Ever since it debuted on the History cable TV channel a year ago this week, the “American Pickers” reality series has become synonymous with LeClaire, Iowa.
But wait a minute, says Frank Fritz, who is half of the show’s star duo along with Mike Wolfe. Fritz was born and raised in Davenport and has lived there all of his 47 years. Wolfe’s business is based in LeClaire.
“It seems like the whole world is out in LeClaire,” Fritz said, sitting on the floor of his Davenport home. “I don’t live in LeClaire, I live here.”
Fritz grew up on Mound Street in Davenport. His mother, Susan Zirbes, worked for a construction company and his stepfather, Dick Zirbes, was a tire salesman. They live in Bettendorf.
“I’m very happy my mother is alive to see my little five minutes of fame,” Fritz said.
His father lives in Dallas, and Fritz said the two are not close. “He’s a little closer now since the show started,” Fritz said with a laugh.
As a teenager, Fritz took jobs at Quad-City Automatic Sprinkler and Coast to Coast Hardware to help him earn the $4,100 he needed to buy a brand-new Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
But it was at what is now Sudlow Intermediate School in Davenport that Fritz discovered the joys of collecting, be it postage stamps, rocks or beer cans. He’d follow the train tracks from his home to the Village of East Davenport and pick up items that were discarded by hobos riding the railroad cars.
While at Sudlow, he met a young Mike Wolfe, whose tastes in collecting ran more toward old bicycles and discarded jack-o’-lanterns until, Fritz recalls, the pumpkins began rotting and Wolfe realized why they were being thrown away. Both Fritz and Wolfe attended Bettendorf High School.
Fritz worked for 25 years as a fire inspector, covering an area from Des Moines to Cedar Falls, Iowa, and began picking up firefighter and firehouse-related trinkets. After he bought one item for $15 and sold it for $475, he thought he could make a living that way.
In 2002, he quit his job and established Frank’s Finds, traveling the country to find objects he eventually could sell.
As a bachelor with no children, “I was in the position to be able to do it,” he said. “A lot of people in this world are smarter, have more money, know more about stuff, but they haven’t chosen the direction or come to that crossroads in their life.”
Fritz specializes in motorcycles, transportation and advertising collectibles. He has his own collections of toy motorcycles and fire equipment in glass cases at his house as well as what he calls a sizeable number of motorcycles — all types of models — at an undisclosed Davenport location.
(An active biker, Fritz was president of the area ABATE chapter for nine years, and he has attended the famous annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., for 29 straight years.)
He frequently would overlap with fellow finder Wolfe, and eventually Wolfe pitched Fritz on the idea of cameras following them at work for a TV show. Justin Anderson of Crazy Eyes Productions in Davenport helped produce a video they could pitch to networks.
“We always knew we had something because everyone we showed it to really liked it,” Fritz said.
When he or Wolfe would tell friends of their collecting adventures, “They’d be like, ‘No way,’ and we’d be ‘way.’ This is how these things happen.”
Despite having “two no-namers from Iowa riding around in a van,” Fritz joked, History eventually picked up “Pickers,” 4 1/2 years after the idea first formed.
The first time Fritz saw himself onscreen was with family and friends for the premiere a year ago at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Davenport.
What he and Wolfe do on camera, Fritz said, is nothing different than what they’ve done for years.
“We just have people who follow us around and shoot us,” he said. An eight- to nine-person crew — producers, a director, camera and sound operators, production assistants and drivers — go on the road with them.
It’s easier, Fritz said, because he and Wolfe don’t have to introduce themselves and have already talked on the phone with the subjects.
“Now, the people know we’re coming. But when I knock on the door, that’s the first time I’ve met these people,” he said. “When they open up that garage or cellar or barn and we see what they’ve got, the viewer is right there with us.”
In the first season alone, the two logged 50,000 miles, traveling to 22 states in their 2006 Mercedes Sprinter van.
“We were able to become a team even though we have different thoughts on things,” Fritz said.
The show is in the middle of airing its second season, and a third has begun taping, with its first episodes taking place in Texas and Louisiana.
It’s among History’s highest-rated series, with new episodes shown at 8 p.m. Mondays and repeats throughout the week.
A new production schedule will allow Fritz and Wolfe to go on the road with the show for two weeks at a time, followed by two weeks on their own.
The first two seasons would tape for 12-14 hours a day for 17-19 days — all to make a 44-minute episode (with commercials filling out the hour).
Mark Portner, an executive producer of “Pickers” (as is Wolfe) said Fritz has an everyman quality with which viewers identify.
“Frank’s a funny guy,” Portner said from his New York office. “He’s got a wry sense of humor and comes off as very likeable. People can relate to him. He’s a guy from a small Midwest town and what’s not to like?”
Portner said it’s evident to him that Fritz is a hard worker and not afraid to take chances.
“He’s not a polished ‘TV Guy.’ All of that put together comes off as a very likeable guy,” Portner added. “He’s a guy you’d love to go out and get a beer with.”
When Fritz and Wolfe aren’t taping, there’s an increasing number of public appearances, signing autographs at various outdoors, boat and car shows. They’ve also appeared on Rachael Ray’s TV talk show, and they were guests last week on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
“I was always a very busy person, but I’m increasingly more busy now,” Fritz said.
With a year of TV celebrity comes a slew of recognition in public, predominantly in the South. “They don’t expect to see me somewhere like there,” he said.
“Anywhere we go, we get mobbed when someone recognizes us,” he said. “But in my hometown? Maybe people recognize us, but they don’t say anything.
“If we’re together, we get recognized,” Fritz said of Wolfe and himself. “People will come up to me and say, ‘Have you seen the show “American Pickers”? You look like the guy ...’ ”
Once Fritz speaks, he said, people figure it out.
He said stardom hasn’t gone to his head.
“I haven’t changed that much. Money doesn’t make my world go around, so I haven’t changed a lot,” said Fritz, who still drives the 1986 Ford Ranger pickup he’s had for 24 years.
“I live a simple life. ... I’ve got lots of friends, so I don’t really need per se to be in the spotlight as much,” he added.
The attention he’s received has been interesting, Fritz said, from autograph seekers to those offering to buy him a beer.
“Now I know what real good-looking girls must go through in life,” he said with a grin. “It seems like every once in a while I get extra treatment or ‘That’s OK, we’ll get it, Frank.’ That must be how pretty girls go through their whole life.”
Fritz said he’s enjoying living in the moment, but he knows the ride will end someday.
“The bottom line is, let’s have some fun,” he said. “There was life before ‘Pickers’ and there will be life after ‘Pickers,’ but this is the one time in our life ... where we want to enjoy it. Let’s not look back on this.
“There will be a day when people will be, ‘Um, uh, weren’t you guys on that one show?’ We’re hot now, but one day we’ll go to the wayside. Like we say, we’ll ride this bus as long as it’s running.”