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.”
Post-Movie Macabre, Peterson launched Elvira video games, comic books, a microbrew, a pinball machine and a perfume (called—what else?—“Evil”). For 21 years, she performed a live revue every October at Knott’s Scary Farm for what she calls “an enormous amount of money—and I have to say, I deserved it because I worked three or four shows a night for practically 30 days in a row.”
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.”
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.
“It’s kind of really slow and intense,” Peterson says. “First, I have to put on a lot of white makeup to cover all my body parts, all the parts that are showing—quite a large area,” she says and chuckles. She does her own makeup (“I gotta do it myself ’cause people don’t know how to do it!”), touching herself up with a hand mirror between takes. “The thing that takes me the longest is actually doing the eye makeup—there’s a lot of shading. And there are a couple of wigs, lots of eyelashes; I think I wear four pairs now. And then, getting into the Dress.”
The Dress is legend, a marvel of modern engineering. For nearly 30 years, Elvira has worn versions of the same slinky black gown, cut ridiculously low up top, slit unthinkably high on the thigh, cinched impossibly tight at the waist and held there by a girlish utility belt, which, these days, she buckles with a petite dagger. The Elvira Dress, or some variation of it, is one of the all-time top-selling Halloween costumes—the original and now-default slut-next-door look. But when Peterson wears it, the dress is more than simply sexy—and not just because of the secret-weapon push-up bra she sports underneath. That dress and that body paired with Elvira’s over-the-top, hokey, rib-nudging humor create a creature that’s at once sexy and a gloriously silly, over-the-top mockery of the notion that female sexuality could be threatening.
Her figure is indistinguishable from the Elvira cardboard cutouts that Coors planted in 7-Elevens nationwide when Peterson was its spokeswoman in the late ’80s to mid-’90s. Peterson’s comeback isn’t a Betty White-esque embrace of age as kitsch; it’s also not really about asking Elvira’s original audience to tap into their nostalgia. Peterson hopes that by re-creating Elvira as she was—confirming the alter ego’s status as a live-action cartoon character who rarely changes clothes and doesn’t age—she can introduce Elvira to younger generations and thereby lay the groundwork for Elvira to continue on without Peterson, indefinitely.
Elvira’s beyond-iconic look wasn’t Peterson’s first choice for the character. Her longtime best friend, Robert Redding, who died of AIDS in 1986, sketched the Morticia Addams-meets-Ronnie Spector template for Elvira when KHJ rejected Peterson’s initial concept. “I had really long red hair, and I loved that [Roman Polanski] movie Fearless Vampire Killers. I loved Sharon Tate. I wanted a really pale, ghostly look: big, dark eyes and white lips—like a dead girl. And they didn’t like that at all. They said, ‘No, it has to be black hair; you have to have a black dress.’
“It was a bummer because later, Vampira gets all geared about it. Like, excuse me, that’s not even a costume I wanted to do.”
By Vampira, Peterson means Maila Nurmi, the circa-1950s pinup model-turned-local TV horror host (and later, co-star of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space), whose spooky-sexpot shtick preceded Elvira’s, although Peterson has always claimed the similarities in the characters come from both actresses ripping off Charles Addams’ Morticia. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times ran a story sympathetic to Nurmi’s claims that she was forced to live on Social Security checks while Peterson made big bucks off a stolen act. Nurmi said KHJ had initially contacted her about doing a new show and negotiated over specifics for three months, but when Nurmi declined to sign over the rights to the Vampira character, she was shut out and Peterson was brought in. Nurmi filed a lawsuit against the Elvira camp the following year. “Boy, has the devil got that bitch—it’s the devil in her blood,” Nurmi said of Peterson in a 2005 interview with Bizarre magazine. “Initially, they wanted me. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want Vampira to be anything but perfect. I certainly didn’t want her to be portrayed as a slut.”
In August 1989, the Times reported that Nurmi’s own lawyers had petitioned to withdraw from the appeal because Nurmi was no longer responding to attempts to contact her; a District Court decided in favor of Peterson that same year. Nurmi died in 2008—and apparently remained bitter to the end.
Nurmi might have had a legitimate claim, but the way she handled it—painting herself as a victim of both Hollywood’s neglect and the opportunism of a sell-out “slut” and “bitch”—only underscored the difference between Vampira and Elvira. Peterson is nothing but proud of her shameless self-promotion and ancillary market reach—not to mention Elvira’s sexual bravado. And I can’t imagine that either Elvira or the actress who plays her would ever let a rival stand in her way or let herself assume the role of victim.
“Elvira was never rescued,” Peterson says. “She always wanted a guy to rescue her; she’s really horny and always after the hunky kind of guys—but she was always the one who had to do it herself. I think it’s kind of a good role model for women, you know? And I get letters from girls like crazy. It’s all so goofy and silly, but they still like that I don’t take any crap from people.”
And the men? Mention Elvira to a straight male between the ages of 25 and 45, and he’ll smile and sheepishly admit the Mistress of the Dark’s role in his sexual fantasies of long ago. “So many people tell us, ‘I had two posters in my teenage bedroom,’” says Courtney Smith, one of the new Movie Macabre’s publicists. “‘Claudia Schiffer on one wall, Elvira on the other.’”
That Peterson has become the subject of sexual fantasies is a kind of neat revenge for a woman who was once made to feel like a freak. “Pretty people don’t have to be funny, you know,” she says. “You can go into comedy being really overweight, have bad acne.”
Or covered with scar tissue. As a child, Peterson was playing in her family’s kitchen and accidentally tipped over a pot of boiling water. She was left with burns covering 35 percent of her body. Much of the skin hidden by the Dress is still scarred. “I had bad scars, and I was made fun of all the time when I was a kid,” she says. “I used humor as a way of getting around it.”
She also sought escape in the very same films she’d eventually mockingly present as Elvira. “If I weren’t into horror movies, I would never do this show—I have to watch way too many of them. When I was really little, my favorites were all the movies that star Vincent Price, that Roger Corman did. House on Haunted Hill was my No. 1—I had recurring nightmares for, like, a year. But I loved them. I wanted to go all the time. I was really into Twilight Zone and The Addams Family. Addams family versus the Munsters family—it’s like the Beatles or Stones; you have to pick one side.”
It’s no wonder Elvira has become an idol for disenfranchised youth. “People come up to me at conventions and say, ‘I was such an outcast; I felt like such a geek, and when I saw you, you made me feel like such a normal person.’ It’s my favorite thing to hear because that’s how I felt when I was a kid. If Goth had been around, I would’ve definitely been Goth. But there wasn’t such a thing, so I was just weird.”
* * *
“The duplicitous doctor is doing something devious.”
On set, Peterson flubs her first few takes and is flustered. “God, what is wrong with me?” she mutters. “Not a good way to start out here.”
But soon she finds her groove, impressively spitting out the script’s many tongue twisters. By the second setup, she’s essentially directing from within the frame, occasionally consulting Biaselli on line readings. The actual director’s field of jurisdiction seems limited to the camera man and the guy manning the fog machine.
Peterson seems to be thriving in the DIY environment. After nearly 30 years of accepting some degree of compromise—with KHJ, which was simultaneously tight with money and apathetic about expanding the Elvira business; with corporations such as Coors, which hired Elvira as its spokeswoman, well-aware of her image, only to ask her to cover up her cleavage; with ex-husband/ex-manager Pierson—Peterson seems to get a kick out of her newfound total control.
“The bad part is I don’t have the money of a giant studio behind me,” Peterson muses. “The good part is I don’t have the money of a studio behind me. When they give you a lot of money, that buys them the right to say what you do and how you do it. You either get the money and you don’t have the say-so, or you get no money and you have all the say in the world, but you can’t afford to do what you want.”
The two Elvira movies, polar-opposite experiences, taught her that difference. Mistress of the Dark was funded by NBC and was to be distributed through a company called New World. Peterson wrote the script with John Paragon, a fellow Groundling alum who had been a key writer on Movie Macabre and played Jambi the Genie on Pee-wee’s Playhouse (he’s currently working with Paul Reubens on the upcoming Pee-wee Broadway show). Team Elvira was hoping the film would function as “a backdoor pilot,” which could lead to an NBC sitcom. “There were a lot of daily fights about ‘Can we do this, can we do that, can we NOT do that?’” Peterson recalls. “We wrote a whole movie with no teenagers in it, and suddenly, NBC comes in and says, ‘Well, if you’re gonna market this to teenagers, you have to have teenagers in the movie.’ I loved doing that movie, but I fought viciously over it.” In the midst of filing for bankruptcy, New World dumped the film on just 150 screens in September 1988. Needless to say, the NBC sitcom never materialized.
Despite the fights and financial failure, Peterson is proud of Mistress—as well she should be: a freaks-liberate-repressed-small-town flick gloriously fueled by Peterson’s feel for the themes of outsider angst and horror-as-escape, it plays today like the apotheosis of the character.
Meanwhile, on Haunted Hills, Peterson “had all the freedom in the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the money!”
Not a sequel to Mistress of the Dark, but rather an homage to Peterson’s much-loved Corman/Price flicks, Hills shot in Romania in 2000, with Peterson again co-writing and starring and Pierson producing, on a budget of $1 million—a fraction of the cost of Mistress. Peterson and Pierson were all in on this one: They mortgaged their LA home and borrowed money from his parents to help finance the film, managing both the production and the film’s limited theatrical and DVD release themselves. In an interview with Lesbian News in 2002, shortly before the film opened, Peterson admitted Hills represented her and Pierson’s nest egg. “I’m tellin’ ya, if this movie doesn’t go, we’ll be livin’ out of the car,” she said. “Or I’ll have to be Elvira until I’m 90.”
“Pretty much, it cost me all my money and my marriage,” Peterson says today, with another self-deprecating laugh. “I mean, that alone didn’t cost me my marriage, but it certainly put a serious strain on an already-strained relationship. I did make my money back, but it’s a long, hard, drawn-out process, and I don’t think anybody who hasn’t done it understands what an independent-film producer goes through. It’s insane. I’ll never do that again.”
The split with Pierson, Peterson says, affected her life and career “kind of in a good way. I would never do that kind of relationship again, and I would never suggest to anybody to ever do that.” She laughs. “Because it’s 24 hours a day [of] work! You never have any leisure time together. Even going out on a date night, leaving the kid at home—on the date, all you do is talk about work.
“You know, I think it’s the woman holding up most relationships,” Peterson muses. “When you’re trying to work as hard as, uh, most men do, it gets really hard.”
In full control of the character postdivorce, Peterson was looking to do something to protect and extend Elvira’s legacy. “I had this grand idea that Elvira’s kind of the Santa Claus of Halloween—at the malls, you’d have an Elvira there. Girls would dress as Elvira just like guys dress as Santa Claus, and it’s not the real thing, but they’ll pose for pictures, sign autographs. Of course, I couldn’t go around to every mall, so we’d have to get more Elviras.”
The Search for the Next Elvira premiered on Fox Reality in October 2007. A competition in which Peterson and two male Elvira impersonators (“Manivras”) held American Idol-style auditions (cue montage of 20-something suicide girl-style wannabes struggling to pronounce “macabre”) and put an “Unlucky 13” through the paces of challenges—shilling Elvira-branded products, improvising bawdy double entendre. Viewers voted in the final round and chose April Wahlin, a then-24-year-old from San Diego. Peterson put her to work, with mixed results.
“She was very sweet. I hate to say, it was sad,” Peterson recalls. “We sent her out to some places, like Oklahoma for parades and stuff. It was horrible. People wanted the ‘real’ Elvira. So even though we charged the bargain-basement price for her, they were just not wanting it.”
The reality show still managed to infuse the Elvira franchise with new life—in an unexpected way: It was there that Peterson met Biaselli, who is an integral part of the new Macabre. After the two worked together on a subsequent Halloween special, Biaselli says, “I told her, ‘There’s no reason why you can’t do 13 of these.’ She was, like, ‘13? I’m gonna do 26! Gotta sell it internationally!’”
“We are of one mind,” Biaselli says. “I go to work, I write, I sleep, and on my day off, I go to work with Cassandra. This is my happy time.”
* * *
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Peterson calls a few days after the shoot. She tells me about the “mutual-admiration club” she has with Jack White, who offered her an instrumental version of the Black Belles’ “What Can I Do?” for Macabre’s theme song. “Like, every friend of mine just pitched in and helped me out with this show because they know that there’s no budget,” she says and laughs.
So what happens, I ask, if the show doesn’t take off? Will you really be forced to squeeze into the Dress when you’re 90?
“I really, really would like to retire in about a year from now,” she says wistfully. In 2011, Peterson turns 60, while Elvira celebrates her 30-year anniversary. “Ahhh, but that really depends on what’s going on with the character. I’d rather go out when I’m on top and not when I’m, like, pathetic.
“I just have to wait and see how it plays out. But,” says the freak show-turned-showgirl-turned-global brand, “It would be nice to have a life.”