Thursday, January 17, 2008

Vampira, the first horror hostess, dies at 86

Maila Nurmi as Vampira.
Last week saw the passing of a television pioneer.

Actress and pin-up model Maila Nurmi was born Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi in 1921 in Finland. She moved with her family to the United States when she was 2. But fans of low-budget and no-budget horror movies will always remember her as Vampira, the first horror movie hostess.

Nurmi died in her sleep Jan. 10 at age 86.

Nurmi made TV history in 1954, when she debuted on Los Angeles’ KABC-TV as the star of “The Vampira Show.” As Vampira, Nurmi became the model horror hostess, mixing horror movies, humor and a plunging neckline, all to the delight of her fans.

She introduced old horror films like the Bela Lugosi feature “White Zombie,” acted out comedy bits with her pet spider Rollo, and invited her viewers to write in for epitaphs instead of autographs.

Nurmi based her look on Morticia Addams, a character in Charles Addams’ “Addams Family” cartoons. She had worn the costume at a ball and attracted the attention of a KABC producer who later hired her to host the channel’s late-night horror movies.

Unfortunately, “The Vampira Show” aired live, and no known footage of Vampira’s host segments exists. Also, the show lasted barely a year. After a contract dispute with ABC, Nurmi took her character to rival station KHJ-TV. The new show, however, was also short-lived. Still, Vampira’s influence extended far beyond her stint on Los Angeles television. She appeared in Life magazine and inspired fan clubs worldwide.

Nurmi crossed paths with Hollywood royalty, including James Dean. But, as she recalled in a 1994 People magazine interview, after her TV show’s demise, she was “scraping by on $13 a week.”
It was then that she agreed to the career move for which she is best known today.

In 1958, Edward D. Wood Jr., who had already made such schlocky drive-in movies as “Bride of the Monster” and “Glen or Glenda,” cast Nurmi in his most infamous film: “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often cited as the worst movie ever made.

Billed as Vampira and wearing her TV-show costume, Nurmi shared the screen with Wood’s bizarre acting troupe, which by then included The Amazing Criswell, professional wrestler Tor Johnson and stock film footage of Bela Lugosi, who died in 1956.

Nurmi didn’t have any lines, but the image of Vampira haunting the movie’s wobbly graveyard set as a reanimated corpse became iconic. Actress/model Lisa Marie would replicate it decades later, portraying Vampira in Tim Burton’s 1994 film “Ed Wood.”

By the early 1980s, Nurmi was in negotiations to bring “The Vampira Show” back to television. But when the deal fell through, the show’s producers turned to a new actress, Cassandra Peterson, and a new character: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

The Vampira character clearly influenced Elvira, but Peterson’s performance was remarkably different — part punk, part goth and part Valley Girl. Nurmi sued Peterson, but the court dismissed the case, ruling that the similarities were not sufficient grounds for legal action. Elvira would go on to heights of fame and fortune Vampira would never see.

For her part, Nurmi didn’t fully exploit Vampira’s merchandising potential until late in life. But she nevertheless continued to cultivate a loyal cult following, and “Vampira: The Movie,” a documentary about Nurmi’s enduring character, was released in 2006.

Meanwhile, others continue the Vampira legacy. The latest is Ivonna Cadaver (Natalie Popovich), host of “Macabre Theater,” seen on small TV stations nationwide via the America One network. Locally, “Macabre Theater” airs on Athens-based ZTV at either midnight Saturday or 1 a.m. Sunday, depending on America One’s other programming.

Like many pioneers, Nurmi didn’t get the credit she deserved during her lifetime. But she will be remembered fondly for years to come.

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