By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
At 17, Cassandra Peterson left her Colorado home and headed straight for Las Vegas, where she soon became Sin City’s youngest showgirl. Before she was old enough to legally vote, smoke or drink, she had made out with both Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. At 22, she was fronting a rock band in Italy and met Federico Fellini on the street; he told her she resembled his wife and gave her a bit part in Roma. By 1981, Peterson was living in Hollywood, a 30-year-old, struggling would-be starlet. While honeymooning out of town with her new husband, Mark Pierson, Peterson got a call from a girlfriend insisting that she hurry home to LA—local TV-station KHJ was looking for a sexy, funny chick to host its long-running showcase of cheesy old horror movies. Peterson—a sexy, funny chick with a long-standing thing for Vincent Price—was obviously perfect for the part. But Peterson told the friend, “I’m not coming back from my honeymoon just for that!”
When she did get back to LA, Peterson showed up at KHJ, mocked the script they gave her in the voice of a Valley girl character she had been practicing at the Groundlings, and landed the role of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the host of the late-night horror-movie series Movie Macabre.
“I wasn’t, like, ‘Oh, yay, I got the greatest job in the world,’” Peterson says today. “I was, like, ‘Oh, I guess this is something I can do. It only takes one day a week, and it [pays] $300, and I can go look for other acting work during the week.’”
The gig’s saving grace, she figured, was that at least no one would recognize her out of costume. At least no one would associate Cassandra Peterson, Serious Actress, with that tacky thing she did on TV.
But then a funny thing happened: Part Goth Playmate, part winking mall trash with a dazzling command of ultrabawdy double entendre, an alternative pinup and self-sufficient postfeminist dame, Elvira became a sensation. Peterson not only hung on for the ride, but she also funneled her ambition into steering Elvira toward a business model that, at its peak, reportedly grossed seven figures per year.
By 1982, Elvira’s Movie Macabre was airing in dozens of markets nationwide. That same year, Peterson shot an episode in 3-D, making her the first person to be broadcast over American airwaves in three dimensions. By 1988, Air Force pilots had nicknamed the Stealth Bomber’s computer system “Elvira.” The character’s reach also extended to less stealthy weapons: In 1998, Time reported that “when Monica Lewinsky worked in the White House, she had nicknames. One was Elvira—a snickering reference to Lewinsky’s big, black hair, her fondness for tight, chest-hugging outfits, and her coquettish demeanor.” In response to that revelation, Elvira quipped, “At least I wash my little black dress once in a while.”
Twelve years later, on a tiny set thrown together in a high-ceilinged office in West LA, Peterson is poised on a red-velvet faux-Victorian parlor sofa in the classic Elvira position—legs splayed to her right, one hand planted in front of her hips, body bent in half at a right angle, into a backward L. This pose is such a key part of the character’s persona that, chances are, it was the first image that came to mind when you read the name Elvira at the top of this story, and as such, Peterson must have arranged her limbs according to these coordinates thousands of times. But it’s apparently not as easy as it looks. “Cassandra, do you need anything?” an assistant calls out from off-set. “Water, coffee?”
Through gritted teeth, the actress responds, “I need to get out of this position as soon as possible.”
Peterson is back in Elvira drag—back on the blood-red sofa, back in that agonizing position, back assuming the role of, as Elvira refers to herself, “the piece everyone’s dying to rest in”—because she’s coming back to TV. More than 20 years after the first iteration of Movie Macabre faded from the airwaves, 59-year-old Peterson is writing, producing, financing and starring in a new Movie Macabre, which launches in national syndication on Sept. 25.
Though it may seem like a long-delayed second act for Peterson, Elvira never really went away. Having acquired the rights to the character from KHJ early on (“We kept asking if I could get a raise,” Peterson remembers, “and in lieu of a raise, they would give me some rights, and you know—eventually I had all the rights!”), Peterson quickly realized that leaving Elvira behind would mean walking away from a potential fortune. “Every time I make a licensing deal or do a show, I get 100 percent of the proceeds. So I thought, ‘Why the hell am I trying to do something else?’ Go work for Universal and get paid a dime on a dollar? It just didn’t make sense.”