Lenny's Inferno

When I was a kid I just LOVED watching Lenny's inferno on Friday nights. Scary movies with a scary host, what could possibly be better than that for a young boy? I hadn't thought about those memories for many many years until I came accross this article on Madison.com


Doug Moe: Mephisto and pizza equal teen heaven

By Doug Moe December 20, 2005
From the Capital Times

A YEAR or so ago, a Milwaukee man named Dick Golembiewski came to Madison to give a presentation at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

It was an unusual topic: Golembiewski has a passion for the late night horror shows that were once a local television staple, and in particular, for the shows' hosts.

Utilizing a pseudonym, Dick Nitelinger, that he had previously used while a Milwaukee radio host, Golembiewski has written articles on local TV horror history for Scary Monsters magazine, and in 2000 he started a Web site dedicated to the subject.

In doing his Milwaukee research, Golembiewski had happened on a show, "Lenny's Inferno," that ran for a few brief weeks in 1988 on Milwaukee's Channel 24.

A number of visitors to the Web site got in touch with Golembiewski and said the "Inferno" had actually enjoyed a much lengthier run on Madison TV. Golembiewski, a dedicated researcher, checked it out. What he unearthed was the whole wild story behind the "Inferno." Golembiewski was impressed enough that he now includes a "Madison Hosts" link on his Milwaukee horror Web site.

It also prompted Golembiewski, when he spoke in Madison at the Historical Museum, to invite a retired Madison area man named Dick Flanigan to help him with his presentation.

I wasn't there, but I will make an educated guess that Flanigan stole the show. Dick Flanigan, you see, was "Mephisto."

"We had a great turnout," Flanigan was saying Monday. "It blew me away. People remember."

Sure they do. For some of us, Dick Flanigan - though we never knew his name - was one of the biggest stars in the constellation. For 13 years, from 1969 to 1982, Flanigan hosted a weekly horror movie show that aired at midnight Friday on Channel 15. He dressed up like a monster, called himself "Mr. Mephisto," and let me tell you, he was great. It didn't hurt that the year Flanigan started his show, I became a teenager, his perfect demographic. For a 13-year-old in the pre-PlayStation era, eating delivery pizza and watching midnight monster movies was about as good as it got.

The "Inferno" saga actually began in the early 1960s. According to Golembiewski, whom I reached by phone in Milwaukee Monday (he's a mechanical engineer by day), a Marquette theater major named Jack Crowley was working as program manager of WMTV/Channel 15 in Madison in 1963 when he noticed how well stations in other college cities were doing running late night horror programming.

Channel 15 started running "Thriller," hosted by Boris Karloff, but then Crowley got together with a sponsor, Ferd Mattioli, who owned American TV, and they came up with the idea of "Ferdie's Inferno" - the title borrowed from Dante - which would consist of old horror movies hosted by a costumed Crowley and sponsored by American TV. The first show aired Sept. 19, 1964.

Crowley left the station in 1967 and the man who took over hosting "Ferdie's Inferno" was none other than my old friend Carl Ames, who captained a Fess Hotel bar stool with me on many evenings in the 1980s. For some reason, Ames, who by then had his own ad agency and production company, never mentioned having previously dressed up like a cadaver with liquid latex on his face to host a horror show on TV. Carl's character came on stage out of a grave - a trapdoor in the Channel 15 studio floor.

It was the man who built that trap door set, Channel 15 art director Dick Flanigan, who had the most distinguished run on the "Inferno." It was September 1969 and Len Mattioli had taken over American TV from his brother, Ferd, who was ill. Len decided to keep the show going, with Flanigan replacing the departed Ames as host. The title was eventually changed to "Lenny's Inferno."

The crucial element of the show, and why it endured another 13 years, was Flanigan as the snarling, white-faced, black-goateed Mephisto. Flanigan took the name from a 1940s movie, "Manhunt of Mystery Island," and used Moussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" for its musical theme.

Mephisto would open the show and reappear several times during the film for commercials. You never knew what was going to happen. Mephisto set things on fire and there were other characters who chopped up TVs with axes. Most notably there was the voiceover of John Sveum - professional name Jay Stevens - whose tinny sounds issued from a black box on Mephisto's desk. The "voice in the box" had little regard for Mephisto, whom the voice generally referred to as "the creep."

They taped the shows Friday afternoons for airing at midnight, and if what got on the air was often frenzied, Flanigan told me Monday, what didn't get on the air was priceless. "We never knew what we were going to do," Flanigan said. "That probably kept it fresh." He paused. "I'd give anything to have those outtakes."

In May 1982, Len Mattioli decided Amercian TV's market presence was such in Madison that sponsoring the show no longer made much sense. "He was probably right," Flanigan said. But then in 1988, with American taking on the Milwaukee market, Mephisto and the voice in the box were resurrected for an eight-week run on Channel 24 in Milwaukee.

It never really caught on, but that's OK. Mephisto lives on, both on Golembiewski's Web site and a national horror host site, "E-gor's Chamber of TV Horror Hosts."

On that site, a correspondent named Brad Ringlien writes of being a teen growing up in Madison and being enthralled with Mephisto.

"Many times," Ringlien noted, "they would destroy television sets or refrigerators at the end of the show. That was definitely worth staying up for."

It sure was.