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Fritz the Nite Owl Interview
In my article on late nite horror shows and their hosts, I used a local creature feature, Chiller Theatre from Channel 13, in my illustration because it is most typical of the shows we all remember. It was, however, another show and its host that is truly responsible for my love of horror and my fondess for late-nite TV scare fests. The show was Nite Owl Theatre and the man behind it is the one and only Fritz the Nite Owl. With 5 Emmy awards earned as both host and producer of Nite Owl Theatre, it is clear that Fritz has really created a landmark in this type of programing and has set a high standard for shows if its kind. Nite Owl Theatre ran on WBNS 10tv for 17 years and Fritz (Frederick C. Peerenboom) alwaws kept the show fresh and entertaining.
Recently, Fritz was kind enough to answer some question I emailed him about Nite Owl Theatre and his work on it. Fritz has always been very responsive to fans and I would like to thank him for his time and for his thoughtful and insightful answers.
Classic-Horror: What is it like to know that you have introduced so many to this genre and that the program is remembered so fondly?
Fritz the Nite Owl: A. At the time I was hosting Chiller, I didn't stop to think that for many of my viewers this was the first time they encountered movies of this type. Since I was so familiar with them, I assumed everyone else was, too. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise...and an ego kick to know that so many people think more highly of me for introducing them to something they would enjoy so much for so many years.
B. As a performer, one is always pleased when the audience remembers that one's work is regarded as unique, imaginative, creative and enjoyable. While I thoroughly enjoyed hosting the movies, I'm surprised and delighted to know that the program had such a pleasant impact on so many people and is remembered so favorably.
C-H: What would you say is your favorite subgenre?
F: I've always enjoyed sci-fi, fantasy, psycho-dramas, sword-and-sandal movies. I consider them a valid part of the Chiller genre. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, The Green Slime, The Blob, Tarzan, Hercules, Thief Of Bagdad, Colossus Of Rhodes, etc. are among my favorites in the sub-genre category.
C-H: Were there ever any movies you wanted to show, but could not because of availability or other reasons?
Fritz: None that I can think of. The 10TV film library was a gem under Program Director John Haldi. He went out of his way to get the best film packages offered...of all types of movies.
C-H:. Were there any movies in the 10TV library that you put off showing or that you didn't care for?
Fritz: A. If it was in the library, we showed it.
B. Some of the Japanese "cutesy" (with kids) Sci-fi (ie: the later Godzillas) bored me, but there was nothing I absolutely abhorred.
C-H: What would you say was your most requested movie (not counting my 8 million requests for The Blob?
Fritz: As you remember, we showed The Blob and its sequel numerous times. The two most overwhelmingly requested stars (by mail, phone, and personal appearances) were Godzilla and Elvis... easily eclipsing requests for The Duke, Bogie, Mick & Judy, Paul Newman, Frank, Dean, and Rory. So, in Chiller features it was The Big Green G... in other features of any type, the guitar-slingin' E.
C-H:. What would you say has been your most unusual request?
Fritz: I can't think of anything that really went off the scale in terms of bizarre or unusual requests.
C0H: How much input did you have in the make-up of the station's movie library?
Fritz: At John Haldi's request, I submitted a list, every six months or so, of viewer feedback on the types, titles, stars, and directors that the viewers wanted to see. He used this as one factor in determining which film packages to buy from what was offered at the time.
He was very interested in viewer response and input on all programs, and it influenced him in how he spent the money he had available for films, syndication, etc.
C-H: I have always wondered how movie broadcast rights are sold to stations. Could you give us a little inside info on just how things work?
Fritz: Well, I never was involved with this, so my answer may not be completely accurate.
But, as I understood it, the international distributors, who owned the distribution/sales/broadcast rights to movies would put together packages (50-60-100 films), which they would offer to stations for x-number of years, and x-showings per year.
So, they might put together a Robert DeNiro package that would feature ten or so DeNiro movies plus 50 other titles. If you wanted the ten DeNiros, you had to purchase the entire package. Then, depending on the contract, you had exclusive rights, in your broadcast market, to show these movies... for so many years, so many showings of each film per year. In the case of Chiller features, the distributors would offer a Chiller package, which might include 50-100 features, all chillers, which you could show for so many years (usually 2-4). The packages could be put together in all genres: an all-western, all-musical, all MGM, all mystery, all war, etc. At the end of the contract, you could either drop the films, or renew the contract.
As I understood it, a station could buy the rights to one specific film for x-number of broadcasts, but usually the price was prohibitive, so they went with the packages.
Also, as I understood it, a station could not pick and choose, or ask a distributor to put together a package of films the station wanted. Possibly individual custom-packaging could have been arranged, but it would probably have been too expensive for most local stations.
C-H: I think that a big part of the fondness that a lot of us have for the show is due to its unique style and presentation and its hosts. How much of the Nite Owl style was planned from the beginning and how much evolved with time?
Fritz: It's a bit of both. When Nite Owl Theatre started around 1972 (2 years before I came on board) it was an un-hosted, all nite theatre, once a week (Saturday). The Nite Owl cartoons which intro'd the commercial breaks, symbolized what the viewers were doing while they were watching the films. Thus, the viewers were the Nite Owls (coming in from a date, fixing a snack, dozing in a chair, etc.). I originally started as just the Voice-over announcer for these cartoons. It always bothered me that the voice-over announcer on programs like this never seemed to be involved with the movie that was being shown and would just say stuff like: "We'll be back to The Blob with Aaron Edgell after these words." So, I started to comment on what had been seen, the actors, the direction, the history of the movie when these cartoons came up. Since I had been on radio since 1959, my voice was quite well known, and viewers started calling the cartoon Owls "Fritz." Fortunately, the viewer response to the ad-lib commentary was so favorable, John Haldi decided to create an on-air host, Fritz The Nite Owl. A complete Owl suit (ala San Diego Chicken) was considered, and (thank God!) rejected, and the glasses only became the costume.
When presented with the opportunity to host the show, live and on-camera, I decided I wanted to take the show in a direction that had not been seen on TV before. I had experience in special effects from my days in the Army (where I acted in, wrote, narrated, and directed GI Training Films), I decided to use visual effects, commentary and music... all of which related directly to the specific film being shown... as my unique method of presentation, as opposed to the overused haunted house, cape, coffin, castle settings used by other hosts. It always bothered me that other movie hosts never seemed to be involved with the specific films being shown. It was like 2 shows in one: the hosts schtick and show and the movie. Thus, as you may recall, everything I did, no matter how bizarre, outrageous, or unusual, always -- always -- related in some direct way to the movie being shown.
My concepts were in place from the beginning, so they didn't evolve, I just got better at doing things.
C-H: How much input did you have in the art direction of the show and what was the inspiration for the style that became so much a part of Nite Owl Theatre?
Fritz: A. I was given complete control of everything involved with MY portions of Nite Owl Theatre. (I did not select the films, nor set the times for commercial breaks, etc.) The art used, the special effects concepts, the music, the commentary, the amount of time used were all at my choice. John Haldi trusted my judgement and gave me carte blanche to run with the creative elements and presentation style. Had it not been overwhelmingly successful, he would have stepped in, made changes, whatever.
B. The inspiration for this style was that I wanted to host a movie in a way that had never been seen or done before (Part of this is answered in the previous question). In that, I was quite successful. Even today, no one hosts a movie, using the visuals, effects, music, and ad-lib commentary the way I did. I won 5 EMMYs for my Performances, and the show ran 7 nites a week, for 17 years, with over 6,000 consecutive performances (with no re-runs, ever), so I musta done somethin' right.
C-H: Could you give us some background on the trademark owl slides that were show before and after commercial breaks?
Fritz: These were created by 10TV's art director, Dave Wagstaff, for the original run on Nite Owl when it was an un-hosted, all nite Saturday, trio of movies. He created Owls that represented the theme of the films (ie: cowboy owls, lover owls, monster owls, etc.) and owls that reflected what the viewer might be doing while watching the films (ie; cuddling with a date, getting ready for bed, turning off the lights, etc.) Over the run of the show, he created hundreds...always coming up with new and delightful takes on the character.
C-H:. Art direction aside, what inspired you to develop the Owl persona? What made you want to deviate from the simple voiceovers or "Count Shock in the Scary Mansion" approach that a lot of the Late Nite Movie shows were taking at the time?
Fritz: As mentioned earlier, I wanted to create something new, unique, original. Something that had not been seen or heard before. Something that would be completely mine, for better or worse. It bothered me that most movie hosts I had seen were doing their own show independent of the film they were showing; I wanted to tie together the movie and the host by means of performance, presentation, visuals, music, commentary. I wanted Fritz The Nite Owl to be unlike any other movie host ever seen before. Fortunately, the Muse was with me and things worked out.
C-H: In the beginning, did you have any idea that it would be so highly regarded and fondly received by fans and critics alike?
Fritz: Absolutely not a clue. I figured it would be a hip, pleasant cult diversion... and would keep me from having to unload cement blocks in the sun. That it went so well, surprises and pleases me enormously. I wish I could still be doing it, backed by the film library and techical facilities that were available at 10TV in those days.
C-H: Why do you think horror hosts have all but disappeared?
Fritz: I'm guessing on this... but I think the reason is that most local stations have eliminated their non-news (or sports, or news-related) local programming. Many stations no longer even have a position titled: "Program Director"... and those that do have hired Program Directors who don't have a clue as to how to create a new, original, local program that's not news or sports-related. Their main creative question seems to be: "How much money do I have to spend on new programming, what's available in syndication, and when will I air it?"
How many local stations today have a local equivalent of Flippo The Clown, Janey Jingles, The Wranger, Agent Z, Ruth Lyons, Bob Braun, cooking, or variety shows? Very few, if any. Most program directors now would rather spend the money on some generic, nationally-syndicated show than trust their imaginations and creativity to come up with something new, original and completely local. And, of course, by going with syndication, if the show flops they get off the hook by saying, "It wasn't my fault... the syndicated show flopped."
C-H: Have these horror films become too expensive for local stations? Are premium channels squeezing out smaller stations that have a fraction of their resources?
Fritz: I don't think the films have become too expensive for local stations. I think that local stations just find it easier and cheaper to go with pre-packaged syndications...which means that they don't need the extra production people required to do a local horror show... no host to pay, no overtime for a director, camera, lighting, sound, props, art, and production assistants who'd probably log overtime now, if they had to produce a local horror (or variety, or other non-news type show).
The premium cable channels DO affect this somewhat... particularly in the case of smaller stations. But on the other hand, a lot of viewers still can't afford, and don't have cable. I THINK (but don't know) there are still more non-cable viewers than cable viewers.
In my opinion, a local station, assuming they had an imaginative, creative, enthusiastic staff, who enjoyed creating a new program (in this case, a hosted horror show), would make money if they were willing to put the time and effort necessary in the creation of such a show.
C-H: If you had complete control over a station's library, would you go for the older or newer movies, and why?
Fritz: Aaron, you ask the toughest questions! I'd probably go for the older movies...my reason being that the newer ones ARE shown more often by the Premium Channels, Networks, and local stations. Plus, the newer films are probably rented more often at the video stores than the old ones. (It's amazing how many young viewers will click off anything that's in black and white... unless it's a new music video by Eminem or Backstreet Boys, etc.). So the older ones would get the nod because they could reach a larger audience who had not seen them before. "But," as Dennis Miller would say, "I could be wrong!"
C-H: What could precipitate a new horror host boom?
Fritz: Since most programming nationally now is so homogenized and so much the same city-to-city, the one hope is that possibly the few local Program Directors who still exist might say, "Hey, maybe we could make some money by originating a competely new, seen-only-in-this-town, local horror show...to give the viewers something they CAN'T SEE ANYWHERE ELSE but on our station." It's a long shot...but it could happen.
C-H: Where do you think this kind of programming has the best chance of success, on a local or national market?
Fritz: I'd have to go with the local markets. The networks and other national-programmers are too committed to their proven, mass-appeal cash-cows: Leno, Letterman, sitcom, talk-show re-runs, etc. They wouldn't take the chance on horror, which still falls into the "cult-audience" category.
As I see it, horror still appeals PRIMARILY to the younger (8-18) viewers...who now have so much more programming available to them than in the years when we were young...when there was only NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, and a few independents with whom to compete. In the old days, horror would have (and did) rule...now, it would compete with MTV, VH1-2-3, Sci-Fi, Disney, etc. Nationally, it would be risky. Locally, however, it would give the non-cable young viewers their only option...which could be a sizeable (and therefore, profitable) audience. And again, I'll quote Dennis Miller.
C-H: Are you a horror fan?
C-H: How would you compare modern horror with that of the past?
Fritz: The older horror films left more to the viewers' imaginations, were less graphic, and less-technically-proficient, which in my view, were all plusses (except in the case of sci-fi, where the technology, spfx, and production values definitely make the films better. On the other hand, Plan 9 [from Outer Space], The Creeping Terror, and other such cheese balls would be long-forgotten had it not been for their ineptitude in all areas).
C-H: What's your opinion on "Dead Teen" movies?
Fritz: These days, teen-agers in any movie bore me. The problems, situations, dialogue, interactions, music, interests have all been filmed, written/talked about, analyzed, dissected, discussed to the point that my brain flamed out on overload. Too much of the same stuff... only the faces change.
C-H: Eurohorror or Indie Horror?
Fritz: A well-done horror film (or any film, for that matter) will always draw an audience...if not in theatres, in video. In my view, horror is alive and well.
C-H: What are your favorites?
Fritz: In horror, I still go with the Masters: Boris [Karloff], Bela [Lugosi], Vincent [Price], and Peter [Cushing]...plus any of the amply-endowed, well-cleavaged heroines/victims.
Rory Calhoun (one of my favorite action-adventure actors -- very under-rated) was a hoot in Motel Hell, and should have done more comedies (although he was terrific as a villain, as in The Red House, a psycho-fear flick with Edward G. [Robinson] and Julie London...River Of No Return with Marilyn [Monroe] and [Robert] Mitchum and The Spoilers with Anne Baxter and Jeff Chandler.)
Jack Nicholson was scary as hell in The Shining and perfect as The Joker.
My favorite non-horror performers (from a HUGE list, past and present... in no particular order....just sort of a spur-of-the-moment response listing) include: [Robert] DeNiro, Nicholson, Calhoun (as a villain), Cary Grant, Mel Gibson, W.C. Fields, Dean Martin, Denzel Washington, James Woods, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Jane Russell, Rhonda Fleming, Chris Walken, Dennis Hopper, Anna Nicole Smith (as anyone from Mother Teresa to Wonder Woman), Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Liz Taylor, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Fred Astaire, Chris Rock, Theresa Russell...to name a VERY FEW of the people whose movies I enjoy just because they're in the cast.
C-H: Modern vs. past?
Fritz: I touched on this earlier. I think modern horror differs from that in the past in that: modern horror, even with the bigger budgets and better technology, leaves less to the viewers' imaginations... which, to me, makes the horror of the past better. For example, the shower scene in Psycho... which actually showed nothing... was infinitely more effective and terrifying than if we had seen the knife penetrating, blood spurting, and a nude Janet oozing life in the tub. Or, put another way, modern horror shows too much...and thereby makes it less effective than past-horror, where the viewers bring their own imaginations, visions, concepts and fears into what's happening on-screen.
Thank you so much to Fritz the Nite Owl for taking the time to answer our questons.