Before Elvira, even before Morticia … there was Vampira.
Vampira, the original ghoulish horror movie hostess in television history, was a familiar personality to Los Angeles late-night television viewers in the mid-1950s. But it was for a one-day acting job, in which she appeared in what she believed would be a quickly forgotten schlock-horror film, that Vampira is remembered today.
Vampira was the gothic alter-ego of curvaceous actress, model, and chorus girl Maila Nurmi. Nurmi was born in Finland is 1922 and claimed kinship with the great long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi. She moved to the United States when she was two, and grew up in Ohio and Oregon.
After briefly appearing on Broadway, she migrated to Hollywood, where she worked as a dancer and as a model for acclaimed artists Alberto Vargas and Man Ray.
Nurmi first appeared as Vampira in a wasp-waisted tight black dress and white pasty makeup for a masquerade ball in Hollywood in 1953; a look that was inspired by Charles Addams’ comics. She caught the attention of a television producer that night who spent months tracking down the mysterious beauty to star as hostess for a horror-film show he was launching.
Nurmi began each episode of The Vampira Show by gliding through a fog-strewn funereal set towards the camera, greeting the audience with a scream that would shame a banshee. She introduced the films with a barrage of mockery and graveyard puns that earned her a small, but fiercely loyal (and mostly male) following. Her shtick was successful enough to earn her an Emmy nomination in 1954 for ‘Most Outstanding Female Personality.”
The Vampira Show ended in 1955 and Nurmi survived being held hostage by a homocidal home invader that same year. She was critically burned in an apartment fire the following year. She recovered and supported herself by making personal appearances and acting in whatever roles she could find.
One of these roles called for her to re-create her Vampira persona for a film that was originally entitled Grave Robbers From Outer Space. By the time the film was released in 1959, the title had changed to Plan Nine From Outer Space from director Ed Wood – a film that gained a worldwide cult-following after it was voted “the worst film ever made.”
Nurmi acted sporadically over the next few decades, and eked out a living by selling antiques and installing linoleum floors. In 1981, she was working to revive the Vampira character for a new television show in Los Angeles but parted ways with the producers when they cast comedienne Cassandra Peterson in the title role with the name “Elvira.” Nurmi later unsuccessfully sued Peterson for cribbing her likeness.
Nurmi was once married to Dean Riesner, who appeared as a child in the Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim (which we will be screening at ChaplinFest in February), and was later the screenwriter of Dirty Harry and Play Misty For Me.
As pointed out in Warren Beath’s great book The Death of James Dean, Nurmi and Dean were once close friends, but had a falling out shortly before Dean’s death.
Nurmi passed away on this date in 2008 at the age of 85. Fans pitched in to buy a marker for her grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which ironically, is situated next to the grave of Darren McGavin (1922-2006) who is best known for his role in television’s The Night Stalker, in which he played a reporter who followed the activities of a modern-day vampire.
January 10th, 2011 at 11:28 am
Great article! Wasn’t Man Ray one of the suspects in the Black Dahlia murder? That’s pretty scary. How interesting too that Nurma actually sued Cassandra Petersen for “stealing” her character. I never knew that! Lots of interesting facts – thank you for another great essay.
January 10th, 2011 at 11:45 pm
What a babe. One of television’s first Femme Fatales, a woman to die for. You couldn’t be sure if she was going to kiss you or kill you. EJ, she reminds of the sort of women you used to date in your single days. Evil, dangerous and just plain nuts but strangely alluring at the same time.
February 24th, 2011 at 8:46 am
[…] McGavin died on February 25, 2006, a day after Knotts and Weaver. He was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in an appropriate spot for a former vampire hunter, as his plot overlooks that of Maila Nurmi, television’s original Vampira. […]