TSA pre-check

TSA Pre-Check has been around just over four years now. It is a way to expedite your movement through security at most US airports. Designed primarily for the business traveler, it provides three bonuses we all can enjoy: (usually) shorter, faster moving lines; you don’t have to take your computer or other electronics out of your bag; and you can keep your shoes and jacket on. Frequent fliers such as myself have customarily been gifted this benefit by the airline with whom we have status. But when I fly on another airline, I have to join the long line and start undressing!

Even if you’re an infrequent traveler, you may have enjoyed the TSA Pre-Check experience on a past flight. It’s been given out randomly for the past few years so that more people could sample the program. Ultimately, it’s a subscription service offered by the TSA. The more who experience it and like it, the more subscriptions they will sell. It’s marketing at its best!

Of course, something that is designed to keep “the friendly skies” safe should, perhaps, require that everyone going through the expedited (and therefore arguably not as thorough) screening process be worthy of the benefit. As subscribers increase, they are growing frustrated by those in the line who don’t really know where they are or why, nor what the line requires. They slow the process, resulting in the expedited line sometimes being slower than the general line. TSA has put into motion new regulations that will decrease and eventually eliminate not only the random gifts of Pre-Check by US airlines, but also offering it as a benefit of status to their frequent fliers (USA Today – 10/19/2015).

I decided it was past time for me to find out the process for getting permanent Pre-Check status. Like most good things, it began with a Google search which quickly took me to The application process is simple and straight-forward. Then you must answer a battery of questions primarily pertaining to whether you’ve been involved in any sort of a felony situation in the past 7 years. Read the questions carefully! They are worded so that sometimes the “right” answer is yes and sometimes it is no.

Next, I was directed to a location where the face-to-face part of the process would happen. Despite rumors I’ve heard that this can be done downtown, in Folsom or in the Sunrise or Country Club Mall areas, the website showed the only “local” office being in West Sacramento (across Jefferson Street from Club Pheasant in the Lowe’s parking lot). The next closest location is in Stockton. I selected a date and time that suited me, and received an e-mail confirmation.

My appointment was yesterday. Despite the fact five people sat in the IdentoGO, USA office when I arrived, with proof of my appointment I was ushered right in. They checked my driver’s license, scanned my passport and collected $85. (Credit cards only – they don’t take cash!) I reconfirmed my answers on the online application. Then they electronically took all ten fingerprints. No ink! I was out in 10 minutes.

Though I was given a card on the way out saying TSA would notify me of my acceptance (or not) within 45 days, they also gave me a website where I can monitor my status. They said a Known Traveler Number (KTN) is usually assigned within 7 days. Sometimes it happens in as fast as 24 hours. Once I get that number, I will provide it to all the airlines on whom I fly, whether frequently or not, and enjoy expedited screening. They did stress this action must be taken in advance. Ticket counter agents cannot add the benefit on the day of travel.

One last thing – the subscription period is five full years. Even if you’re a relatively infrequent traveler, I think this is a pretty small price to pay for an expedited airport experience. Your thoughts?

A Note From Mark – The Day We Met An American Legend


There were about 20 of us seated in the Grandstand Theater in the museum. We were on one of Sports Leisure’s popular Baseball Road Trips several years ago. This one had a theme. We were following the life of Yankee legend Yogi Berra. Our itinerary had included a visit to (old) Yankee Stadium, where Yogi was immortalized in Monument Park with other Yankee greats. We had stopped in St. Louis, Yogi’s hometown, and toured the neighborhood where he grew up with his great niece as our guide. She regaled us with stories of Yogi and we marveled at how two legendary baseball figures like Yogi and his friend Joe Garagiola could have grown up on the same street. Now we were in New Jersey, at Montclair State University, home of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center. We’d been listening to Dale Berra talk of his own major league baseball career and the career of his father, Yogi. After about 15 minutes of story-telling, Dale paused and said, “Before you folks leave, I have a piece of memorabilia I’d like to show you,” and he opened a small door and disappeared behind it, leaving it slightly ajar.

We looked at each other in anticipation. What could it be? A World Series ring? Maybe the Yankees had loaned a World Series trophy to the museum? Would we get to touch a piece of history? Well, yes on the history thing, as you’ll soon see. And yes, I think you could call what was shown to us a “trophy”. We waited for what seemed like hours but in reality was only a minute or so. The door swung open, and a small, slightly hunched over figure appeared. We collectively sucked in our breath. It was Yogi himself.

image1Yogi Berra (center) at his museum in Montclair, surrounded by his Sports Leisure fan club.

Seems that word had gotten to him that a group of people were out on a trip, tracing some of the stops Yogi’s journey in life had taken him. So he decided he’d like to come down and meet us. When Yogi walked in, our collective jaw dropped. We were like kids in a candy store, staring at him without speaking or moving a muscle.

After about 15 seconds, Yogi spoke up. “You can come on down here, he said.” We still sat transfixed. My legs were like rubber, I couldn’t get them to work. After a second encouragement to join him, we made our way down the steps. Yogi shook everyone’s hand, asked us about our trip and wondered aloud why someone like him would be that interesting. One of the first things I noticed was the gnarled shape of his hands and fingers. Foul tips and pitches in the dirt for decades had broken and bent his fingers so that they sort of curled together. Catcher’s hands I think they are called. Hazard of the trade.

We tried to ask Yogi questions, but admittedly, we were star-stuck. For the next 10 minutes or so, I didn’t know whether to cry, smile or wet myself. Friends later asked if I’d gotten his autograph. I hadn’t. Signatures on a piece of paper have never held any intrigue for me. Just standing there, in the presence of a man who was not only one of the best baseball players to ever put on a uniform, but was indeed a great man, was an honor you could feel, in a humble sort of way that spoke of the man himself. In just those few minutes you could sense that Yogi was a kind and gentle man, a man of great integrity.

(His integrity was such that in the 1980’s when George Steinbrenner fired Yogi after only a few weeks of managing the Yankees, he vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium again, and boycotted the field until Steinbrenner publicly apologized over a decade later.)

Born to Italian parents and growing up in a rough and tumble neighborhood known as “The Hill” in St. Louis, Lawrence Peter Berra served his country in WWII and was a machine-gunner on the USS Bayfield during the Normandy invasion. He played the game with a passion few have ever reached. He was the heart and soul of the Yankees.

Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe Dimaggio, Lou Gehrig; the Yankees have had their share of legends, of Hall of Famers. Superstars. Certainly Yogi fit into every one of those categories. Some of his World Series records will never be broken for the simple reason with 30 teams now it isn’t likely anyone will ever play in as many World Series games as Yogi did.

Ironicly, it was his malaprops, his creative use of the English language, which made him memorable. By now, you’ve heard many of them repeated often in the days since Yogi’s passing. They make us laugh. Now some will make us reflect on the man who said them.

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

“I take a two hour nap everyday between one and four.”

Of a St. Louis restaurant, he said, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” On attendance at Yankee games, he commented, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?”

He once spoke of purchasing three of his favorite cardigan sweaters in different colors, “navy blue, navy green and navy brown.”

My personal favorite, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

And on and on. Some of Yogi’s “sayings” will live on forever. He once stated, “I really didn’t say everything I said.” Except those around him verified he did. Often.

Bobby Hofman, a childhood friend who eventually played shortstop for the New York Giants and worked for the Yankees, hung the nickname Yogi on him after noting Berra’s resemblance to a Hindu holy man the two had seen in a movie. In his early years with the Yankees, he was mostly known as “Larry.”

Now Yogi has passed and we have lost something special, a true piece of Americana. Yogi wasn’t just a baseball player, he was one of us. His entertaining way of saying things made us laugh, made us think, made us human. Yogi cut through the airs of fame and fortune and talked to us on a level we could all appreciate and understand. We didn’t laugh at Yogi as much as we laughed with him. He was the guy you wished you could have a cold one with.

He passed peacefully on the 69th anniversary of his Major League debut, at the age of 90. No American sports figure other than perhaps the likes of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and the previously mentioned Babe were more recognized by the American public than Yogi. At this writing, funeral arrangements were still pending. Where you would hold it, I don’t know. Other than Yankee Stadium itself, what venue could possibly hold all of the people who would probably like to say goodbye to a man they never met?

Owning a tour company has allowed me to go a lot of places, see a lot of things, meet many wonderful people. But I sincerely doubt anything will ever top the day a diminutive man appeared from behind the door of a make-believe baseball stadium. As one of his friends, the late Wes Westrum, also a master of malapropos said, “When they made him, they threw away the molding.” Amen. Not likely will there ever be another Yogi.

And that, is just one man’s opinion.

Making Travel Dreams Come True is Going to Cost More Next Year

The price of travel is going up.  Not surprising, you say.  Seems like pretty much everything goes up, at least a little, every year.  A fact of life, you say.

Having been a small businessman for three-and-a-half decades, I pretty much concur.  Most prices rise a little at a time.  It’s a fact of life in our capitalistic economy.  Most economists will even tell you that gradual price appreciation is a positive thing.

What we are facing in pockets of the travel industry next year is not gradual and will not be positive for travelers.  It will be sudden. It will be a lot in some places and the increases, categorically, are for different reasons. I’m seeing it as we build our travel programs for next year, negotiating prices and contract terms. Let me offer my take.

Hotels – The price of hotels is going up mostly for one reason, demand vs. supply.  For the last several years, new hotel construction has been tempered by poor economic conditions, pretty much around the world.  Fewer new hotels means less competition for existing rooms, so prices automatically tend to rise. Existing hotels, accustomed to annual price increases, found the economy and competition wouldn’t allow much in the way of increases, even though rising costs pressured profits.  Hotels and motels, like many businesses, sucked it up and held the line on prices.

Now, many are trying to pass on five years’ worth of increases in one shot.  The Embassy Suites Logan Airport went from $159 to $215, for the same month, same day of the week, from 2014 to 2015.  Other hotels sported similar price increases.  New York is up $70-80 a night over last year.  Key West is up 20-25%.  If you are planning family vacation travel next year, my advice is to start shopping room rates early, there won’t be many in-season sales for 2015 (until new hotels start springing up in 12-18 months).  So far, the hotels are not playing the new game the airlines have created.  But they certainly could.  Read below.

Airlines – This is entirely another story, worthy perhaps of congressional investigation (on second thought, never mind, Congress has way too many issues already). The airlines, as a group, are price fixing by withholding inventory from public sale.

If you don’t believe me, check Southwest’s schedule for April.  Lots of flights are labeled as “not available” even though they are 7-8 months away.  How could that be? Prices are also extremely high on the limited “available” flights.  Ditto for United, except all flights are available, just at totally ridiculous prices.  By withholding seats until closer to departure, they can increase the average price paid and increase profits.  On the surface this is not illegal, unless they have all gotten together and decided to do this as a group.  I will suggest that is the case.  Far too much coincidence in timing and process to believe otherwise.

Restaurants – If you go to the grocery store, you know that food prices have risen considerably in the past couple of years.  Of course, restaurants have to pass on those costs.  Because I’m not a restaurateur, I can’t comment on the specific finances of the situation, but prices are on the rise.  This could be one area where the price increases are most justified. And most unavoidable. Expect meat, seafood and fresh vegetable prices to be up the most.

Bottom line, expect to pay more for travel next year, whether you travel as part of a group, or independently.  But let’s hope supply and demand drive prices, not huge corporations, who through mergers, have eliminated competition and put themselves in a position to goose the American public.

And that, is just one man’s opinion.

Mark Hoffmann

P.S. If you would like to attend the Tour Preview Day at the Doubletree Hotel this Saturday, there are a few spots still available! Give us a call at (916) 361-2051. If you’ve already made a reservation thank you and see you there!

The Curtain Falls on 23 Years of the Palm Springs Follies


It is an old adage in theater circles that if you ever get the chance to attend the final performance of a long-running show, always take advantage of the opportunity.  Because, after months or even years of “getting it right” every afternoon and evening, there’s often a little pent up emotion which is attached to the last show, and it often combines with a special energy from the audience to create a memorable day on the stage.

That’s exactly what happened Sunday the 18th, when the fabled Palm Springs Follies took their final bow(s).  The Palace Theater in the heart of downtown, the Follies home for 23 seasons, never looked better.  The pre-show crowd was positively electric, which isn’t easy when it’s 95 outside.  Inside, the energy level stayed as hot as the outside temperatures throughout the afternoon.

As the program unfolded, the company of 20 performers, all over the age of 55 and some in their 80’s, shared a little about themselves.  Director and Emcee Riff Markowitz was at his comic best.  His sarcastic style has aggravated more than one local through the years, and probably offended a few tourists, but his Don Rickles’ type of delivery is true old school comedy and shows talent and passion for his craft.  It is a passion he has displayed on the stage each time I’ve seen the show over the last two decades.   Like him or hate him, he is funny.  And he had the job for 23 years.  There’s something to be said for longevity.

Longevity.  The company of the Fabulous Follies certainly have/had that.  You had to be 55 to even get an audition.  Many of the performers were part of the team for many years, and most were longtime show business veterans.  On this final day, they all seemed to stick their chest out a little more, to stand a little straighter.  Their pride was apparent.  Even though the show will not go on, they knew they were a part of something memorable.

The audience was filled with returning performers and guest stars from past seasons.  Kay Ballard, Peter Marshall and the like.  You’d know the names if you’d been around as long as they have.  They knew the importance of being a part of this special day.

Mary Jardin, who along with Riff gave birth to this crazy idea back in 1991, looked stunning as she waved to the audience.  Mary admits the job of running the follies wasn’t always about financial success, and it’s apparent that mounting an independent show and the pressure of selling tens of thousands of tickets every year has brought its share of challenging moments.  “You have to wonder where some of these people who are so eager to write about us now, where were they when we needed them?”

Such is the lament of a theatrical producer.  When you tell them you are closing forever, everyone comes.  And while that creates a steady stream of “wow, we are selling a lot of tickets,” it’s intertwined with thoughts of “why did they wait until now?”

It strikes me that for 22 years, Riff, Mary and their gang were making deposits in a special sort of bank.  It was one which allowed only deposits, no withdrawals.  The bank was so special, they didn’t even know it existed.  Until this year.  Then all the people who enjoyed the Palm Springs Follies for so many years stood up and said so.  Boy, did they.  On May 18th, when Riff took the stage, he was met by a loud and sustained ovation.  The same thing happened at the end of the show.  The show that had to close was the show that suddenly no one wanted to end.

But end it did.  All good things must come to an end, and such it is with the Follies.  The show which singlehandedly returned downtown Palm Springs to its glory days has sold its final box of popcorn.  The tens of thousands of people the Follies brought downtown seven months a year for nearly a quarter of a decade will have to find another reason to come.  Whether they will or not, come that is, is open to speculation.  It’s my opinion the Follies have been seriously underappreciated for years, and their absence will be truly felt next fall when the doors to the Palace Theater aren’t thrown open for eight shows a week.  All those people had to eat and shop and slurp frozen yogurt after the show on a warm evening.  They had to stay in hotels and ride the tram to the top of Mount San Jacinto.  They spent a lot of money in town.

At the end of the show, after much applause and more than a few tears, Markowitz got to do what many performers do not.  Some shows close suddenly, without warning.  Such was not the case here.  He got to say goodbye.  After all those many years, after all the challenges of making the show go on, Mary and Riff left on their own terms, with their heads held high.  They had become icons, which I’m fairly certain they hadn’t bargained for.  For one day, heck for one season, people came.  They said thank you.  On that final day, they said it over and over.

At the end of the day, that is what I will remember.  I hope Riff and Mary and the entire cast will remember the applause, the tears, the heartfelt joy everyone in the theater that day shared.  And that they got to say goodbye, with the applause ringing in their ears and the tears on their faces.  It doesn’t get any better.  I hope it was enough.

Thank you Mary and Riff.  Thanks for all those years.  For hanging in there and giving us a great show.  It wasn’t easy and I didn’t always take the time to say thank you.  I just made my annual deposit and moved on.  It was special and it will always be.  May the Palm Springs Follies live on forever.

Our 35th Anniversary Celebration!

Come join us for our 35th Anniversary Party! We will be celebrating at the Wells Fargo (Music Circus) Pavilion on Saturday May 17th from 2-4pm! Don’t miss this special event starring Jack Gallagher, David Walburn, and Jessie Norman!

Tickets are $15 or $30 with SuperCoach transportation.  Give us a call during business hours at (916) 361-2051 to reserve your spot!

More about our Guests

Jack Gallagher

Jack Gallagher is a local comedian we know you’re going to love.  He’s joined us previously on The Travel Guys, you can listen here.

David Walburn

Some of you may remember David Walburn from our Tour Preview Day a few years back or even from out on tour in Montana if you’re lucky.   “Sweet Montana Home” is one of our favorites, let us know what you think!

Jessie Norman

We first got to know Jessie Norman in 2008, when she won our Chuck Evans Scholarship Award, but long time travelers may remember her best from her awesome performance at our 2009 Tour Preview Day.

We’re excited to have her back and know you all will be too!

Betty White, Proving You’re NEVER Too Old

My “relationship” with Betty White started when I was still in grade school. Betty was one of the “celebrity” panelists on What’s My Line?, To Tell The Truth, and I‘ve Got A Secret, game shows popular in the 60’s on daytime television. I used to love watching those shows as a kid. She played the “dumb blonde” on the panel, except you could tell from her narrative that she was anything but dumb. A guest spot on The Mary Tyler Moore Show turned into a regular bit, and she was a part of the cast on Mama’s Family. The list of shows she appeared on as a guest star over the years fills pages and pages.

Fast forward to the 80’s. Now Betty has joined three legendary ladies on The Golden Girls. It turns out to be one of the most beloved TV shows of all time, and can still be seen every day on cable stations. At that point, most people would have taken the money and called it a career. Not Betty.

She’s 91 years young these days and the only surviving Golden Girl. But she isn’t just surviving these days, as I found out the other night. I was channel surfing and came across Off Their Rockers, Betty’s latest reincarnation. If you haven’t yet seen the show (now in it’s second season on NBC, with reruns on Lifetime, which is where I found it) it stars Betty and a cast of senior friends, pulling pranks on younger people. I haven’t laughed so hard at a TV show in years. It wasn’t just funny, it was hysterical. Guest stars like Howie Mandel and Ed Asner are appearing in the new season. Betty serves as the host, as her “posse” executes the cleverly created pranks. Just goes to show innocent little old ladies (and men) might not always be as innocent as they look!

Betty White has become a symbol of perseverance and success. Her new show earned her an Emmy nomination in its first year, and there is no sign the lady who has been in show business since three months after her high school graduation plans on wrapping it up anytime soon. Her formal TV career spans seven decades and is the longest in history.

Betty White is her real name. She was born Betty Marion White in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1922. She is, without any doubt, a true American treasure, still making us laugh. There have been three husbands, the last of which was Alan Ludden, the game show host, who passed in 1981. There’s a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, and Emmy and other awards all the way back to 1951.

If you find yourself at home some evening with nothing to do, check out Off Their Rockers. I suspect, like me, you will not only chuckle a few times, you will recognize a lady who is worthy of the notoriety coming her way. From the hostess of the Rose Parade with Bonanza’s Loreen Green (Does that take you back a few years?) to her current cast of misfits, she has done something very few people are able to do. She is saving the best for last. Just thinking about her makes me smile. What a compliment. You go, Betty. You are truly America’s Golden Girl.


Move Over Miss Scarlett – I’ve Met your Match!

About a decade ago a friend with the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau told me about Marlsgate Plantation, located in the small cotton farming community of Scott, Arkansas about 20 minutes to the east of the capitol city. “The gentleman of the manor, David, is quite a character,” she said, going on to explain this venue would only be appropriate for the right kind of group. “You most certainly wouldn’t want to take the senior Sunday school class from the First Baptist Church there, if you know what I mean.” As a Southerner, I knew exactly what she meant. Besides that, our Arkansas visits at that time focused primarily on the Clintons, leaving little room for any other local characters. I filed the information away for another time and tour.

I attended a convention in Little Rock a couple weeks ago, my first time there in many years. I remembered Marlsgate and looked with interest at the meeting schedule to see if one of our social events might take us there. Nothing. I called a friend with the state tourism office just to make sure. “Oh boy, that David is a real character. No, we’re not doing anything at his house this time, but your fall group might be just right for him.” Renee helped me set up a driver on my free afternoon so I could go out and see for myself.

Marlsgate was built in 1833, though renovated, modernized and improved upon over the years. The gentleman of the house, David Garner, is a character, indeed—a fact evidenced before I even walked through the front door. He’s small in stature, but has a personality that’s larger than life, immediately making me feel completely welcome to be there. This gentleman is the very epitome of the Old South, with the house, art, antiques and definitely the personality to back it up.

I’ve been in countless Antebellum houses in my lifetime from private homes to museums, but I’ve never witnessed anything quite like Marlsgate. To say the collection is museum-quality is an understatement. Mr. Garner an only child and his people hailed from a number of prominent Mississippi plantations. As his ancestors passed and their collections were split up or liquidated, David had the rare opportunity of picking and choosing only the very best for Marlsgate. His exquisite taste and exhaustive attention to details are evident at every turn both inside and out.

Whenever I’m out with a group of Sports Leisure travelers, I’m honored to be with some of the hippest people on the planet. Your world view is so very different from that of your same-aged counterparts in other regions of the nation. I’ll not speculate on all the reasons why—certainly I don’t understand them all myself. I just know you’re different, and I mean that in the very best way. You’re open-minded . . . always eager to try, see and taste new things. You travel in search of experiences you’ll long remember, things that are unlike anything you know back home. This is why my Southern tours usually include the opportunity for you to meet one or more of my kinsmen—“cousins” who can help you understand their life and times through the eyes of a local.

I’m eager to introduce you all to my newest cousin on my October tour to Arkansas as we spend an evening on the plantation complete with dinner and libations. Are you the right traveler for this character? Come along and see!

My Night at the Bordello

There’s a first for everything. For me, it happened on Valentine’s Day in Arkansas’ “wild west,” Located within seeing distance of the Oklahoma state line, for much of the 19th century Ft. Smith was a rough-and-tumble gateway for thousands who were headed West . . . whether by force or by choice. Cowboys, gold-seekers, bootleggers, bank robbers, murderers, Yankees and Rebels alike, and tragically Native Americans nearing the end of their long Trail of Tears came here, left their imprint, then moved on. Lawlessness was a matter of course for a town located at the western boundary of civility. Rob or even kill a man in the morning. Disappear into “Indian Territory” by high noon. Men the likes of Judge Isaac Parker tried to legislate many a man’s carnal inclinations, often using the gallows to make his judgments swift and clear. But there was one carnal instinct even the notorious “Hanging Judge” could not tame.

Some call it the oldest profession on earth. Indeed, prostitution was legal in Ft. Smith into the early 20th century. At its height, the community boasted a “Bordello Row” with seven establishments serving the needs of their male guests, locals and visitors alike. At a time when the average man earned a wage of $3 per week, a night of pleasure would cost you about a dollar . . . unless you elected to patronize Miss Laura’s Social Club. Come for a “visit,” pay $3. Coming for the night would cost you $5. Miss Laura’s guests were gentlemen of means.

A great fire, so-called progress and eventually the law took its course on Bordello Row. By the 1970s, only one house remained: Miss Laura’s. Deserted and unloved, she stood at the brink of condemnation and demolition when a succession of local saviors held off the wrecking ball feeling this piece of local architectural history, if a bit off-color, was worthy of preservation. They saved the building, but Carolyn Joyce saved its soul.

Google Carolyn Joyce and you’ll find no shortage of hits. By anyone’s estimation, she’s the First Lady of Arkansas Tourism. Just over 20 years ago when a failed restaurant left the old bordello again vacant, Carolyn had a vision. Why shouldn’t Miss Laura’s Social Club once again welcome the traveler in need of service? Of course, the “service” would be a bit different this time around. In short order, the building was reborn as the Ft. Smith Welcome Center. That Carolyn would take on the persona of Miss Laura for the grand opening was a given. That she’d still be doing it over two decades later was a surprise to all.

It was late when I arrived on a cold Valentine’s Night. Our appointment had been scheduled for hours prior, but Miss Laura left the light on for me. I entered the bordello to find her resplendent in her custom-made finery, welcoming me on the bottom step of a grand staircase, assuring me “her girls” were eagerly waiting just above. Then she began to spin a tale—the history of the place—which sounded like fiction, but was indeed fact as evidenced by numerous photographs and written records, many of which were on display. Before long I was thrilled to at last enjoy my introduction to one of her girls, as well as a self-proclaimed “doctor” who was peddling his miracle-working tonic for 25-cents a bottle (or the special discounted price of three for a dollar).

Curious to know what happened next? Sorry—I don’t kiss and tell. But you’re invited to visit Miss Laura’s Social Club for yourself on my Arkansas tour in October. Visit the Clinton Library in Little Rock, the magnificant new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s gift to the world), take a steaming mineral bath in Hot Springs and follow the trail of Will Rogers through eastern Oklahoma. When we hit Ft. Smith, I’ll make sure Miss Laura leaves the light on for you, too!

Postscript: Mine was only a visit. I didn’t stay for the night. When I returned to my hotel, a Valentine and bag of chocolate kisses were on my pillow. The message on the card read, “With love from Miss Laura.” And you know what? I’m certain she meant every word.

Huell Howser, California’s Biggest Ambassador, Travels On

“Now that’s amazing.” Those three words were immediately identifiable to anyone who is a loyal fan of PBS and lives in California. Huell Howser, who came to California a quarter century ago to be “a TV guy”, passed away last week, leaving behind an incredible library of stories about our state, which he brought to life and which will live on forever. What an incredible legacy for any man.

After Howser’s passing, the accolades began to flow. Huell earned every one. But interestingly enough, he wanted no tributes, not even a memorial service. This was a man who lived his life privately. His friends and co-workers knew he was a closeted gay man, but it was a part of himself he chose not to share with others. He died as he lived – in the company of close friends.

What a shame that he felt a need to be someone other than himself to all of us. Because most of us knew him only as a man with a funny accent who was forever telling us about interesting places in our state we had yet to discover. I suspect a large majority of his PBS audience and fans cared little about his personal life. They loved the man they saw on the screen. Huell was a real person. His interview segments on “California Gold” were often done in one take, because he didn’t demand perfection as much as he did honesty. It was a style that served him well.

Howser stepped back from his show last fall, as his health declined. Before he passed, he asked for nothing, except for PBS to continue to air his programs for as long as people enjoyed viewing them. I suspect we’ll see those shows for many years, as reminder of a man dedicated to sharing his adopted home state with others. Many a time I’ve sat on the couch, watching Huell on TV, only to find I need a scratch pad and pen available to make notes about the places he shared. Those shows were a treasure trove of ideas for someone in the travel business.

I got the opportunity to meet Huell in Sacramento’s KVIE studios when he visited in 2011. I had requested an interview with him for The Travel Guys radio show. Veteran broadcasters generally hate those requests. There’s always something they’d rather be doing. But Huell was courteous, smiling and laughing through the entire 12 minute tape. My only regret was not getting a “Now that’s AMAZIN,'” from him during our short time together. A good man, a kind man, a humble man. The kind of guy you miss when he’s gone.

So my friends, I propose a tip o’ the hat to Huell Howser. I wish him peace and safe travels on his next journey. He was and will always be, the definition of California Gold.

In the Eye of the Beholder


I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting New Zealand for the first time back in February. Despite the fact I was traveling with my laptop computer and a brand new iPhone, I was unable to connect for days on end. Call it a combination of different systems in use on the other side of the world and my own status of Technological Neanderthal. Whatever the case, when I was at last able to log on in the capital city of Wellington, I went crazy!

The first e-mail I opened was from KVIE, Sacramento’s PBS station. They were trying a new fund raising tool called Bidding for Good—basically an online auction. I saw my artist friend and fellow KVIE volunteer Gayle Rappaport-Weiland had donated an art party for eight with instruction and all supplies included. On a whim I bid, then lost my connection, something I would not regain until I was once again stateside. Imagine my excitement when the first e-mail I opened was again from KVIE. I won!

It was a challenge finding a date that worked for Gayle, my seven eager friends and me, but at last invitations went out and RSVPs starting coming in. It was only then that my eager anticipation shifted to dread. I’ve painted a lot in my life . . . always walls . . . usually holding a roller. How on earth could I master the subtle art of watercolor and create a masterpiece in just two short hours? Sure, this was Gayle’s promise to all participants, but was it really possible for me?

I invited everyone to lunch before we began, complimented by a liberal ration of champagne for all. I could tell I was not the only one in the room with a bit of anxiety over what lay ahead. Thankfully, the bubbly began to do the trick and temper our various fears. At last it was time to start. At each place was a blank piece of heavy, textured paper, a pencil, four brushes, wax, a cup of water, toilet paper and our “palate” (paper plate) with just four dabs of paint. Gayle’s instructions were simple: “Do what I tell you to do, exactly the way I tell you to do it, then LAY DOWN YOUR BRUSH.” She also demonstrated each technique before we had a hand at it.

And you know what? She was right. It was easy. More than that, it was FUN. And best of all, each of us actually produced a masterpiece that clearly looked like a birch tree in the forest. But oh, what art critics we all became! “I like my clouds, sky and horizon, but my foreground never quite reached its full potential.” “My water is a little murky, but check out my evergreens!”

And my favorite, “You have the best bark. You even mastered a knothole.”

“Actually, that’s where I spilled some paint and tried to cover it up.”

“Oh . . . well, it looks like a knothole to me . . . or maybe an owl.”

I don’t think any of us will be quitting our day jobs anytime soon, but I think it’s also safe to say the next paintbrush one of us picks up just may be to apply something other than latex wall paint!

Thanks to Gayle for a wonderful afternoon, and for her charitable donation of the party to support KVIE. If you’re looking for a party or team-building activity for workmates or a special group of friends, I could not recommend Gayle more highly. Check out her classes, art and upcoming shows online at

Postscript: If you’re wondering what role toilet paper fills in the subtle art form of watercolor, you’ll just have to ask me . . . privately, please.