Mephisto, Kirshner, and Me

When you are a kid, the hours after bedtime are uncharted territory. Back when bedtime was 8 or 8:30, my family would sometimes visit a cousin of my father’s, who had kids about the same age as we were. Our parents would play euchre and visit, we’d fool around doing kid stuff—and sometimes we wouldn’t get home until after midnight. Geek that I am, one of the memories I have of those nights is seeing what was on TV so very late—Surfside 6 and Hawaiian Eye, the sort of thing a small-market local TV station might have run after the late local news on a Saturday night around 1968 or so.

When I got a little older, late-night TV became part of the weekend routine. After the 10:00 news on Friday nights, the fun started with Creatures From Dimension 13, the umbrella title for the horror movies on a Rockford station. I saw ’em all on Creatures From Dimension 13: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, all the classic Hollywood monsters. At midnight, you’d flip over to Channel 15, because if you were a kid in southern Wisconsin and you were up at midnight on Friday night, there was only one show you were going to watch: Lenny’s Inferno. The show had started as Ferdie’s Inferno in 1966, and changed its name sometime around 1970 or so. It was named in both cases for its sponsor, first Ferd Mattioli and later for his brother Len, owners of local TV and appliance store (now a chain) American TV. The show featured plenty of horror movies, but also episodes of Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and even Flash Gordon serials. It was hosted by the ghoulish Mr. Mephisto, who improvised humorous bits around commercial breaks, sparring with a disembodied voice that came from a box on his desk. The show ran until 1982.

There were other options on other channels. Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was one—a show people are recalling this week with the news of Kirshner’s death at age 76. While The Midnight Special is more celebrated, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was just as important in bringing rock to TV, particularly acts that weren’t going to make it onto prime time.

According to the episode list at IMDB, the show premiered in September 1973 with the Rolling Stones, the Doobie Brothers, and Earth Wind and Fire. Jim Croce was booked for an October episode but died in late September, so the show on which he was to appear was turned into a tribute to him. In the first season alone, the show welcomed a range of acts from Van Morrison, Johnny Winter, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Foghat, Kansas (a Kirshner discovery), and REO Speedwagon; the latter three were  not yet the major stars they would become. But the show was even more eclectic than that: Steeleye Span, Weather Report, Roy Wood’s Wizzard, Fancy, and Fanny appeared in the first couple of seasons, the latter two on the same show, of course. The show’s most infamous guests appeared early in 1975—Black Sabbath, a band that was never going to get on TV anywhere else in the States, played for nearly half-an-hour. Sometimes acts performed especially for the show (Sabbath did), and sometimes the show featured performances filmed elsewhere.

Starting with the third season in the fall of 1975, the show booked fewer rock acts—it was more likely to feature pop and disco acts, although rock bands still appeared. There was also a weekly standup comedy spot. The show’s greatest coup in this period was to premiere a couple of clips from Led Zeppelin’s concert movie The Song Remains the Same, which may have been the first time Zeppelin ever appeared on an American TV show. But even if Rock Concert never again rocked as hard as it did during its first two seasons, it kept putting on acts you wouldn’t see anywhere else, until it went off the air in 1982.

I wrote about Kirshner at in November 2008, and was pleased to receive an e-mail from his assistant thanking me for the piece and promising to show it to him. I’ll say again that it’s an injustice that Kirshner isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a contributor. For the children of the 1970s, few did more for our rock and roll education.