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Catching Up with Mike McGraner - by Pete Vogel

 

Mike McGraner has been a very busy man the past ten years.  

When he’s not working on his album, musing about his own movies, or traveling between Columbus and LA, Mike is seen with his childhood hero, Frederick Peerenboom.

Who is Fred Peerenboom, you may ask?  Hardly anyone knows him by his real name; he’s better known in these parts as Fritz the Nite Owl.  [Ah yes…THAT guy!]

For those reared in Columbus in the 70s and 80s, Fritz the Nite Owl was an iconic part of our childhood.  He’s been a staple of Columbus since 1959, when he took a job as the broadcast booth announcer for WBNS radio.  His smooth baritone and breezy, conversational style was his signature sound and anyone with AM radio could instantly recognize that suave and debonair voice.

Fritz moved to television in 1974 where he hosted a late-night movie program called Nite Owl Theatre, which lasted until 1991—6205 episodes in total.  What was most memorable was his Friday night feature called Double Chiller Theatre: It was back-to-back horror movies with Fritz providing comic relief in between commercial breaks.  

I remember Chiller Theatre vividly, because every Friday night my brother Andy and I would make it our goal to stay up and watch BOTH movies—which wrapped up around 3am—but we never reached our summit.  Fritz was always entertaining: his dry, comic wit, those silly owl glasses, and the campy background effects added flair to the broadcast.  Fritz was an iconic part of Columbus late-night television.  While WCMH-4 enjoyed Johnny Carson, WBNS-10 had Fritz the Nite Owl.

In 1991 Fritz moved to radio, where he broadcasted a late-night jazz program called Nite Owl Jazz, which continued until 2010.  When the show ended, many thought Fritz would fade into obscurity the same way as Flippo the Clown or Lucy from Lucy’s Toyshop.

Enter Mike McGraner.

Mike watched Fritz for the first time as a 6-year-old and loved the quirky host.  “He’s one of my heroes,” he says.  Mike always wanted to make a documentary film about Fritz, and when he heard that Andyman (of 101.1 fame) knew Fritz, they arranged a meeting.

“We spoke for 5 hours the first time we met,” said McGraner.  “We talked about making a film about his life and career, but Fritz said no.”

After some coaxing from his wife—and other colleagues—Fritz decided to proceed with the film.  Little to anyone’s knowledge—except McGraner—there was an audience out there that liked what Fritz the Nite Owl brought to the table.

Filming began in 2010: even though they shot plenty of footage, the documentary was never released.  They abandoned it to begin production on a new concept: bringing Nite Owl Theatre into the 21st century.  

Their idea was simple: Mike, Fritz and a team of writers would produce shows in the spirit of Nite Owl Theatre and release it on the Internet.  Local theatres caught wind of their concept and decided they wanted in: they offered to host these events in their movie theaters.  So Nite Owl Theatre, Version 2.0 plays on the big screen: Fritz is the on-air personality and Mike is producer, director and editor.  They make live appearances as well: Mike and Fritz appear in theaters across Ohio—Columbus, London and Miamisburg, namely—and do their retro act to a new wave of Fritz fans.

In Columbus, both Grandview Theater and Studio 35 provide opportunities to catch the quirky act: each month they host a feature and audiences of every age can enjoy the campy celebrity of Columbus’ very own night owl.  The schedule can be found at www.fritzlives.com.

“We figured we’d do 3 or 4 episodes when this started out,” McGraner says.  “We are currently at 63 episodes.  Our goal is to hit 70 sometime in 2018.”

What nobody expected was this local host actually had a national following.  Michael Dougherty, esteemed director of many A-list movies (Superman Returns, X-Men 2, Trick’r Treat, Krampus) is a native of Columbus and a huge fan of Fritz.  He took that fandom to LA with him and has opened up avenues for Fritz to have celebrity outside of Columbus.  “When locals moved out of town, they opened up opportunities for Fritz to become a national celebrity,” McGraner says.  “Every town had a Fritz,” McGraner said.  “And the production quality for his show was pretty good.  People dug his stuff.  He’s been exposed to a national audience for years now.”

Seven years later, they’re still going strong.  What started out as a film idea that a local kid wanted to make about his hero, it has blossomed into a second life for Mr. Nite Owl and his legion of fans.

“We’re probably going to wrap things up after another 7 or 8 episodes,” McGraner says.  “Fritz will still do the live appearances, but he wants to be done shooting.  He’ll be 83 years old later this month.”  Who’s to blame him—he’s been Fritz the Nite Owl for 44 years!

Mike promotes another event alongside his work with Fritz: Terror From The 80s.  “It’s a monthly double-feature of two 80’s horror films presented back-to-back, Grindhouse style.  I have created a presentation that re-creates the feel of seeing a drive-in double feature.  Each month is themed but the movies remain a mystery.  You can see the series at Studio 35, Grandview Theater and State Theatre in London.”        

His plans don’t stop here.  “Next year I’m launching a series called The Director Series, an educational presentation of the complete chronological works of select directors (one per year).  The first director series will be David Lynch.”  

Mr. McGraner has plenty of irons in his fire.  He also has aspirations of finishing his album and producing/directing a movie based on a song by Quinn Fallon.  The movie is called Heartsick and Mike has every intention of finishing it someday. “If it’s the only movie I do, I’ll be okay with it,” he says.  

For now, it’s about continuing to devote a little more time to his hero, Frederick Peerenboom.  

www.facebook.com/niteowltheatre

www.facebook.com/terrorfromthe80s

www.facebook.com/thedirectorseries


  Pete Vogel is a professional musician, filmmaker and Pencilstorm contributor. Click here to read his excellent reviews of The Rolling Stones and The Who