|Publisher:||Prospect Park Books|
|Product dimensions:||6.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Writer David Duron lives in Yucaipa, CA.
Read an Excerpt
I’m Louie. I’m the cameraman that Huell Howser called to in KCET’s beloved series California’s Gold. Viewers so often heard him exclaim, “Louie, take a look at this!” but I almost never went in front of the camera. My given name is Luis Alejandro Fuerte, but I’m comfortable with Luis or Louie.
This is the story of the twelve years I worked with Huell as his cameraman. It’s not only the account of my personal recollections of the conversations, events, and experiences Huell and I shared during our years working together, but also the stories of the people we knew, both professionally and as guests in the shows. But, most of all, it’s the story of two people with personalities and backgrounds so dissimilar that wouldn’t think the two of us could ever get along. Yet our differences are what made us so perfectly matched as the shooting team you knew and loved on California’s Gold, Visiting with Huell Howser, and many other television productions.
It is my hope that you’ll enjoy reading about all of these things as our story unfolds, and that you’ll find more than just interesting tidbits about Huell Howser. By the time you’re done, I hope you’ll come away pleased that you got to know the big, smiling man from Tennessee as I knew him.
As I listened to Huell on our shoots, talking to people from all walks of life throughout the state of California, I came to realize that he was genuinely and deeply interested in the people he interviewed and their personal stories. He was truly fascinated with his discoveries, from the stupendous to the downright ordinary. They all mattered to him. And he especially loved the history of California, his adopted state.
Knowing how much Huell cared about all these people, and California, inspired and even compelled me to do the best I could as his cameraman, so he could tell his stories exactly as he wanted them to be told. I am still saddened by the unexpected passing of my old friend and shooting partner. Every time I think of him, I can still hear his friendly Southern voice and the exuberant reactions to his discoveriesmost famously, this rousing and endearing exclamation: “That’s amaaazing!”
NITA & THE GENESIS OF CALIFORNIA’S GOLD
Perhaps the most famous (and touching) Videolog story was from early 1989, a story we fondly referred to as “The Elephant Man.” The segment was about a delicate, eighty-year-old gentleman named Charlie Frank, who had been an elephant trainer in the circus. One of the elephants he’d trained and worked with became his favorite. He had acquired her in 1955 when she was only five years old and named her Nita. He traveled and performed with Nita all over the world and treated her with great care, affection, and admiration.
After he retired, Charlie arranged for Nita to go to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Huell heard about Nita, recognized a story when he saw one, and he thought the best way to shoot it was to ask Charlie to accompany him to the park and interview him there. Charlie had not seen Nita for fifteen years. We drove down to the park and set up our gear so Huell could interview Charlie just outside the elephant enclosure. Huell sat and talked with Charlie, asking him questions about his career as a trainer and his years with Nita.
Huell then asked Charlie if he thought Nita would recognize him after not having seen him for more than fifteen years. Charlie got up slowly and, using his cane, ambled over to the edge of the elephant enclosure. He paused and looked at Huell, and then he turned and called to a group of elephants some twenty-five yards away. In a playful voice, he said, “Nita, what are you doing out there? Nita, come here. Nita, you better get over here!” One of the elephants picked up its head, stepped back, and began looking around, searching for the source of the familiar voice. Charlie continued coaxing her to come over to himeven telling her he had a surprise for herand at last, Nita left the herd and lumbered over. She stopped at the edge of the enclosure and extended her trunk. Charlie took it in his hand and caressed it, reassuring her that, indeed, it was he who had come to visit her after so much time apart. He fed her some jellybeans (one of her favorite treats, according to Charlie), and you could just see how fond these two were of one another. Their reunion touched me deeply, and I felt a lump in my throat as I ran the camera to capture this tender scene.
Huell also wanted to know if Nita would remember the old circus routines, and I think Charlie was just as curious. So took charge, as if he were in the center ring once again. He instructed Nita through her act, and she performed each and every trick. She had not forgotten her routine, nor had she forgotten the man who had taught her. Toward the end of the show Huell asked about their special relationship, and with damp eyes, Charlie said, “You get attached to them you just don’t know when it happens.”
When Huell asked if he thought he’d ever see Nita again, Charlie said that this was the last time; he felt that he was in such poor health that he wouldn’t be able to make another trip. The emotional piece ended with Charlie saying his last goodbye to Nita. The gentle old man walked to the edge of the enclosure and, once again, reached his hand out to Nita. She extended her trunk and appeared to not just feel his hand, but to explore it for a while. As he walked away, she waved goodbye with her trunk. Charlie died less than a year later.
Looking back, I can only say that the story was told lovingly and with undeniable tenderness. It was hard to watch it unfold with dry eyes, and I believe that only Huell could have told it so well for television. It was at that shoot that I recognized his talent for reaching into people’s hearts so they’d tell their stories with joy, wonder, and, at times, sadness. His disarming friendliness and genuine interest in people, coupled with his talent for asking the right questions, were the keys to getting people to open up and talk. Those same qualities went on to result in the artful construction of his future shows, which made them more than just interestingthey were unforgettable. At this early Videolog shoot, I got an early look at how Huell was becoming a master storyteller.
Although The Elephant Man was not a California’s Gold show, it still ranks as one of my favorite shoots with Huell. Not only did the video come out well, but also Huell told the heartwarming story with simplicity and care. He had captured a moment that could not be repeated, the final parting of two old friends. And I was proud to be a part of it.
Getting the Nita story had been a stroke of luck; my name just happened to come up on the schedule for that day, and the scheduler teamed me up with Huell and the sound man (at that time, we worked old-style, in three-person shoots). We ended up creating a memorable piece of television that continues to stand out as a marker of how to tell a great story.
After that show, I worked with Huell many times on Videolog shoots, as did numerous other KCET staff cameramen. Beyond the professional relationship of producer and cameraman, we were easy and comfortable with each other, and we always had fun working together. Whenever I’d see Huell’s shoots next to my name on the schedule assignment, I was always happy, because I knew we’d be doing something interestingand I knew I could give him the footage he wanted.
About a year after The Elephant Man show, Huell and I were out on a two-man Videolog shoot. We had wrapped up and were headed back to the KCET studio. Huell was behind the wheel, where he liked to be, but he wasn’t talking much about the shoot like we usually did. He seemed preoccupied. Finally, he turned to me and said he was thinking about doing a new show. He had an idea of doing a program using a two-man crew, just a cameraman and himself, like we did on Videolog.
I recall tentatively saying, “Yeah ?” He said the hook was that he and the cameraman would travel throughout California, visiting interesting places, meeting interesting people, and getting into California history. That angle appealed to me, as I’m a bit of a history buff.
He envisioned the program as a series of thirteen half-hour shows annually, shot over a period of ten years. That seemed to me to be one heck of a schedule projection. But Huell already had ten years in his head, and when he put his mind to something, you just knew it was going to work outtalk about confidence and vision. I was already impressed with the way he produced his stories, and the project seemed to be a natural fit for him, so I said it sounded like a great idea. He said he’d begun to make presentations to get funding for the series, and he thought he had a good shot at getting the money.
Then he told me he’d talked to another cameraman at KHJ-TV about doing the show, but nothing had been finalized. I didn’t ask, but I assumed their deal had been put on hold because Huell didn’t have funding yet, and the show was going to air on a non-commercial station, so money might be tight. The cameraman would have to quit his job and take a chance on Huell’s idea becoming a success on public television.
We were on Sunset Boulevard, close to the KCET lot, when Huell turned to me and asked if I would like to be the cameraman if the funding went through. I didn’t give it a second thought. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
That’s how I got hired to be the cameraman on California’s Gold: a show that was still up in the air, really just an idea, but that would go on to be one of the most beloved public television programs in the country.
And it all started with Nita and Charlie.
Table of ContentsIntroduction: That’s Amaaazing!
KCET’s Golden Age of Television
Nita & the Genesis of California’s Gold
California’s Gold Takes Shape
Our Working Relationship
How We Shot California’s Gold
The Physical Challenges
The California Missions
Bloopers, Blunders & Funny Stories
Theme & Opportunity Shoots
Shoots I’ll Always Remember
Huell in Control
Beyond California’s Gold
Huell Behind the Scenes
Leaving California’s Gold
Our California’s Gold Shows