|Horror icon and TV pioneer Vampira recently left us for the great beyond. Her ground-breaking TV show, though only on for a short while, paved the way for the Shock Theater horror host phenomenon that followed. Monster Kid pays tribute to the original ghost host whose influence and unforgettable image made an everlasting mark on our creepy culture.|
Greetings, my friends! Can your heart stand the true story of Maila Nurmi? The first ever TV horror hostess crossed over peacefully in her sleep last month to join the world of shadows. She was 86. "Vampira" had a tremendous impact on popular culture even though "The Vampira Show" was local to LA, aired 54 years ago, shot live, and no complete shows exist outside of a few kinescope clips. It's fitting somehow that she is immortalized in my favorite film, and the favorite film of most other horror hosts I know, including Elvira. I hosted "Plan 9 From Outer Space" on my most recent episode of my syndicated movie program "Cinema Insomnia" (free to watch on BitTorrent.com), Vampira was one of my heroes, and this is why I've been asked to say a few words about the lovely and mysterious actress.
I had seen her influences and imitations first, The "TV version" of the Morticia Addams as a kid and "Elvira's Movie Macabre" as a teen. I'd seen cartoons in "Playboy" and "Mad" that were parodies of her. Sacramento horror host Bob Wilkins was the reason I wanted to be a horror host. HE gave me my taste for movies of the "so bad they're good" category. BUT when I saw Vampira in "Plan 9", my brain went "Aha! This is the character that everyone is referencing!" I wanted to have an iconic impact like that. Her work as a reanimated corpse in the film is like that of a silent film star, using her eyes, fingers and posture to tell the story
When I got my chance to work in TV I heard "The Vampira Show" story from anyone from LA who was old enough to remember her. She would start the show in a candle-lit abyss. She emerged from the smoke and fog, walked right up to the camera and let out a horrified scream! She then laid back on a Victorian lounge decorated with skulls and talked in a slow seductive voice. Every man who watched was under her spell from beginning to end. They were watching for her, NOT the movies.
She was very feisty and outspoken when she was interviewed by the makers of the horror host documentary "American Scary"(2006), a film that I was a researcher for and appeared in as Mr. Lobo. She was quick to say who she liked and didn't like in the business. She was also very frank on how she used sex as her weapon, stating the long fingers and cigarette holder were consciously used as "phallic symbols". I'm sure she was just as feisty back in her heyday.
Before she was The Mother of All Horror Hosts, Finnish immigrant, Maila Nurmi started as a Hollywood pin-up model. She posed for Vargas, was plastered all over dozens of men's mags and was even a showgirl for Mae West until she was fired for upstaging her. She did bit parts in films and one night at a high profile Hollywood costume party, dressed as Morticia from the "Addams Family" cartoons in The New Yorker, she caught the eye of a producer at KABC-TV. The station bought a package of old horror movies and hired Maila on the spot to host the films live and in costume, hoping to lure viewers to the new concept of "late night" TV.
There were, of course, concerns about copying the "Morticia" character too closely. Maila's husband, Dean Riesner, a screenwriter (Rawhide) came up with the name "Vampira." Maila added other cultural influences to her character: Hairstyle and cigarette holder of "The Dragon Lady" from the comic "Terry and the Pirates", make up and eyebrows of "Wicked Queen" from "Snow White", the voice of Gloria Swanson's as "Norma Desmond" from the film "Sunset Blvd.", and the cinched waist, cleavage and inhumanly long fingernails of the dominatrix types in fetish and pin-up magazines. Maila's in the Guinness Book Of World Records for her 17 inch waist! Ironically, 10 years later, the more popularized version of the character Morticia from the Addams Family in the TV series was based more on Maila Nurmi's Vampira than Charles Addams' Morticia.
She became an immediate national icon and exploded like an A-Bomb in the "bland is beautiful" decade of the 50's, even though "The Vampira Show" was only on local in LA. She tapped into the "sense of wonder" that is especially strong when we are coming of age and had a rabid fan base. Within weeks she graced the pages of popular national magazines like LIFE and was voted by the NATAS as the Most Outstanding Female Personality of 1954.
The TV men saw all the Hoopla and got greedy. When Maila refused to sign the rights to the character's name and likeness over to the TV Station, she was fired and possibly blacklisted. In the 1994 Tim Burton Bio-pic "Ed Wood", the infamous director of "Plan 9 From Outer Space" decides to hire her after reading in the paper that Channel 7 has fired her for "suspected communist leanings".
25 years later Cassandra Peterson became "Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark" a horror host extremely influenced by "The Vampira Show". Cassandra retained the rights to "Elvira", was able to go national, get spooky rich, and become synonymous with Halloween. Maila claimed there were 150 similarities and unsuccessfully sued Cassandra for stealing her act.
I don't think Elvira's success somehow betrays Vampira. It just proves how strong Vampira's influence was, is, and will always be on generation after generation of horror hosts and horror fans.
Unpleasant dreams, Darlings!
– Mr. Lobo