Elvira's World

Cassandra Peterson is pushing 60 and still Mistress of the Dark

That gig ended when the park outsourced the production to a new company that, according to Peterson, “couldn’t afford my fee, and I wasn’t willing to do the same show for, like, half the money.”

On Halloween 1992, in between Knott’s performances, she made a cameo on U2’s Zoo TV tour, bantering with Bono via satellite. She shot a sitcom pilot for CBS that never made it to air (Peterson told The Onion that after one network VP watched the show, he said, “Uh, we can’t show those kinds of tits on TV”). She launched a line of Elvira-branded haunted houses. She narrated a series of documentaries about B-movies, as well as “Ketchup Vampires,” an animated film about vegetarian bloodsuckers. She guest-starred on TV shows as diverse as Nash Bridges and Space Ghost. She hosted a special about Goth clubs for the E! Network. She wrote and starred in two Elvira feature films: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Elvira’s Haunted Hills.

“People think I have been retired in a trailer in Pacoima,” Peterson says. “But, in fact, I run a rather large merchandising-and-licensing business. Elvira has a lot of spin-off items and licensing and appearances to support the licensing. It’s still year-round, full-time Elvira.”

Kevin Scanlon
Kevin Scanlon

She laughs, incredulous that someone might have the impression she’s been taking it easy. “I don’t do anything else!”

For most of her career, Peterson was part of a very small team overseeing Elvira’s full-time exploitation. From Elvira’s TV debut through the mid-’00s, Pierson served as Peterson’s manager, and together, the couple built a business “and were really running it, just the two of us,” Peterson says. “It was a very mom-and-pop kind of thing.” (They literally became Mom and Pop with the birth of daughter Sadie in 1994.) When Peterson and Pierson split in 2003, she got “custody” of Elvira.

The new Movie Macabre meta-riffs on Elvira’s assumed obsolescence, as well as the gamble Peterson is taking by going it alone. At the start of the first episode, Elvira picks up a newspaper and finds herself listed in the obituaries, presumed dead after having “faded silently into oblivion.“ (“She was more than just a great set of boobs,” remembers her manager. “She was also an incredible pair of legs!”) In order to prove that she’s very much alive, Elvira comes to the conclusion that she must, after a 20-year absence, return to TV.

“It’s kind of like Wayne’s World—she decides to just shoot it from her basement. She decides, ‘If I am ever going to do this, I gotta do it myself.’ Which is, actually, exactly what happened!” Peterson says with a laugh. “I was never really shooting in my basement, but I was, like, ‘If I’m going to do this show, I pretty much have to produce it, finance it and get it together myself.’ And so I found this team of people, I took my savings and just paid for the whole thing, and I’m doing it.

“It’s like life imitating art,” she adds. “Or vice versa.”

*     *     *

The Movie Macabre crew is taping the season’s third episode, in which the Elvira bits edited into the 1962 sci-fi turkey The Brain That Wouldn’t Die nod to economic desperation. Flat-busted (wink, wink), Elvira is in need of some quick cash, so she appears on a number of game shows. Peterson rehearses a Press Your Luck spoof (“big busts, big busts, no whammys!”), reading lines off of a small TelePrompTer duct-taped to a cardboard box at her feet. A crew of 10 mostly young dudes putters about. The director is about half the star’s age. In between takes, the sound guy plays Words With Friends on his iPhone.

Ted Biaselli, Peterson’s writing partner, is practicing a lighting effect that involves waving two flashlights in circles. When the camera rolls, he’ll point the flashlights at Peterson’s face, but for now, he’s aiming them at her cleavage. Peterson looks down and cracks, “It’s like Tinker Bell just landed on my tits.” The crew snickers.

There’s little room for such on-the-set improvisation to make it into the finished product. The new Movie Macabre hews closely to the original’s formula and lo-fi production process. Biaselli and Peterson improv back and forth during the script-writing process, during which Peterson often watches the old films several times, but they come to the new shoot with a locked script. They tape only on Saturdays—in part, because Biaselli is busy during the week as a creative executive at the Hub, Discovery and Hasbro’s about-to-launch cable network for kids—and they need to get through two episodes each shooting day. The workload is rigorous enough they’re potentially behind schedule before they even begin.

“I’m getting nervous,” Peterson tells the director while waiting for the green light on the day’s first shot. “I don’t want to be here at 3 in the morning.”

“Cue fog!” the director yells. The first take rolls at around 12:30 p.m. Peterson has been there for two and a half hours, which is how long it takes her to become Elvira.

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