Tag Archives: vampira

Three’s Company

Do celebrities really die in threes?

To some, it’s a universal law. To others, it’s just sloppy thinking applied to a statistical likelihood with all the famous people walking around these days.

Each camp draws different conclusions to the same evidence, like in late June, 2009, with the wave of celebrity deaths that took place around the passing of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

Another such grouping happened five years ago this week with the triple-deaths of the three-D’s – Darren McGavin, Dennis Weaver, and Don Knotts – within 24 hours.

Darren McGavin, the first to be born and the last to die, spent much of his youth in the Pacific Northwest either homeless or living in orphanages. He began his Hollywood career as a painter on the Columbia lot where he secured a bit role in a film before moving to New York to hone the craft of acting.

He eventually starred in seven television series, most notably in Kolchak: The Night Stalker in the early 70s, playing a modern-day vampire hunter. His most famous film role came in 1983’s A Christmas Story, where he played the grumpy father with the kitschy leg lamp.

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.

Dennis Weaver was raised in Missouri where he wanted to be an actor from an early age. He committed to the profession after failing to make the 1948 U.S. Olympic decathlon team. His acting career was secured when he landed the role of Chester, Matt Dillon’s deputy, in the long-running Western series Gunsmoke in 1955.

Weaver was often seen on television throughout the rest of his career, including starring roles in Gentle Ben in 1967 and McCloud in 1970. He also starred in the Steven Spielberg thriller Duel in 1971.

Weaver and his wife Gerry had one of the most successful marriages in Hollywood history, lasting from 1945 until his death. He was an advocate for the environment and a major supporter of several progressive causes. He died from lung cancer on February 24, 2006.

Don Knotts, like Weaver, was born in the summer of 1924.

Knotts came from West Virginia and began his stage career as a ventriloquist. In 1958, he appeared alongside Andy Griffith in the film No Time For Sergeants, which began a lifelong friendship and professional relationship between the two men.

Knotts later got regular work on television on Three’s Company and other shows, and in several classic screen comedies like The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Pleasantville, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (“Atta boy, Luther!”). 

But to the millions of fans who still regularly transport themselves to the town of Mayberry in the country of TV Land, Knotts will forever be Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. Barney, with his Napoleon complex and single bullet, was just about the funniest character to ever appear on a television set.

It was fitting that both Knotts and Weaver died on the same day, since they both became famous playing deputies. As one blogger wrote back in 2006, “it looks like a bad week to be an ex-law enforcement sidekick.”

It was a bad week for us all.

I never met any of these men, so I can’t vouch for their real-life personalities, but thanks to the wonderful characters they played, it’s impossible for me to bring any of them to mind without breaking into a smile.

 

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The Dark’s First Mistress

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.

Kimi at the grave of Maila Nurmi. Darren McGavin's' tomb is behind her at the left of the photo.


Hail, the Sultan of Schlock!

You rarely hear him described this way, but Ed Wood was an American success story. Wood, the angora sweater-wearing film producer, director, writer, editor, and actor, died on this date in 1978 at the age of 54.

With buckets of desire (and thimbles of talent) he was able to carve out a noted Hollywood career that culminated in a pinnacle of sorts, when he was awarded the Golden Turkey Award as the “Worst Director of All Time.” While certainly not the type of superlative you aim for in a movie career, it has insured Wood a certain cinematic immortality.

Wood was born in New York to a civil servant father and a mother who dressed him in girls clothes until he was twelve. He would remain a cross-dresser for the rest of his life. He served honorably as a Marine in World War II, often wearing panties and a bra beneath his uniform. After the war he joined a carnival where he worked as a freak show performer dressed in drag as a bearded lady.

Wood made it to Hollywood in the late 40s, and first made news as the director, writer, and star of Glen or Glenda?, an exploitation film about transvestitism. Wood appeared in the title roles, donning a skirt, blonde wig, and angora sweater while playing Glen’s alter-ego Glenda. (Wood, who was straight, loved wearing angora and even used “Ann Gora” as a penname.)

Wood assembled an eclectic and eccentric stock company of Hollywood has-beens and never-weres, including Vampira (Maila Nurmi), Tor Johnson, Lyle Talbot, Bunny Beckinridge, television psychic Criswell, and Bela Lugosi, who was by this time a morphine addict. The troupe appeared in a bevy of Wood’s no-budget “classics” over the next few years, like Bride of the Monster, Jail Bait, and The Sinister Urge.

Wood’s “magnum-opus” is undoubtedly Plan Nine From Outer Space, which he shot over five days in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. The money for the film came from a Southern Baptist church, whose trustees required that Wood and his actors be baptized first into the congregation.

Plan Nine is a story about a race of invading aliens who animate the dead to take over Earth. It has cardboard special effects, terrible acting, and even worse dialogue and direction. It’s so mind-bogglingly bad that it’s brilliant! It’s one of my favorite films.

Wood’s “career” died along with his biggest star, Bela Lugosi. He ended up making smut films around Hollywood until his death. But an auteur like Wood could never be completely forgotten.

In 1994, Tim Burton directed the hilarious film Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp as Wood, and Martin Landau (in an Academy Award winning performance) as Bela Lugosi. Two years later, the “Church of Ed Wood,” a legally-sanctioned religion, was formed by a Sacramento man. Today, the church has over 3000 members, who are known as “Woodites, who were all baptized on-line. The organization’s motto is, “Healing souls and wearing panties since 1996.”


Ed Wood’s New “Plan”

Just when you thought it was safe to don a pair of 3D glasses. …

It’s been announced that cross-dressing auteur Ed Wood’s 1959 schlocky science fiction film Plan Nine From Outer Space is being re-released to theaters sometime this summer in a colorized 3D format.

All I can say is: What took them so long?

Plan Nine is often called the worst movie ever made and contains all the elements of an anti-classic masterpiece: bad direction, terrible acting, a story that’s meaningless, cheesy special effects, and dialogue that’s unintelligible. But instead of being a “worst movie ever” candidate, the accolade the film should garner is “the most hilarious movie ever made that wasn’t supposed to be.”

Plan Nine is so bad that it’s hard to believe that it was ever meant to be taken seriously. Several of the scenes are so unintentionally hysterical that you imagine it being a spoof of bad 50s sci-fi films, rather than simply being one. I have seen dozens of “great films” that were yawners. Plan Nine is never boring. In fact, it’s fantastic.

Plan Nine “starred” some of Ed Wood’s usual suspects, including permanent Newhall resident Tor Johnson (he’s interred in Eternal Valley Cemetery) and one-time James Dean gal-pal Vampira (Maila Nurmi). Wood, whose ambition outpaced his talent, reportedly made the film for $60,000. He must have been spent the lion’s share of the budget on angora sweaters, because the money’s not found on the screen.

The film was partially shot at the Pioneer Cemetery in San Fernando and nearby in front of Tor Johnson’s house. I am currently working with some great ladies from their historical society to show the movie at the cemetery later this year as a fundraiser for the preservation of the grounds. Keep checking here for details: www.scvhs.org

Incidentally, a documentary on the making of another Tor Johnson offering, The Beast of Yucca Flats (which was filmed in Saugus), will be packaged in an upcoming “Mystery Science Theater 3000” set.

The Beast of Yucca Flats, in case you’re wondering, is the worst film ever made.