Six years after the death of Larry Vincent, who starred as Horror Host “Sinister Seymour” on “Fright Night” on KHJ-TV in Los Angeles, producers began the task of rebuilding the show in 1981.
They decided to go with a female host and went to the original hostess of horror films, Maila Nurmi, to see about reviving “The Vampira Show” with a new actress portraying the vamp. Nurmi worked on the show for a little while, but it didn’t work out when they would not hire her choice to play Vampira—Lola Falana.
So the station sent out a casting call and after seeing around 200 potential hosts, picked Cassandra Peterson to be their host. They left it up to her to create the image. Cassandra and her best friend, Robert Redding, based their original look on Sharon Tate’s character from “The Fearless Vampire Killers”. Tate was a red-head in that role and a vampire waif.
When the producers balked and told her to wear black instead, they came up with the sexy punk/vampire look and gave her the “Valley Girl” mannerisms and speech patterns. And so “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” was born.
Born in Kansas, Cassandra Peterson grew up in Randolph, until the area was flooded intentionally to created Tuttle Creek Reservoir. Cassandra had severe burns over 30% of her body as a toddler when she overturned boiling water onto herself and had to have skin grafts. This may be why that at an early age, she was fascinated with horror-themed toys over the usual dolls that girls usually played with at her age.
By her teens, Peterson was a go-go dancer at a local gay bar. Right after High School graduation, she drove to Las Vegas and became a showgirl at “The Dunes” where she met Elvis Presley, who encouraged her to pursue a singing career.
In the early ‘70s, Peterson moved to Italy and was the lead singer of two Italian rock bands “I Latins Ochanats” and “The Snails”. At this time, she ran into Federico Fellini on the street and he invited her to be in his movie “Roma” in a small role because she reminded him of his wife. She had a tiny role as a showgirl in the James Bond film “Diamonds are Forever”, played a topless dancer in “The Working Girls” and probably posed for the cover of Tom Waits’ album, “Small Change”. Peterson doesn’t really remember doing it, but admits that it looks like her.
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Back in the states in nightclubs and discos, she toured with a musical/comedy act, “Mammas Boys”. By 1979, she joined “The Groundlings” in L.A. where she created the persona of her Valley girl character who would eventually become Elvira. In 1981, she auditioned for the third “Gilligan’s Island” TV movie in the role of Ginger Grant, just before KHJ-TV offered her the horror host position. She was also a radio personality on KROQ from ’82-83.
The popularity and notoriety of Elvira and “Movie Macabre”grew rapidly with her tight-fitting, low-cut, cleavage-displaying black gown and satirical, sarcastic edge—she specialized in double entendres and ratings soared. She hosted the show from 1981-1985 and did several specials. Elvira was the first nationally syndicated TV Horror Host.
Soon the character evolved from cult figure to a brand and by the mid-1980s and well into the ‘90s Elvira was associated with costumes, comic books, action figures, pinball machines, model kits, calendars, beer, trading cards, perfume and dolls.
At he height of her popularity in 1988, the feature film “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” was released. Co-written by Peterson, the movie featured Elvira inheriting all of her late great-aunt Morgana’s earthly possessions: a home in the most conservative town in the country, Fallwell, Massachusetts, a poodle that may not be what it seems and a spellbook that Elvira mistakes for a cookbook. Hijinks, of course, ensue.
In 2014, Elvira is hosting “13 Nights of Elvira” for Hulu—beginning October 19th through Halloween. This series features all new material and some of the films are: “Cannibal Women in the Avacado Jungle of Death”, “Evil Bong”, “Seed People”, “Shrunken Heads” and on Halloween itself George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”.
Here’s Elvira’s 1986 MTV Halloween Special, care of a fella named Rockula and the power of VHS (beware the blur—I guess the signal was a bit top heavy):
In 1993, CBS did a pilot for a weekly sitcom for Elvira,
but it was a bust…
And now Elvira has a new song and video called “Two Big Pumpkins” written by Fred Schneider of the B-52s and Third Man Records released it onto the unsuspecting public—the single features heat-reactive ink on the sleeve that reveals Elvira when warmed:
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