Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark And Movie Macabre Hostess, Then And Now
Anyone who was living in Los Angeles in the 1980s remembers the big black hair, gratuitous puns, and the late-night b-movies of Elvira’s Movie Macabre. As one of the all-time great horror hosts, Elvira turned a kitschy character from a campy local program into one of the most iconic roles of the 20th century.
Even if you weren’t in Los Angeles during the heyday of Elvira’s KHJ-TV show you definitely saw her in convenience stores and on commercials every Halloween. She was a whip-smart comedic presence who brought camp culture to the mainstream while zapping teenage brains with b-movies so bad they should be illegal. She’s the one, the only, Elvira.
Before there was Elvira, there was Cassandra
From a young age -- too young, let's be clear -- Cassandra Peterson was an impressive physical specimen. She worked as a professional dancer in her early teens, then, immediately after graduating high school, she drove from her hometown of Colorado Springs to Las Vegas. There, she became a showgirl in Frederic Apcar's pioneering "Vive Les Girls!" at The Dunes. Peterson told the Huffington Post about her job as a go-go dancer:
I started out as a go-go dancer when I was 14 years old and I did that until I was 17 and I moved to Las Vegas and became the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas history. I think I still hold that record. I started at a club in downtown Colorado Springs called Club A Go Go and then I danced at EM [enlisted members] clubs at Fort Carson and NORAD Air Force Base and all the different Army bases.
While working as a dancer she had a brief dalliance with Elvis Presley, although she says that their friendship was mostly platonic. She explained:
[Elvis] was very innocent. He was surrounded by all of his handlers every second ― he was never alone. We talked all night. He played the piano and we sang together. He had just gotten this belt from the president of the United States, so he was showing me that. We were talking about numerology and astrology and psychic stuff ― he was really into it. I have a bunch of notes that he wrote for me on the back of an envelope that’s addressed to Vernon Presley ― his father.
Following her go-go dancing career in Vegas, she went to Europe where she sang with the bands Latins 80 and The Snails before appearing in the Federico Fellini film Roma in 1972. She continued acting in Europe until she moved to Los Angeles in 1979.
Six years after ‘Fright Night’ ended Elvira was born
It took less than a decade after the end of the local Los Angeles horror show Fright Night for Angelenos to howl into the night for a new horror show. Local station KHJ-TV put out their feelers for a new horror host hoping to cash in on nostalgia and the locals need for something spooky. Initially, they wanted to revive the Vampira character but after negotiations with Malia Nurmi fell through the producers moved on. After winning the role Peterson was tasked with coming up with a look for Elvira, but her first idea wasn’t close to her memorable all-black look. She told the Huffington Post:
I got together with [Robert Redding] and I started coming up with all kinds of sketches and thoughts about what the character could look like. Our first character looked kind of like Sharon Tate looked in The Fearless Vampire Killers ― a sheer, long, tattered dress and kind of a ghost girl with long red curly hair. The local station said, ‘You have to be in all black,’ so we went back to the drawing board.
She's got the look
Elvira isn't just a classic goth girl who strolls through a fog of dry ice while talking about horror movies, she's also a gloriously over the top valley girl without an off switch. She’s a super goth in a tight-fitting, black outfit with cleavage for decades, but she talks like an extra from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even though she sounds like a total airhead she somehow has an encyclopedic knowledge of Roger Corman and Lloyd Kaufman films. Peterson said that she got the idea for Elvira’s character from a close source, herself. She explained:
I figured out that Elvira is me when I was a teenager. She's a spastic girl. I just say what I feel and people seem to enjoy it.
Elvira had the first 3D show on television
While Elvira is mostly thought of as a lowbrow character from a sexy show that aired nasty little movies, she actually did a lot of fun and interesting stuff. In 1982, an episode of her show playing The Mad Magician aired in 3D and it was a total cash cow for the station. As lucrative as the episode was, Peterson says that she didn’t make much cash from the whole deal:
I did the first 3D television show that had ever been broadcast and they sold 3D glasses at 7-Eleven. I think they sold the glasses for $3 a pair and the show only aired in LA and I think they sold something like 2.7 million pairs of glasses. So multiply that by three ― that’s a lot of money ― and I got ... $350 dollars! So when people say I cheated the station out of the rights, I say, 'I don’t think so.'
Elvira’s stunning bits
More so than her sultry look, Elvira’s known for her over the top antics. She may look like the centerfold for the Transylvanian edition of Playboy but she jokes like a borscht belt standup comic. She delivered most of her bits from her red Victorian couch surrounded by candelabras while interspersing the jabs she made at the expense of the audience with clips from exploitation movies.
Elvira also had a pseudo sidekick played by John Paragon called “The Breather,” a creep who called in to tell awful jokes in a weird, breathy voice. He went on to play Jambi the Genie on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
When she wasn’t making fun of the audience or dealing with The Breather she was making thinly veiled puns about her biggest assets.
Everyone wants a piece of Elvira
If you’re not a horror head or a gorehound then it’s likely that you know Elvira more as an idea than a mainstream presence. She’s more famous for her cameos in major properties or as a 7-Eleven cardboard cutout than she is as a headliner. While that might sound like a drag for such a talented performer, Peterson doesn’t care about the way it makes her look - she may dress in black but she’s all about the green.
Even if you’ve never seen a moment of Elvira’s Movie Macabre you know her from something. Whether its TV shows like CHiPs or Wrestlemania 2 or from her super popular Coors Lite commercials.
It's Good To Be The Queen
Peterson told the Huffington Post how she became the most wealthy goth of all time:
We still own the character ― 100 percent. It’s a fantastic advantage. Usually, any actor who plays a popular character on something like Star Trek or whatever show, they don’t have any control over their licensing and merchandising. They may get a small percentage, but in general, it’s just pennies on each item. I get it all. Whenever you see something that features Elvira, I’m making the money off of it. That’s why when people say to me, ‘Don’t you feel typecast? Don’t you want to stop playing Elvira?’ I say, ‘Hell to the no! Are you out of your mind?’