to Rosie," Howser said.

With that, he walked back in, made his way through the labyrinth of rooms and said goodbye. That's what made Howser California gold.

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