Chillicothe, Ohio USA

A Friend in the Darkness
Fritz the Nite Owl: Horror host of our youth
by Ryan Kelley
Chillicothe Gazette

Published October 31, 2006

© Chillicothe Gazette

When Eddie Eblin was a teenager he was visited by a friend in the darkness once a week who introduced him to a world of monsters and terror -- and he has never been the same.

"I lived for Friday night," Eblin, now 39, said.

Eblin's family gathered around the television set, one of the few times everyone was together during the week, to watch WBNS-10TV. His mother, who worked the second shift at Rubbermaid, would bring home a pie and soft drinks from Jerry's Pizza.

"That was the only night of the week we were allowed to have pop," Eblin said. "We knew after the news at 11:30 it was time to sit down. Usually, mom tried to be at home by 11:30 because she knew that's when Fritz started."

For 14 years Fritz the Nite Owl, host of "Nite Owl Theater," ushered viewers through some of the best -- and worst -- movies ever made. Sporting his trademark oversized, glittering glasses and talking to viewers in a calm, jazzman cadence, Fritz was more than a movie host to a generation of central Ohio cinephiles.

"He was more of a laid-back individual. He made it fun. He talked about his movies," Eblin said. "He gave you the history of Vincent Price. He gave you the history of Peter Cushing."

The distinct style of Nite Owl Theater garnered Fritz, aka. Frederick Peerenboom, five Emmys for on-air performance during the shows 17-year run from 1974 until its cancellation in July 1991, after which Fritz won this final Emmy. Nite Owl featured unique opening and closing between commercial breaks, often featuring Fritz set against a backdrop that tied into the featured film. During its heyday, "Nite Owl Theater" ran every night, showing a wide-range of films and capped the week with a special "Double Chiller" horror feature on Friday nights.

Grandpa Owl

Fritz, 71, currently resides in Upper Arlington. He hosts a jazz program from 9 p.m. to midnight on Sundays for WJZA 103.5 and 104.3 FM Radio. He also pens a column for the Short North Gazette in Columbus.

Fritz calls himself "semi-retired" and spends much of his time playing host to a legion of granddaughters who take full advantage of the Owl's backyard pool. Still married to his wife of 50 years, Patricia, Fritz still has momentos of his past, including the one and only pair of Nite Owl glasses -- tucked safely away in a closet.

Past the board games and coloring books in his kitchen, his living room boasts a collection of memorabilia of his television days. On the walls are pictures of Fritz with celebrities such as Dolly Parton, and his Emmys are displayed proudly on the mantel. A lifelong comic book fan who was once the voice of the Green Lantern Hal Jordan in a short-lived cartoon series, Fritz prominently displays original drawings of Popeye and Alley Oop.

The denizen of the dark still approaches conversation in the same laid-back manner displayed on "Nite Owl Theater" and segues easily in and out of discussing two of his favorite subjects: old movies and jazz. Fritz is a walking film library, rattling off both the common and obscure stars of the screen at an impressive clip.

On the day of this interview, Fritz talks eagerly about his radio program and some of the young heavyweights of jazz he highlights on the show. Like his days on television, Fritz tries to educate the laymen about his world -- giving the uninitiated the lowdown on why it matters. Fritz knows how to put people at ease and make them feel they are in his circle.

"I explain it in terms that I feel," he said.

Slick Production

Fritz, who wrote, narrated, and acted in training films for the Army Signal Corps while living in New York, said the stylized look and feel of "Nite Owl Theater" was planned from the beginning.

"I created the visual concept for all of those opens and closes," Fritz said. "Every visual I had tied into the movie I was showing. It was like a complete package."

"Everything, the visuals, the music, the commentary, everything was related to that movie of to those stars and was somehow relevant to the film being shown," Fritz said. "It seemed to me so many of the other movie hosts that I watched and enjoyed never seemed to be watching the movie at the same time. It was like two shows going on at the same time."

George 'E-Gor' Chastain is the webmaster of "E-Gor's Chamber of Horror Hosts," a long-running Web site dedicated to the memory of local horror hosts throughout the country. Chastain said "Nite Owl Theater" production values separated it from the pack.

"They had slicker production values than a lot of those shows," Chastain said.

"I said when people see this they're going to have the feeling I'm there with them; whether they're just coming in from the second shift at the plant, whether there just getting up to go to work for the third shift or whether they're giving the kids the 2 o'clock feeding or whether they're taking a break from studies. Wherever they are, when they turn that on they're going to hear somebody who's saying to them what they might have said to someone else had they had company."

Much of the host's delivery drew from an earlier radio tradition.

"It was very intimate. I often describe it as radio on television because it had that old style radio DJ feel," Fritz said. "The old style DJs talked to the listeners and they talked about the music and everything was tied in, but none of it was pre-canned or pre-scripted. It was all very conversational.

"That was the way the classic DJs out of the 30s and 40s had done it. I was one of the last of the DJs to go through with that style of radio broadcasting. That was kind of phasing out when I started my radio career in '59. It was getting to be a more tighter, more formatted, more programmed style than had existed prior to 1959," Fritz said.

Unheard of in today's era of syndication, Fritz hosted live five nights a week from Tuesday through Saturday.

"When you were watching 'Chiller' at 4 in the morning and my voice came on to tell you what you would see or laugh at the movie, I was sitting there at the studio watching the movie with you. And I loved it," Fritz said. "I was there. Physically, I was there."

Chastain compares local television hosts to storytellers of long ago.

"The hosts are kind of like tribal shamans," Chastain said. "It's a community. If you have a local guy who does this, it's something you can share. It's a sense of regional involvement."

Birth of the Owl

Fritz was a studio announcer for WBNS when Nite Owl Theater began its run in the fall of 1974. Fritz hosted the program unseen. Thanks to distinctive artwork by Dave Wagstaff depicting cartoon owls in a variety of scenarios tied to the movie. Viewers, recognizing Fritz' voice from his radio days, began calling the owl "Fritz."

"They started writing letters to 'Fritz the Nite Owl' even though there was no 'Fritz the Nite Owl'," Fritz said.

WBNS station director John Haldi, the man at the helm during the heyday for such central Ohio icons as Lucy's Toy Shop and Flippo the Clown, decided to bring the host to the forefront. Wagstaff designed the host's glasses to glitter on camera.

"This was '74. At that time Elton John and his bizarre glasses were big," Fritz said. "He went to Revco, bought a pair of glasses off the rack, made the owl horns, broke this mirror and stuck the mirror (pieces) on there. It used to drive the dopers crazy."

Over the years, the glasses have allowed the host to travel incognito around central Ohio.

"If I keep my mouth shut, people don't recognize me," Fritz said. "It didn't dawn on me that it would make that much of a difference. If I just wanted to climb on a bus I could do it and nobody was the wiser."

Chastain said Fritz's hip look was a drastic departure from the fright garb of hosts focused on horror movies.

"Fritz was a little too cool for that," Chastain said. "He had a real out-of-this-world persona. He was almost like a Marvel superhero," Chastain said. "Fritz is just ultra-cool."

Knowing the Audience

Fritz said he is mostly remembered for the Friday night horror movies, but said the movie packages the station purchased at the time were topnotch. He said local programming for larger stations like those in Columbus could still be popular and profitable.

"I think that this kind of programming could and should come back, particularly on the local scene because there is so much homogenized stuff seen coast-to-coast," Fritz said. "The one area that a local station would have to be unique would be to have a show you couldn't see anywhere else."

Fritz said the position of programing director seems to be fading from local stations and, with it, local programing and interaction with the viewing audience.

"The few programming directors that are left pretty much say 'how much do I have to spend and what syndication is available. The only local shows you see now are all news, sports, and weather."

He said personal appearances around central Ohio were a required part of his job during Nite Owl Theater's run and that Haldi always remained receptive to what viewers wanted to see.

"That audience interaction was an important part," Fritz said. "It was a kick to meet them."

Eblin still remembers when Fritz read a letter of his requesting more giant monster movies on Double Chiller. He said he gained a large knowledge base of movie trivia from Fritz.

"Not too many kids today know who Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney are," Eblin said.

Chastain said the horror genre itself has experienced a major rebirth through Internet webcasts, but has all but disappeared on television.

"Here it is Halloween and, to my knowledge, the only big cable equivalent of a horror host is Turner Classic hiring Rob Zombie," Chastain said.

For his part, Fritz said he would put the glasses back on and host again if the right offer came along.

"I'd love to see 'Nite Owl' go back on the air in the wee small hours. There's a huge audience of people who still remember seeing it. It brings back a lot of pleasant memories," Fritz said. "I'm honored people still ask for my autograph or a picture."

He treasures the time he spent as central Ohio's voice of the night.

"It's like you were in their house," Fritz said. "A friend in the darkness."

© 2006 Chillicothe Gazette Chillicothe, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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