Remembering a True Desert Treasure: Huell Howser
Remembering a True Desert Treasure: Huell Howser
By Steve Brown
From the February/March 2013 Desert Treasures Issue
I couldn’t believe it. Huell Howser was dead. I was in shock when I first heard it, I’m still in shock now as I write this. But as I look back at our last several conversations, they take on a more serious tone.
“I’m tired, Steve,” Huell told me. “I want to retire.”
Now I know why. Suddenly his carefully planned gift giving made more sense. He knew he wasn’t going to be taking it with him.
I know Huell didn’t want a lot of hoopla made over him, and that’s one reason why there’s just a little Huell on the cover of this issue. But while we won’t make a Huell Howser Special Edition, it just seems right to share a little story or two about him, as he was both a big supporter of many of the things we also support, and he was a friend of the magazine for many years.
Huell had volunteered to narrate a promotional video for The Sun Runner. It was a generous offer. But when I got around to writing the narration, he kept telling me how tired he was when I called. I just couldn’t add one more thing to his list of things to do when he sounded like that. I figured I’d catch him at a better time somewhere down the line. Like a lot of Californians, I couldn’t quite imagine Huell retiring, but, I thought, maybe he’d slow down, make more art, and have more fun.
I wish he’d gotten the chance. He’d earned it, after all.
If there ever was a “Mr. California,” someone who loved this state completely, and shared it freely with those who would join him, it was Huell. Pretty much everything he encountered was “amazing,” but amazing in Huell’s drawl was more than that tired adjective could ever hope to attain coming from the mouth of someone else.
But while his enthusiasm was genuine, his aw-shucks approach towards all things amazing could be misleading a bit. Huell was no hick, after all. He was extremely intelligent, genuine, and artistic. And funny as hell.
I’ll probably lose some more advertisers for sharing this story, but I’m grateful for Huell’s time, and this encounter with Huell helped me get through a difficult period with this magazine.
It was about half a dozen years back. I had taken on The Sun Runner as an alternative to an increasingly annoying experience with corporate journalism down in the Palm Springs area, and a means to write about the desert I love. We had migrated from black and white to color (I got tired of graying out the colorful artwork of desert artists), and began distributing the magazine in the Coachella Valley and beyond. I was operating from a small office at the 29 Palms Creative Center and had met a part-time transplanted New York artist, Randy Polumbo, at his gallery show there.
Randy had bought a property in Joshua Tree and with artist Shari Elf, had established the Art Queen gallery. At the Art Queen, there were several additional rental properties up front (The Sun Runner later shared another gallery space at the complex). One Art Queen space had been rented to a local church that needed an administrative office.
Randy’s artwork has often included two things: sex toys and a kinetic component of some sort. I remember one of his works as a small dirigible that almost appeared to be made from a condom of some sort stretched over a frame, with a solar powered propeller. That sort of thing.
Randy had been at his mad genius best when he created Buttercup. Buttercup was a giant flower of sorts, with solar panels as the petals, batteries in the base, and its pistils and stamens made up of translucent multi-colored dildos and sex toys. During the day, Buttercup sucked up the light and then was, as they say, positively radiant, when the sun went down.
But the church folks renting the office up front at the Art Queen had begun having meetings and so forth at the office space, and weren’t too comfortable with Buttercup’s presence, as the story goes. So Randy documented an incident when a woman from the church called the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department on the obscene and indecent work of art (on Randy’s own property). Randy took the photos of the deputy covering up Buttercup with a blue tarp (a direct violation of his First Amendment rights), and created an Art Queen ad he paid to place in The Sun Runner—“Come to Buttercup.”
I looked at the ad and figured I’d get some grief about it, but it was a paid ad, which we needed more of, and it was the work of a local artist within his own paid ad. I thought since The Sun Runner was supposed to be a serious arts publication, our readers could handle a work of art that was a little risque without over-reacting.
Boy was I wrong.
The hi-desert shit storm that followed was nuts. I had advertisers pull their ads—including my own insurance agent in Yucca Valley, whom, I am pleased to note, lost more business than I did when I pulled all of our business and transferred it to another agent for the company. I was called a pornographer—and worse—and had people, including one board member of the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce (who owed me quite a bit of money on a past due advertising bill) call our advertisers telling them to not advertise with the magazine as we promoted pornography.
Another Yucca chamber director, this one from a local mega-church, called inferring that the chamber itself was considering no longer offering the magazine because of its content, but when I pushed the matter as a chamber member, he clarified he was only calling to express his personal opinion (which is fine as long as there isn’t misrepresentation about the chamber as a whole, and we sorted that out to my satisfaction). I still have people who won’t talk to me to this day because of this incident.
One restaurant in Twentynine Palms that had been an advertiser for years, a place that went through hundreds of copies of the magazine each issue, and where I went for coffee each Friday morning after finishing my radio show on KX 96 FM, informed me that I could pick up the magazine and get it out of their establishment after they received two—count ‘em—two, complaints. When I asked about the other 198 copies of the magazine that had been picked up by patrons without complaint, the owner hung up on me, as she did at least one more time when she also canceled her ad.
Eventually, the controversy led to a threat to fire bomb our office, and even years later, some of the more upstanding citizens of the area used it as the grounds to be exceptionally rude and nasty to our advertising representatives. To me, if you’re abusive to someone in their early 80s for something you didn’t like that ran in a magazine five years earlier, you’ve got a problem. But that was life with Buttercup.
I told Randy what was happening as a fall out from the ads of his that we were running, and I bemoaned the fact that I was no longer welcome at the restaurant in Twentynine Palms where I once got my post-radio show coffee. As a journalist, coffee assumes a larger role in our daily lives than with many folks. During my college journalism career, I had, to a large extent, subsisted on coffee and Jolt Cola when we were on deadline. I told Randy I didn’t think there was anyplace else in town to go for coffee on Fridays any more.
About a week later, a Federal Express truck pulled up to my office. To his credit, Randy had sent me one of the biggest and most complicated coffee makers I have ever seen. It both ground and brewed the coffee (he also sent some excellent coffee), and was so advanced it came with an instructional DVD. I had just set it up and got its first pot going when Huell pulled into the parking lot.
To this day, I have no idea why he came to visit that day, but I invited Huell to try a cup of the first batch from my newfangled coffee maker.
When he saw this thing, he went into true Huell mode.
“That is the most amazing coffee maker I have ever seen,” he exclaimed, noting how enormous and complicated it was. I proceeded to tell him the story about how I came to possess such a machine, and he sipped his coffee and took it all in. Then, and I think the ordeal of Buttercup’s advertisements were all worth it because of this, Huell offered up his opinion.
Holding his mug, he exclaimed, “I just can’t believe Debbie (the restaurant owner who had canceled her ad and banned the magazine from her establishment—names have been changed to protect the “guilty”), would do such a thing.”
We talked about how two out of two hundred people complained about the colorful dildo art flower ads and so forth, and about art and pushing boundaries and things like that and then he offered to take action to address this, all on his very own.
“I’m gonna buy a big huge pink penis balloon and I’m going to take it down to the restaurant and give it to Debbie,” Huell proclaimed. “I wonder what she’ll do then?”
I had to laugh at the mischevious imagery Huell had conjured up, but I remember saying something to the extent of that probably wouldn’t be a good idea to really hand her a giant pink penis balloon at her restaurant, all the while thinking that the eventual fire bombing of my office was becoming more and more likely. What a story that would make!
“Plus,” Huell continued, now giving me far more information than I wanted, “Debbie and Bob (her husband, again, wrong name, right guy) go every month to Orange County to get their colons cleaned out. How can they object to this?”
Huell actually went into graphic detail as to the process of this thorough and meticulous colon cleansing, but I have mercifully blocked it from my mind. I remain grateful to him to this day for not going through with his balloon delivery plan, but the image of Huell walking into the restaurant with an enormous pink penis floating in mid-air as a gift for the proprietor, still makes me smile.
The Buttercup incident taught me two things: the artists won’t come out and support you when your arts publication is under attack for refusing to censor their work (though Randy did, that was about it—even after running commentary on the First Amendment and the necessity of artistic expression, I still received almost no visible signs of support from artists, galleries, or arts organizations, locally or regionally); and that sometimes, a story is worth far more than the price you pay.
I might have thought differently if the office did get fire bombed, but it didn’t, and you’ll never guess who rolled up on the day I was packing up the last truckload of stuff to move the magazine’s office to Joshua Tree—Huell.
He drove up while I was loading the truck, rolled down the window, and merely said, “Carpetbagger,” in that amazing Tennessee accent of his. Then he drove off.
Randy went on to build what I called “the dildo wagon,” a large Army surplus trailer that became the largest jobs project in Joshua Tree for a long time. Artists and craftsmen (and women) removed its drab green color and polished the trailer until its metal sides gleamed, and then all sorts of Buttercupian decoration was installed in, on, and around what became “The Garden and Grotto of Manifest Destiny.”
When our office was located on the grounds of the Art Queen, I noticed a steady stream of tourists coming to visit. The pornography that had driven some of the local population into hysterics had become a tourist icon that everyone from LA to Europe just had to come see. The wagon toured the country, and was a hit at Burning Man and elsewhere, even as locals continued to snipe at this magazine. A few years ago, my wife and I were in New York, staying with cousin Nick and visiting our daughter who had moved into an apartment in Manhattan around Fifth Avenue. As we walked down the avenue, a row of brightly lit windows extended down the block, and around the corner—all filled with Randy’s colorful artwork. The Museum of Sex was featuring the same kind of work that had almost gotten my office firebombed. Not one person was protesting this public display, and inside the museum, animated crowds viewed the works, snapping photo after photo after photo.
Huell and I talked quite a bit after the move to Joshua Tree, and he even had planned on writing something for the magazine but later bagged it, noting that if I published what he had planned to write, a lot of people here might be mad at him. I guess we’ll never know what he had planned (I’m sure I would have loved it, even if it cost me a few more advertisers), but I’ll always be grateful to Huell, not just for his authentic enthusiasm for all things California, his love for regular people and how extraordinary they can be, or for his seemingly never-ending support for the community and a host of causes, but mostly for the great stories and laughs he brought my way, and his support during a difficult time here at The Sun Runner.
Huell wasn’t just a desert treasure, but was the real California’s gold. He was a populist treasure that seemed to belong to everyone, enriching all of us whenever he got us to see that it’s the people we encounter, the places we enjoy, and the experience of life itself that is the real treasure in this world. By refusing to be a celebrity, he became a great man instead.
Huell, wherever you are now, I hope it’s nothing short of amazing. Thanks for everything you’ve done for California, the desert, our communities, regular folk everywhere, and this magazine. God bless, and I hope we get to share another cup of coffee and some stories sometime.
Our thanks to KCET, Vickie Waite, Bob Whitt, Pam Keiser from the Randsburg General Store, Jean Rhyne of California State Parks, Mojave Sector, Elena Falossi, and Ariel Carpenter for their photos and stories about Huell.
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