Owls have always been a symbol of wisdom but it’s a rare occasion you can squeeze anything much more than a rhetorical “Who?” from one.
This weekend, however, I had a chance to speak with an owl and, to my delight, he actually talked back.
The owl was named Fritz and he knows quite a lot about broadcast journalism.
An interesting topic for an owl to be an expert on you might say, but after all, owls are nocturnal creatures and there isn’t a whole lot going on at 3 a.m. other than television and radio waves.
And at age 78, Fritz is a particularly old owl who has seen many changes over the years.
Fritz was actually a local television personality back in the 1970s and 1980s and I can remember some of his antics as he and a man named Fritz Peerenboom who donned a pair of Christian Dior sunglasses bought at a Revco and later outfitted with Masonite wingtips personified the character on WBNS.
As a member of the media for the past 15 years or so, I remember a bit of the older technology, but Mr. Peerenboom’s memories of radio and television made me realize just how far we have come in the past 50 years.
He said he started his career “back when radio was powered by steam.”
Fritz “the Nite Owl” Peerenboom, Logan County puppeteer Pam Clouse and her puppet of Fritz pose for a photo outside the Holland Theatre on Saturday. (EXAMINER PHOTO ILLUSTRATION | REUBEN MEES)
After several years in radio production in the mid-1950s, Mr. Peerenboom enlisted in the Army and made training videos that he jokes were intended to put troops to sleep.
Then in 1959, he returned to civilian life, resumed his work in radio and eventually became an on-air disc jockey.
“I was in radio at a time when it was truly a media,” he said. “Every radio station had disc jockeys and there were no nationally syndicated programs that you hear today. You listened because you liked the disc jockey and the music he played.”
But his work with Columbus’ WBNS radio dovetailed into the company’s television broadcasting efforts.
Impressed with his smooth radio voice, producers offered Mr. Peerenboom an opportunity to be a behind-the-scenes voice for late night movies that featured a cartoon graphic of an owl. As the popularity of the seven-night-a-week late night programs grew, viewers began sending fan mail addressed to “The Nite Owl” and hence, Mr. Peerenboom’s iconic character, Fritz the Nite Owl was born.
That was the mid-1970s, long before green screens and computer-generated graphics came along and revolutionized television.
But still, the smooth talking persona and his production team pulled off some really neat effects that linger in my memory today.
Picture a guy in a 1980s vest and button-up shirt with a puffy hair helmet floating eerily on the screen amid a background of stars.
That’s the kind of stuff Fritz was doing back in those days.
Instead of using green screens, however, Mr. Peerenboom said they had to use blue construction paper and blue fabric to isolate his face and superimpose that over the film clips they were using.
And commercials, in his earliest days as a production assistant, were also done in house.
“If we had a commercial for a DeSoto we would roll that out on stage or if it was a product we would bring it up there and talk about it,” he said.
But Mr. Peerenboom said the Fritz character was not unique.
“Every city with a television station back in those days before cable had their own Fritz the Nite Owl or Flippo the Clown,” he said. “Now it’s just cheaper to go with syndicated stuff.”
The decline in the industry eventually cost him his television job in 1990 and Mr. Peerenboom continued to host late night radio broadcasts on Columbus area radio stations until 2010 when the popularity of those also waned.
But it was the personalities like Fritz that made television and radio of the 1970s and 1980s so much more interesting. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Mr. Peerenboom was just a regular Joe in Columbus (Up until recently, I kind of assumed he was some Hollywood star who was syndicated himself).
I think what the owl really reminded me of is what we’ve lost over the years by selling out to a homogenized mass media that is fed to our entire country. Instead of local color, all we get is Hollywood and a few cable video jockeys that do little more than talk about the extra features you can see on a DVD copy of a movie.
It’s a odd lesson to come from an owl, but owls are kind of odd.
Reuben Mees is an Examiner staff writer who loved getting to stay up on mid-1980s weekends to watch late night television. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.