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Where are they now: Crazy TV Lenny


Does "Get a bike! Get a bike! Get a bike!" ring a bell? Surely it does if you watched television during the '80s and '90s when American TV owner Len Mattioli transformed himself into uber-hyper advertising icon "Crazy TV Lenny."

Loco Lenny did just about anything in his commercials to grab viewers' attention, including water-skiing on a recliner, snowskiing on a mattress down a mountain and even riding a bike off a pier.

"I had to get stitches in my head following the shooting of that one," says Mattioli, 61.

Originally an engineer for Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., Mattioli came to Madison in 1969 to help his dying brother close his business, a television store called American TV on Atwood Avenue.

"It was a very small business," he says. "There were probably only 12 or 14 TVs in the whole place."

Mattioli considered filing for bankruptcy, but soon realized he enjoyed the work and wanted to stick around the Madison area to help his soon-to-be-widowed sister-in-law and his six nieces and nephews. So, Mattioli stayed in Madtown and later moved the shop to a new location in Madison.

"We had to beg people to buy our TVs," says the second generation Italian-American.

The business began to flourish, and Mattioli found himself with an advertising budget, but when radio reps tried to pitch commercial ideas, they were in for a surprise. Mattioli, who says his friends think he's certifiable, had his own ideas for media spots.

"The radio reps wanted us to do the same old droning 'get more for your money' but I wanted to do something different," he says.

The "get a bike" promotion was probably the most famous, which offered free bicycles to customers who bought certain appliances. "Buy an Amana washer, get a bike!"

Commercials were not Mattioli's first television performance. He starred in a cult television show called "Lenny's Inferno" that ran in Madison for 17 years (1972-'89) and became the second-longest running local television program in history.

"It was a wonderful show," he says. "In Madison on a Friday night we had over a 40 percent share. Teens would get together, and the campus would get together in dorm rooms to watch us and thought it was the funniest thing ever."

Mattioli's "craziness" even transcended the small screen.

"I've always frustrated my business partners," says Mattioli, who has an unconventional approach to buying real estate. "If the top of the page tells you how much you'll make and the bottom tells you how much you'll owe, I always say don't concentrate on the stuff in between. If the bottom justifies the top, then you're doing okay."

In 1998, Mattioli shot his last commercial. He says the company was expanding and didn't think Crazy Lenny would be as well received in other markets.

So, where is Len Mattioli today? OMC tracked him down in Madison, where he still lives and works as American's board chairman. Although no longer involved in day-to-day operations, Mattioli is a large stockholder and still keeps track of the financials. He is also a real estate investor.

Currently, there are 10 American stores around the Midwest and four more under construction, but Mattioli spends more time fishing off the Cayman Island's than he does riding bicycles off of piers.

"I am so blessed. I have my children and they're healthy and close to me. I've got my health. I've got money, and a great wife," he says.

Mattioli remarried after losing his first wife in 1986. Paulette Mattioli was a passenger on the Midwest Express aircraft headed for Atlanta that crashed near the Mitchell Airport runway. At the time, she left behind two teenaged sons, Thomas and Joseph.

Mattioli says some of his friends questioned his decision to remarry a year-and-a-half ago, but he responds with a line from the movie "Zorba the Greek."

"In the movie, Zorba says that the only way to survive in life is with madness. If you don't have madness then you will die one of those old folks or grocers who count everything," he says.

Just for fun, Mattioli annually rounds up 20 of his friends to rent a major league baseball stadium for a couple days of baseball gaming. Recently, they rented the Oakland A's training stadium in Arizona.

"We play two games a day, hire professional umpires and sometimes, for a night game, we hire an organist," he says. "In a stadium that seats thousands, we probably have only 20 people watching us -- a bunch of old duffers still playing ball."

(For the record, Mattioli is a pitcher, and likes to boast he can strike out three guys in 10 pitches. "Some of the other guys might disagree," he laughs.)

He may or may not be the Cy Young of the appliance world, but Mattioli knows his baseball. "I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I can tell you who played third base for the Pirates in 1952."

Also an avid boater, Mattioli and his sons routinely push it to the limit on the Caribbean Sea.

"Hell, we'll go out 140 nautical miles -- which is 160-some regular miles -- and be on the water for days without a captain or crew ... My point is you've always got to do crazy things and take risks in life," he says.

Talkbacks

sid_thefurball | May 23, 2009 at 8:21 p.m. (report)

crazy tv lenny was the sh*ts!!! and we watched lenny's inferno every friday night!! I was very happy to read this article and what he's up to these days

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smokingunnz | Feb. 4, 2008 at 3:58 a.m. (report)

Re: Crazy TV Lenny and the free bikes. I forgot to say that I got the bike in 1978. Also I used to cycle twice a day between University and Middleton on said bike for about 4 years (except when the usual 6 foot snow drifts came along!)

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smokingunnz | Feb. 4, 2008 at 3:50 a.m. (report)

I was fascinated to read about Crazy TV Lenny and the bike offer. I was in Madison doing my first lecturing post and I got a free bike with a Sony Tape player. Both are still working! The bike is a bit rusty but it has been well and truly used to the max. It has been on 3 continents too. I even have a photo of the bike I could submit if I knew how to attach it. As time has proved Lenny did not compromise on the quality of the goods he was shifting.

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