The day Huell Howser fell in love with Irvine’s open space

The late host of TV's "California Gold" grasped for words to describe the Irvine Ranch

by TRACY CHILDS

Anyone who ever watched TV personality Huell Howser knows he rarely was at a loss for words.

But during a visit to The Irvine Ranch for his long-running “California’s Gold” series, he grasped for a description.

“Because, look at this — this is just,” he said, pausing in Limestone Canyon with microphone in hand. “I hope the camera can pick this up, because it’s not just the physical beauty, it’s the way it feels.”

California’s Gold Exhibit

“California’s Gold” ran 21 years on PBS, spawning generations of fans and a permanent exhibit at Chapman University. Among archived videos is an episode from Aug. 12, 2004, in which Howser displayed his unbridled enthusiasm for the Irvine Ranch.

“We’ve just started on our adventure, haven’t we?” Howser asked in his famous Tennessee drawl at the outset. “But if this is any indication of what’s ahead of us today, I think we’re all in for a treat — 50,000 acres of land, and all of it is here for us.”

(The preserved lands have since been expanded to more than 57,000 acres — 60 percent of the Irvine Ranch.)

In addition to his ever-present sidekick, cameraman Cameron Tucker, Howser was accompanied by an official from The Nature Conservancy — which helped manage the lands at the time — and two conservation experts from Irvine Company. One of them was John Graves, now retired, who drove the truck that took Howser into Limestone Canyon.

Howser was known for peppering interviewees with rapid-fire questions and then using pretty much everything captured on camera in his shows.

Forget scripts — Howser wanted everything fresh

“I volunteered to drive,” Graves recalled, chuckling. “Anytime the camera came my way, I ducked.”

Graves said he was impressed by Howser’s apparent disdain for rehearsals and anything that smacked of scripting.

“He wanted everything fresh; he wanted to genuinely react to things as he was seeing them for the first time,” according to Graves. Graves said he and the others were also struck by Howser’s warmth and interest in those around him.

“His personality off camera was the same as it was on camera. He was a really nice person to work with.”

Deep inside Limestone Canyon, Howser stopped to take in the beauty of ”The Sinks,” a red sandstone cliff known as Orange County’s Grand Canyon.

“Wow,” he exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like this in California.”

Learn more about Chapman University’s “California’s Gold Exhibit” about the late Huell Howser at: blogs.chapman.edu/huell-howser-archives/