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Goodnight, Owl

I don’t particularly enjoy watching movies alone. For me, having another person to kick around with and reflect on the impeding action or drama makes the experience more valuable.

Well, in the golden era of late night cable programming, before the advent of infinite entertainment avenues and all day Netflix benders, there existed a facet of our culture that was soon relegated to relic: the late night movie host—a companion of the night who, after the scheduled commercial breaks, would warm up audiences with insightful commentary, clever observations, and offbeat yarns. Back in those days, almost every local television station hosted their very own eccentric movie companion. In Cincinnati there was The Cool Ghoul, who was known for his inimitable tongue fluttering and long, blonde hair. Philadelphia had Dr. Shock, an on-air magician who is remembered for his iconic catchphrase, “Let there be fright.”

In Columbus, we had the best of them all.

In Columbus, we had Fritz.

On Channel 10, from 1974 to 1991, we had Fritz “The Nite Owl” Peerenboom—a gangly, mustachioed man with a deep, mollifying voice and a pair of pointy, shimmering sunglasses that would make Elton John blush. His recognized gimmick, aside from his gaudily flamboyant outfits, was being superimposed into the film, adding his impromptu, waggish commentary into the mix over a bit of light jazz. Imagine a man arising from an onscreen coffin in the middle of Night of the Living Dead to warm up the audience. That was Fritz—a voice and personality grown larger than life for a diminutive man who thought he was gonna grow up to be the size of Tarzan.

“Unfortunately, I stopped growing. So, instead of growing up to look like Johnny Weissmuller, I grew up looking like Woody Allen,” Fritz laughed. “But I made it work.”

Fritz started as a radio production assistant in the ’50s, until he was drafted into the Army. Fortunately, due to his college education at OSU and entertainment experience, the Army put him at the borrowed Paramount studios, where he wrote, narrated, and directed instructional videos for soldiers, like how to transfer petroleum to and from an oil tanker.

“After I got out of the service, I was promised a job back at Channel 10. So, I was a booth announcer for several years, until Nite Owl fell into my shift. Well, I started bs-ing about the movie while it was running. It always bothered me that the movie hosts up to that time always seemed like they were never watching the movie that they were showing. So I just said, ‘OK, everything I do [or say] is going to visually, or musically, or in terms of philosophy or history, relate to the film. With experience as a radio DJ, I had experience adlibbing, so I just went for it, and it worked.”

The Nite Owl Theater originally bequeathed to Fritz was unhosted, save for a cartoon animation of an owl fixing a late night sandwich. He began adlibbing over the cartoons and bringing in his own music—typically mellow jazz. Well, letters starting swarming into the station for Fritz the Nite Owl, despite the fact there was no real character in existence to read them.

“We discussed a bunch of ideas on how to put me on camera, including an owl suit that looked like the San Diego chicken. Fortunately, they turned that down. So, Elton John was big at that time, they came up with the idea of the big glasses, and our artist went to Revco and found a $10 pair of Christian Dior sunglasses and added the Masonite horns, then broke a mirror and glued the little shards of mirror to the horns. We had a starburst filter on the camera, so when I would turn my head unpredictably these nice flashes of light would go out into the camera, which tied into the special effects that I was doing.”

And so, an icon was born—one that would live on for decades, and through several shifting periods of pop culture. For seven nights a week—five nights live—Fritz replicated the intimacy of radio by joining viewers in their homes to watch a late night movie with. After winning five Emmys for his grandiose performances and a couple of visual appearances helping save the universe with Captain Marvel in the DC comic book The Power of Shazam, he vanished the public eye…

Or so we thought.

In reality, Fritz was still around, harking back to his disc jockey roots, hosting a segment called Nite Owl Jazz on what at the time was CD101, a show that ran for 17 years.

Listening in frequently was local filmmaker Mike McGraner, who after realizing that the man on the alternative station dial was the same star of his childhood late nights, crafted an idea: bringing the Owl back.

That original idea morphed from a one off biopic about Fritz’s career into a full-blown reboot of Nite Owl Theater. With the help of producer Dino Tripodis’ Never the Luck Productions, the series launched in 2010, shown the last Saturday of the month in Grandview Theater and Studio 35. Like the good old days, Fritz would appear onscreen before and after the film and after vintage commercial breaks. Their first season included cinematic classics ranging from Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness to Plan 9 From Outer Space.

“Everybody in [my] family was saying, ‘do it.’ But I am one of those performers that gets a ton of great reviews, but if I get that one that photon torpedoes me, that’s the one that I can’t take,” Fritz said. “So, I was worried that, well if we do this, what if everyone says, ‘Who cares?‘ That was my biggest fear.”

They more than cared. They showed up in droves—just like those fan letters decades earlier. Columbus hadn’t forgotten about the icon of their youth, and seemed eager to show off The Owl to their children.

In addition to persistent sold out shows, Fritz racked up two more Emmys for his rebooted series (he now has seven total after a win during the making of this story), with McGraner now having earned one of his own for Best Director. They shot most of the material in a back lot studio, which was described as a huge cabin in the back of the woods along a creek that had green screen capabilities—quite fitting for a midnight movie resurrection.

The live screenings were a new sensation for Fritz, who wasn’t used to audience reactions to performances, a validating sensation for any performer.

“Unlike Channel 10, where I would see the effects after I would do them, I wouldn’t see the finished product until I see it the same time as the audience in the theater. The thing that really amazed me was that a lot of time people would applaud after the intro, and that was a new sensation for me.”

McGraner, who had been staying up late with Fritz since the early ’80s, had inserted himself into a narrative that he had relished since childhood, exhuming his cherished role model for the rest of the world to enjoy.

“I get to choose the movies, pick the commercial breaks, direct the episodes, write some of them, and edit them,” said McGraner. “Fritz has given me my childhood dream: bringing my hero back.”

After four successful seasons and over 50 episodes, Fritz and McGraner are ready to retire the series. A few of the choices for season five include ScreamWilly Wonka and the Chocolate FactoryThe Warriors, and Rocky Horror Picture Show to name a few.

Fritz has trouble completely quantifying his gratitude for something like this to cycle back around.

“I thoroughly get a kick out of when people tell me that they enjoy my work, either when they were a kid growing up watching this stuff or now that they are seeing it again or bringing their kids to see it. We were afraid that no one would care—that we were sprinkles on a piece of merengue pie; we were wrong.”

As both he and McGraner point out, their fear of only accessing an audience of nostalgic fans was put to rest by an insurgence of a younger generation viewers, who bought t-shirts with Fritz’s face on it, sharing that tapestry of our culture that was seemingly left for dead.

“A lot of the younger people that would come to our movies have never seen a locally hosted movie,” said Fritz. “Most of them weren’t used to seeing movies interrupted by commercials and we did have the fear that people who weren’t familiar with what ’60s and ’70s movies hosts did would wonder, ‘Why is this guy coming on film and interrupting our movie?’ But everyone enjoys it.”

That’s because, according to McGraner, Fritz just brings something to the screen and stage that is wholly unique.

“Fritz has a style of cool that doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “The audience relates to it because it takes you back to that time where there is a narrator watching it with you; somebody on the screen sharing that experience as you go through the film. You don’t have to be a certain age. It comes full circle. All of this fell into place at the right time.”

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Danny Hamen

Insatiable bibliophile. Intrepid journalist. Born to run. Here for the cake.