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Columbus City Spotlight: Fritz the Niteowl

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“It’s a big night, gang,” he says rubbing his hands eagerly. His iconic large sunglasses frame his face as he stands in front of an old illustrated backdrop of a vampire and a werewolf wrestling. “Get ready to stay up with the big kids” he warns. For 17 years Fritz the Niteowl occupied the late hours of our TV sets, playing his double chiller movie features and bizarre cult classics. Presenting the film, he’d give a little bit about the actors or what went into making the movie, but often times he’d just clown around with the audience at home. He’d shake his head at the movie, laying down something smooth. Something incredulous and charming. “I don’t know Drac’ baby,” he’d say, “it seems you’re outclassed.”

When the sun went down in Columbus the city was his. Fritz entertained an entire generation of fellow niteowls and late-nighters, leading them through the night like some mad carnival barker in a parade of kooks. That’s why we’re aiming a spotlight at our old friend, highlighting an entire career of awesome movies and outlandish charm. For over 40 years Fritz has kept our city’s insomniacs company, airing movies both strange and bizarre, rocking the airwaves with his iconic look and eccentric humor. I got the chance to sit down with the late night legend himself, catching him right before a screening of the 1927 movie “Metropolis”, complete with the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack.

The Grandview Theater & Drafthouse is the perfect sort of place to catch a cult classic. It’s got a personal, inviting feel to it, even going so far as to have a stack of board games in the back for anyone to peruse and play. Fritz and I grabbed a booth in the back. It was startling to see him without his signature frames, almost humanizing. He was all smiles as he shook my hand. His signature timbre resonated as he spoke and he talked with earnest conviction.

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The first thing I noticed were the comic books strewn across the table. I browsed through them until a frame caught my attention. There was Superman, Shazam, and Fritz the Niteowl himself. He grinned real big then, explaining how he’d helped the superheroes in a five comic DC series. Begrudgingly, he admitted his passion for comics and I told him that I too was a huge fan. Fritz lit up, recounting excitedly about what it was like to be such a fan in the 1940s in small town Wisconsin. “I hated kid sidekicks,” he waved his hands dismissively. “It’s so great to be able to talk to someone who’s an adult about comics.”

He went on vehemently about his favorite superheroes. Talking to him face to face, I realized he spoke with the same fervor about everything. Comics, jazz, movies, his career. The man spoke passionately about everything because he loved everything. It became especially clear as he went on about his childhood, explaining how he got so into film and cinema. “As a kid in the 1940s, our only entertainment was the radio serials, comic books, the outdoor stuff. Football, basketball, and movies.”

Smiling, he went back to that small Wisconsin town. The weekend showings were his favorites. “Saturday matinee was two adventure pictures, 83 cartoons, and the parents didn’t have to worry about the kids for the day. Movies were a big deal back then because there wasn’t a lot of entertainment.”

Once old enough to get a part time job, the only obvious choice was at the local theater. “The training and experience to get the job was I had to fit the uniform of the guy that quit.”

Working the small town cinema gig became more of a hobby than a job. Every day increased his repertoire of random movie trivia. “I saw tons of movies from when I was in high school to college from my part time job. One of my favorite movies was George Sanders in ‘All About Eve.’ Magnificent. Won an oscar for it. I recommend it highly. I’ve always been a movie junky.”

Originally his aspiration was to become a big-time Hollywood actor. The first plan he concocted was to surpass and replace an established actor, his target- Johnny Weismuller. “When Johnny Weismuller is too old to play Tarzan, since I’m such a good swimmer, I’ll get a six pack and I’ll be the new Tarzan,” he laughed.

“Didn’t work out that way. I look more like Woody Allen and Mr. Peepers then I do like Johnny Weismuller.”

We continued to shoot the breeze, talking over some oldskool rock that thundered through the speakers. It was “Gudbye T’ Jane” by British glam-rock band, Slade. I could imagine Noddy Holder in his suspenders and crazy looking top hat, wailing away on a stage in 1972 and it seemed like the perfect thing to be blaring away in the background. Just then Fritz’ pizza came out of the kitchen. It was pepperoni, mushrooms, and anchovies. Of course it would be. “Anchovies and beer,” he smiled, “it proves that there’s a God.”

Content with the salty anchovy pizza, we eventually got into his later life. At Ohio State he majored in radio, tv, and theater, before ultimately landing a BA in secondary education. Spending two years in the Army felt like a graduate study in cinema. Making training and promotional films gave him the experience he would use later in TV and radio. Most of his work then was done in the old Paramount studios in Long Island. He remembers vividly the feeling of walking through the different sets of the studio, the same place that some of his favorite films were made. For a movie fanatic, it was nothing short of hallowed ground.

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“The windows were at street level. Streams of light coming in and the little dust motes swirling around. And [then you] see the wall of a set. Maybe it was a drug store or a wall. And you could remember when you saw Victor Mature, Betty Hutton, sitting in front of this. It was just filled with paramount studios memorabilia. I almost expected Rod Sterling to sort of step out and say ‘welcome Fritz’ you’ve made it to the Twilight Zone.”

After the army and a long stint as a radio DJ, Fritz finally made it to TV, debuting as Fritz the Niteowl and hosting Niteowl theater. Fritz explained in detail how they decided on which movies to show. “John Holdi was also a movie buff. He would buy these packages of movies. What would happen is the movie distributor would come in and say, alright here’s our Robert De Niro package. It’s got 10 top De Niro films. But if you wanted those De Niros, the package had 50 movies. So to get those 10 movies you’d have to get 40 others that were A-list, or B-list, all the way down to X with stuff like, ‘They Saved Hitler’s Brain’. Some of them were real el-crapo.”

At one point he asked me, grinning, “Guess who the two most requested people were. I did Nite Owl seven nights a week, from 1974 to 1991 and a half. Guess who.” I racked my brain for all the older actors I knew but, and I admit this now, my knowledge of the classics aren’t that great. “Elvis and Godzilla,” he finally conceded. “If I played Elvis, people were ready to elevate me to sainthood.”

I had to ask, out of decades of “el-crapo” movies, which one stood out as the most bizarre, the most ridiculous. “Probably, the movie was called ‘The Creeping Terror.’ This movie was wretched. So badly produced, so amateurish. I mean it made Ed Wood look like CB DeMille. It was so bad they scrapped the original soundtrack and just used a narrator. It was so bad it was great.”

Though his favorites were the classics, he still held respect for the newer stuff. “The things I like about the newer movies is that they are more realistic in their language and their dialogue. You take a great movie like ‘From Here to Eternity’ with Frank Sinatra. Here are soldiers and G.I.s that are stationed in Hawaii. Pretty rowdy, rough crowd but you never heard a ‘damn’ or a ‘hell’. Donna Reed was essentially a prostitute and she looked like a girl that might kiss you on a first date as opposed to an actual prostitute like she was in the book. For years you couldn’t even show a married couple in bed together. One of them always had a foot on the floor or they had single beds. So I like the realism.”

“But the older ones, you take ‘Psycho’. You take the shower scene where he’s stabbing Janet Lee, you never see the knife hit the flesh. But your mind filled it in. The explicit gore to me now is sort of overdone. It’s like the comedians that know how to use the profanity and the vulgarity and know how to use it to ‘pow’! As opposed to comedians who use it every other word. I mean yeah, they get some laughs but ‘yawn’.”

Fritz went on length about comedic giants like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. “Every comedian in the world should have a poster of Lenny Bruce.” I told him that I’d noticed a poster of him with Bella from Twilight. He admitted he hadn’t actually seen the flick, to which I told him resolutely, “Good.”

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I wanted to ask what he thought his legacy would be but I thought better of it. No one should be left to wonder how they want to be remembered. Their actions and moments in life should speak enough for that. Instead, I asked him what he thought kept people coming to his shows. Why, after all these years, people were still drawn to these bizarre films with this bizarre host at bizarre times of night. When he answered, his face was solemn. His answer rang with sincerity, he had obviously thought about it before. “I think part of it is that there are movies that they haven’t seen in awhile, that was probably a favorite of theirs growing up so there’s a big nostalgia factor there. People like to come who were 8 through 12 when they saw me on the television so they come for the nostalgia and they’ll bring their kids,” he shook his head regretfully. “Now you’ve got a whole theater full of people that don’t know each other. Whereas on television it was just you and your mother, or you and your girlfriend, or you and your brother—and me. We were there together.”

And that was it right there. With Fritz, we had a friend to keep us company in the late hours way into the night. We could stay up late with the TV on, comforted by its soft electric glow, soothed by the jazzy bass of the Niteowl’s timbre. We could feel solace knowing that we weren’t the only freaks kept awake in the sun’s absence. We had a friend on the television and he had us, too.

“It’s a very personal thing there. At two in the morning, I’m with second shifters and mothers that were feeding their kid. It’s just so nice to be there at two in the morning with someone.”

If you ever find yourself unable to sleep, check out more by Fritz the Niteowl on his website, or catch a live show by checking the schedule on his Facebook.

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