There’s something about staying up past your bedtime, curled up with a blanket and some popcorn watching movies in the dark. Chances are if you were in Columbus between 1974 and 1991, it was bespectacled local TV legend Fritz the Nite Owl who helped you stay up late.
Seven nights a week on WBNS 10-TV Fritz came into your living room with his own particular brand of commentary. They showed all sorts of movies throughout the week, but Friday nights seemed to be particularly seminal to a lot of viewers. “The [double] chiller was probably what I was know for best,” says Fritz. “That’s when a kid in 5th or 6th grade, on a Friday night, his parents would let him stay up late and that was kind of a moment in their lives, and all of a sudden, “I can stay up past midnight, up till three or four in the morning and watch this.”
Fritz is characteristically humble about the effects he’s had on Central Ohio residents. “At the time I didn’t realize 20 years later that people would tell me, “Oh, wow I remember the first time I got to stay up ‘til three or four in the morning and you would scare me.” Fritz is still surprised by the reaction he gets from his fans.
With a career in broadcasting spanning over 50 years, a collection of Emmy’s spanning his mantle many of Fritz’s childhood dreams have come true. Though he didn’t end up being a jazz musician, Fritz hosted the beloved Nite Owl Jazz for 19 years on various radio stations throughout Columbus. He didn’t become famous movie star, but he played himself in a movie every single night in Columbus. Fritz was the first late-night movie host to use special effects to insert himself into the movies leading to commercial breaks. “When they [WBNS] broached me in doing it [Nite Owl Theatre] I said everything that I do, the visuals, the music , the voice over has to relate to this movie. I would research the movies and then I would just ad lib. I had a program director, John Haldee, who just said “look, do what you want, just have everything done by 6:00 in the morning when we have to start the new broadcast day.” Fritz continues with a laugh: “That’s the kind of program director you want to have.”
This hardworking man is characteristically flippant about being characterized as “hardworking.” “I have a PhD in laziness and procrastination,” says Fritz with a smile. “Literally, all my life I don’t consider anything I’ve done work. Even in my army career…I was writing, directing, narrating, and acting in movies for the army. I put more GI’s to sleep probably than any guy playing taps. I was an usher in a movie theater so I got paid to stand in the aisle and watch movies. As a DJ I got to play the music I wanted to play and just sit in a nice air-conditioned studio listening to good sounds. So I really can’t think of any job that I considered work.”
Nite Owl Theatre ended in 1991, and his radio show on WKZA was cancelled in 2010 due to a change in format but a new opportunity found Fritz shortly thereafter. One of his “Fourteen viewers in the dark,” longtime fan Mike McGraner approached Fritz about restarting Nite Owl Theatre again. “It amazed me that it’s [the new Nite Owl Theatre] on the internet. In the old days, you know radio and tv, you were limited by how tall is the tower, which way it was pointing, and that was your potential audience,” remarks Fritz. “Now on the internet, that people can hear me in Des Moines, Deluth, Debuke, Fiji, that kind of blows me away.”
Not only can you see the new Nite Owl Theatre online at www.niteowltheatre.com, you can also watch it late-night the last Friday of each month at Studio 35. Fans new and old still come out to see their late night king of cool in person. “As long as there is an audience for it,” Fritz has no plans in stopping.
“My favorite part is that I considered [his career] all of it an art. I just felt that I was creating something that was new or different that hadn’t been seen or heard before.” says Fritz, looking back. “Whatever I did I did because that’s what I wanted to do and if you paid me for it, even better. I never did anything because somebody expected it or wanted me to do it.” He compares what he did to musicians working with an instrument or an artist with a canvas. “ I had this canvas that was audio/video, movies, and I had to blend something into that [it] was a unique creation and that was very gratifying.”
The next episode of Nite Owl Theatre airs at Studio 35 on Friday, February 25th at 11:30 featuring The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price. Stop by to meet the man in person, watch a movie, and stay up past your bedtime.