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Our Day with Huell Howser

by Susan Saperstein

Huell Howser, creator and host of California Gold on Public Broadcasting affiliates, contacted City Guides seeking people for two episodes of the program in 2008. This included the 75th Anniversary of Coit Tower, and a story on which street is the crookedest.

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Cameron, Huell, and Susan near Vermont Street. The DPW crew is in the background holding the 1920s engineering drawings of Lombard and Vermont streets.

Laura Schoeder recruited Mary Nell York and Masha Zakheim for Coit Tower. City Guide Emeritus Mary Nell led this tour for many years, and Masha, an author and educator, is the daughter of Coit Tower muralist Bernard Zakheim. Because of a GuideLines article, I became the subject matter expert on Vermont Street. Phil Noyes, the show’s producer, asked me to give some history on Lombard Street. He said, “Just read a tourist book and recite a few facts.” So I also became the expert on that street.

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Huell and Mary Nell in front of the Christopher Columbus statue at Coit Tower.

After months of drought-like weather, the filming was cancelled twice in October 2008 because of rain.

The shoot was rescheduled this past June. Phil told me, “Look for Huell at the bottom of the Lombard Street curves. You’ll hear his voice before you see him.” And sure enough, as I approached on Leavenworth Street, I could hear him talking to the sparse crowd gathered on this dreary foggy June day. Mr. Howser is known for his booming Tennessee-accented voice and his wonder of all the things he sees in California.

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Huell with the Zakheim sisters, Masha and Ruth (holding book).

As filming began (the production crew is Huell and cameraman Cameron) he asked why the curves were put in the road, and whether the residents liked all the traffic. After my speaking bit, he interviewed people walking down the stairs, the gardener watering the hydrangeas, and found a resident who was leaving her house.

We then went to Vermont Street to meet the Department of Public Works surveyors. DPW was there to prove which street was curvier. As luck would have it, this usually empty street was closed because another crew was filming a car commercial. But no problem—they recognized Huell and they let us film there.

Huell had more of a problem finding people to interview on this empty street (empty except for me, his cameraman, the DPW crew, and the commercial crew). But he did manage to find one resident driving down the street. Which street is the crookedest? DPW compared curvature and radii—and came up with….well see the show when it airs.

At 3 pm over at Coit Tower, the sun came out as Mary Nell told Huell about Telegraph Hill, the building, the phoenix bird decoration, and Lilly Hitchcock Coit. Inside the tower, Huell asked why these murals were so important. “We should know what life was like in 1934,” she answered.

Masha spoke about her father. As an added treat, her sister Ruth Zakheim Gottstein was there. Ruth is pictured in her father’s Library mural, the girl in the blue middy blouse.

There were more people at Coit Tower, and therefore more interviewing opportunities. Huell asked everyone why they visited and if they were happy they saw the tower and murals. Everyone unanimously had a great time there.

City Guides was honored to share this experience with Huell Howser who died January, 2013.

See previous Guidelines articles on Lombard Street, Vermont Street, and Coit Tower and Bernard Zakheim. And also read Masha’s book, “Coit Tower, San Francisco, Its History and Art”.

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