MY YEAR OF SCARY MOVIES
by Daniel Hutchens
Part 3: Nite Owl Theatre
“Greetings, Good Groovers.”
As a kid I would sometimes visit my older sister Sandi in the summertime. She lived in Athens, Ohio, and one of the perks of visiting her was that I was allowed to stay up on Friday nights and watch Ohioʼs version of the latenight horror show. Iʼve mentioned that my homestate, West Virginia, had a show called Chiller Theatre (a common title around the country for these types of programs), but Ohio had one up on us, because they had The Nite Owlʼs Double Chiller Theatre, hosted by none other than the legendary Fritz The Nite Owl.
Frederick C. “Fritz” Peerenboom had been a jazz radio host since 1959. “Most of the time the station formats were ʻadult contemporary jazz,ʼ ” Fritz recalls. “But I liked to slip in the hardcore stuff. I played Miles and Dizzy.”
In 1974 Fritz was hired by WBNS 10TV in Columbus, Ohio, to host a new late night movie program, which soon came to be called Nite Owl Theatre. Fritz hosted the late night movies seven nights a week––on Saturdays through Thursdays the types of movies varied––but it was the Friday night Double Chiller, featuring two horror movies, for which Fritz became most recognized. Hereʼs how he described his approach to the show in an interview on ClassicHorror.com:
“As opposed to the haunted house, cape, coffin, castle setting used by other hosts...I decided to use visual effects, commentary and [jazz] music...all of which related directly to the specific film being shown.”
Fritzʼs live ad-libbed commentaries were coupled with inventive sets and backdrops, and comic-strip-style drawings based on the “Nite Owl” theme (an owl falling asleep on the couch while watching TV, an owl at the refrigerator making a snack during a commercial break, etc.) Fritz would make fun when the movies were bad, but he also provided some background on the actors, directors, etc. He scored the commercial bumpers with cool, obscure, dreamy jazz like “Night On Bald Mountain” by Bob James. He applied intelligence to his hosting duties, and the result was something special. Before his seventeen year run hosting Nite Owl Theatre came to an end in 1991, he had won five Emmys and the hearts of a generation of Ohioans.
“Nite Owl Theatre was very intimate,” Fritz recalled in an interview in the Chillicothe Gazette. “I often described it as radio on television, because it had that old style of radio broadcasting...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. I was there. Physically I was there.”
The presence came across the screen into your living room. When I watched as a kid in my sisterʼs house, after everyone else had gone to bed, I felt like I was part of some secret club. Along with the chills, there was a genuine warmth to the show, in part due to Fritzʼs exceptional voice, a silky jazz-hipster baritone. And I saw so many great “bad” horror movies for the first time on Nite Owl: I remember seeing The Devilʼs Rain. I remember seeing The Oblong Box. But most of all I just remember Fritz. He was the man. The show ran seven nights a week for seventeen years––airing live five nights a week, Tuesday through Saturday, while Sundaysʼ and Mondaysʼ bits were pre-recorded–– “Over 6,000 consecutive performances,” Fritz has commented. “With no reruns. Ever.”
Fritz was a cool, sharp persona, with those big funky 70s Nite Owl glasses and his beat lingo phraseology––he sometimes reminded me of Marvel comicsʼ Stan Lee, both in appearance and in mode of expression: Fritzʼs spoken “Greetings, Good Groovers Out There In The Darkness” was not far removed from Stan Leeʼs written “Excelsior, True Believers!” (In point of fact Fritz wound up joining forces with Marvelʼs opposition, DC comics, providing the voiceover for a short-lived Green Lantern cartoon, and even being referred to in the pages of several DC comics.)
After Nite Owl Theatre ended in ʼ91, Fritz returned to his first love, jazz. He continued hosting jazz radio shows, the last of which was called Nite Owl Jazz, until 2010. At which time Fritzʼs employer, WJZA in Columbus, suddenly switched to a classic oldies rock format, and Fritz found himself without a job. In an interview with The Other Paper, Fritz recalls receiving a phone call “basically telling me that I didnʼt have to come in that Sunday, or any Sunday after that.” It was a big loss for Fritz, and for his listeners. “I had complete creative control [of the jazz shows]...I was one of the last deejays on the planet to walk into the studio with my case full of [my own] CDs under my arm.”
So as of August 1st, 2010, for the first time in over half a century, Fritzʼs voice was no longer heard anywhere on the airwaves.But a friend of Fritzʼs, Mike McGraner, had a new idea which involved bringing Fritz to the internet, and to midnight movie screenings at Columbusʼ own Grandview Theatre...said idea became reality in October, 2010, and I started watching the new episodes of Nite Owl Theatre online...and I knew that, soon, I would have to make a trip to Columbus, to meet the Nite Owl himself.