Cameraman recalls mining TV ‘gold’ with Huell Howser during Sherman Gardens talk

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Luis Fuerte was attending San Bernardino Valley College in the 1960s and on track to earn an electrical engineering degree when a random tour of the college television station, arranged by a friend, changed his life forever.

“I saw the equipment and the tape machines. I went and stood behind the camera and instantly fell in love,” he recalled. “I thought, this is what I want to do, so I changed my major to telecommunications engineering.”

That decision would spark a career that spanned five decades and saw Fuerte capturing a number of Hollywood legends for the small screen and overseeing the editing, lighting and sound that would make them shine.

It would also lead him to the doorstep of one Huell Howser, a Tennessee-grown television host who’d appeared on several programs before striking gold in 1990 with a hit series that featured Howser in front of the camera and Fuerte behind it.

TV host Huell Howser, left, with cameraman Luis Fuerte in the early 1990s.

(Courtesy of Chapman University)

For more than a decade the intrepid duo would produce for KCET-TV more than 120 episodes of “California’s Gold,” a show that featured interviews with the state’s official, and sometimes unofficial, history keepers in locales both well-known and far-flung.

“He talked at a level that just made people feel comfortable. And he let everyone tell their stories,” the cameraman recalled of his host, who recorded the show up until his death from prostate cancer on Jan. 7, 2013. “I’d worked with a lot of producers, and sometimes you’d have no idea where the story was going. But he kept it so simple.”

Although fastidious about keeping himself out of the shot, Fuerte became known to “California’s Gold” fans, as Howser often addressed him in his signature twang by the nickname “Louie.” In fact, Howser once confessed he could hardly go out in public without people asking after Louie.

Cameraman Luis Fuerte shoots an episode of “California’s Gold” in 1993 atop San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

(Courtesy of Chapman University)

Fuerte, now 79, lives in San Bernardino County but comes out of retirement to share his experiences and reflections, many of which he compiled in the 2017 memoir “Louie, Take a Look at This! My Time with Huell Howser.”

The cameraman on Wednesday made such an appearance, speaking to a packed house convened for a Lunch & Lecture series at Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar, where he provided an up-close and personal look at his decades in the industry and the working relationship he enjoyed with Howser.

That relationship began in 1989 when Fuerte, who’d been working for KCET since 1972, was assigned to shoot a short “Videolog” episodes to serve as fillers in between regularly scheduled programs and was paired with Howser.

Their first subject was a retired animal trainer named Charlie Franks, who would be reunited with an elephant named Nita he’d worked with 16 years earlier, now living at the San Diego Zoo. Howser advised Fuerte to keep the shooting simple.

Luis Fuerte, left, shoots a 1989 Videolog with Huell Howser about a retired animal trainer reuniting with elephant Nita.

(Courtesy of Chapman University)

In a bit of film magic, Nita came rushing to Franks and embraced him with her trunk. The pair enjoyed jellybeans together and ran through some tricks from their old circus days before bidding one another farewell. Franks would die one year later.

“The story was told lovingly and with undeniable tenderness,” Fuerte wrote. “It was at that shoot I recognized his talent for reaching into people’s hearts, so they’d tell their stories with joy, wonder and, at times sadness.”

Shooting “California’s Gold” would take the pair on countless adventures throughout the Golden State on horseback, by train, ship and shoe leather. Feeling the full weight of the camera and his own advancing age, Fuerte retired in 2001.

Attendees of a Lunch & Lecture Series Wednesday at Sherman Library & Gardens hear from Luis Fuerte, the first cameraman for the KCET hit show “California’s Gold.”

(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Though it’s been nearly a decade since Howser’s passing, “California’s Gold” still airs on KCET today and nets strong ratings, says Maria Hall-Brown, a senior director and producer for PBS SoCal/KCET.

“We’re talking about a timeless and important show with a devoted fan base that is hard to compare to anything else,” said Hall-Brown, who came to Sherman Gardens Wednesday for Fuerte’s talk.

Even Sherman Library & Gardens Executive Director Scott LaFleur counts himself a fan.

“I love the show and have certainly seen many of [the episodes],” he said. “We’ve definitely planned some family adventures off of watching them.”

Luis Fuerte signs copies of his book “Louie, Take a Look at This!” at Sherman Library & Gardens Wednesday.

(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

In introductory remarks, Hall-Brown described the important role Fuerte played in producing each show, lugging around a 30-pound camera, microphones and packs of audio tapes in sometimes inhospitable conditions.

“Huell may have had the vision, but it’s Luis who made it happen,” she said.

Chapman University — to which Howser bequeathed his entire life’s work — presented the late television host with a posthumous honorary doctorate just months after his passing. Fuerte was asked to accept the award on his former colleague’s behalf.

Though he’d had an idea of the impact and legacy of “California’s Gold,” he was shocked when an audience of about 2,000 gave him a standing ovation. That’s when it hit home that he, too, was part of that legacy.

“It’s been quite an adventure,” he summed up.

Luis Fuerte, third from right, and Huell Howser, to his left, during a 1996 trip to Yosemite National Park.

(Courtesy of Chapman University)

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