The Owl Returns

Last night, I made my first decent walk (a total of almost 6½ miles) to the Grandview Theater and back, and this was a walk with a definite goal in mind.  I wanted to be front and center for the return of Nite Owl Theater to Columbus.  Unfortunately, it’s not returning to the airwaves, especially not to Channel 10 (WBNS-TV), but the Owl is among us once again.

For those of you not familiar with Columbus TV, I am speaking of longtime TV and radio icon Frederick C. (“Fritz the Nite Owl”) Peerenboom, aged 75.  This article fills in much of the biographical details, but you had to have been a nocturnally inclined person growing up in the late ’70s around in the Columbus, Ohio television market to fully appreciate Fritz.  His unmistakable trademark are the “owl glasses,” recycled from a pair of the big-lensed Christian Dior spectacles popular (especially with women) in the mid- to late 1970s.

I first discovered him when staying up all night with friends (or alone) when he would host double-featured Chiller Theater after the 11 o’clock news on Channel 10.  The more pedestrian movies appeared on The New Armchair Theater during the week, and Nite Owl Theater ran Saturday night from midnight until nearly 6 a.m.  (At that time, however, my weekend overnight loyalties were with Huntington’s WSAZ-TV, and its much blander All Night Theater, which showed scratchy B movies sandwiched in between reruns of Green Acres and The Saint.)

During my eighth-grade year, I took pride in my “clandestine” nocturnal activities.  My sleeping quarters were quite the afterthought after my dad married my stepmother in 1976, and we moved (with her three daughters) into the house behind Mound Cemetery.  I slept in a couch on the basement, with a small area cleared away for my living quarters.  It also housed the color TV, so after everyone else went to bed, it was me and Fritz the Nite Owl.  That fall, Channel 10 had changed the late-night format (this was pre-Arsenio Hall and -David Letterman, and they elected not to run The CBS Late Movie), so Nite Owl Theater was a weeknight show as well.

Last night, a cameraman put his lens and a boom microphone in my face and asked me about my first experience with Fritz.  I mentioned how I’d watch the show late into the night, even on school nights, and I surprised him by remembering the first film I watched.  It was Last Train from Gun Hill, with Kirk Douglas, Earl Holliman, and Carolyn Jones.  (I was never a big Western fan, but Fritz made me like them more than I had before.)  The interview is part of a documentary about Fritz’ career, which should be released sometime next year.  I’ll keep everyone posted–especially if my cameo appearance remains in the final cut!  (I even remember the first movie I watched on WSAZ’s All Night Theater.  It was a forgettable picture called Three Guns for Texas.)

My only disappointment was that the new Nite Owl Theater did not use the opening I best remembered.  That featured the 1976 Columbus skyline (back when the LeVeque Tower was the tallest building in Columbus) at sunset.  The sun set in rhythm with the song “South Philly Willy” by New York Mary, followed by a full moon rising over WBNS’ transmitter.  Fritz would host the show from a mock-up of Channel 10’s tower, complete with the warning light blinking behind him.

Since he was supposed to be hosting the show from the tower, this led to his nightly farewell: “See you tomorrow night, same time, same tower,” followed by a picture of Channel 10’s tower.  There would be a loud “click-click,” like someone turning off a light, and the moon would vanish.  Oftentimes, I would watch the show to catch his commercial-break commentaries, or his two-minute asides midway through the picture.

Last night was the first time I had ever seen him in person, although I had written him from Marietta, and received handwritten replies (one letter was written on the back of a TelePrompTer sheet) which answered my many obscure questions and commented on the movies I asked him to show.  (I specifically remember asking him to show Ice Station Zebra, the 1968 Cold War (no pun intended) thriller that Howard Hughes watched over 150 times during his years of complete seclusion, so many times that his aides could recite the entire soundtrack from memory by the time he died in 1976.  I said “I’m curious to see what Howard Hughes saw in it,” to which Fritz replied “Maybe he dug snow!”)

This being Hallowe’en Eve, the featured movie was Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s classic low-budget film about hordes of zombies invading the Pittsburgh suburbs.  I had seen it quite a few times before–the first time being at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Mass., but the commercial break commentary from Fritz and the vintage commercials (Arrid Extra Dry, Polaroid’s SX-70 Land camera, Alka-Seltzer, and Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia) really made it fun to watch.  Fritz claimed he received his first standing ovation last night when he strolled out in front of the screen before the film actually rolled, although I find this hard to believe.  (Last night’s show was posted online at this site sometime during the night, so you can see the movie and all the ephemera associated with it–including Coca-Cola’s Bicentennial-era “Look up, America!  See what we’ve got!” commercials.)

Watching Night of the Living Dead last night made me aware of something that had slipped under my radar previously.  The phrase “those things” came up so frequently in the dialogue that I was waiting for its next occurrence more than enjoying the movie.  It was almost like constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.  It’s like listening to records of Richard Pryor’s stand-up routines or watching Eddie Murphy’s Delirious, when after five minutes or so all you hear is “blah blah blah–motherfucker–blah blah blah–motherfucker” and nothing else.  The characters were constantly talking about escaping “those things,” or what “those things” would do next, or how to scare away “those things.”

Fritz signed autographs in the lobby after the show, and I got one for myself, and one for Susie.  He signed Susie’s “Ya shoulda been here!”, a situation I may rectify next month when he shows Plan Nine from Outer Space, and she definitely will be with me Christmas night, when the feature is (of course) Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.  (There will be free Nite Owl Theater shows the last Saturday of every month at the Grandview Theater, 1247 Grandview Ave., 12 midnight.)

Advertising his recently cancelled FM jazz
radio program with a vintage Nite Owl Theater
publicity shot from circa 1978.

Still nocturnal after all these years.  At last, I
meet Fritz the Nite Owl.

Grayer and older, but the baritone voice is the
same as ever, and the witticism and wisdom
hasn’t changed a bit.

I am now more sure than ever that a friend of mine erred one summer night when we were watching Nite Owl Theater in Marietta.  We were alone in my house–a common event that summer, since I was usually left alone while Dad slept at his wife-to-be’s apartment–watching the Saturday all-night edition of the show.  It was a war movie (I’d give you the title if my 1976 diary wasn’t long gone), and my friend kept saying, “We’re probably the only ones watching this.”
Definitely not true.  I am sure of that now.