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Vampira, The First Horror Host: Her Short, Frustrating Story

Icons | June 9, 2019

Left: Vampira, nee Maila Nurmi, drinking from a smoking cocktail glass in front of a spider-web. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Right: Vampira on a lobby card for Plan 9 From Outer Space. Source: (wrongsideoftheart.com)

TV horror host Vampira's 1955 show Dig Me Later, Vampira was groundbreaking, though the actress (born Maila Nurmi) is more commonly known for Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). In Ed Wood's schlocky sci-fi B-movie about aliens attacking the Earth with reanimated corpses (or something like that), the only real standout performance is that of Vampira, whose impossibly small waist, crooked fingernails, and jet black hair gave her an otherworldly appearance that goth girls are still replicating. 

And speaking of replication -- if you note a strong resemblance between Cassandra Peterson's Elvira character and Vampira, you're not alone. Nurmi would end up suing Peterson for stealing her act, without success.

During the golden age of Hollywood bright-eyed hopefuls came from all over the country to try their hand at the movie business. Instead of stardom many of them were left broke and destitute on the west coast. Malia Nurmi managed to forge her own way through Hollywood, and even though she never got the credit she deserved during her lifetime she’s since become a horror icon. 

Malia Nurmi Moved To Los Angeles Right After High School

Source: (pinterest.com)

Not much is known about Nurmi’s early life aside from the fact that she was born in 1922. She claims to have been born in Finland, although her biographer notes that she was likely born in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She and her family moved frequently before settling in a Finnish community in the Pacific Northwest, however, the moment she graduated from high school in 1940 she high tailed it for Los Angeles.

Los Angeles did not greet Nurmi with open arms. She worked as a background actor in films like If Winter Comes and Romance on the High Seas, but those parts led nowhere. At the same time, she was modeling for modern photographers like Man Ray and doing odd jobs around town. After a brief period of performing in a horror-themed burlesque troupe as a proto-Vampira, Nurmi returned to Hollywood to once again try her hand at show business. 

Nurmi Turns Heads On Halloween

Source: (pinterest.com)

Nurmi wanted to make a splash when she returned to Hollywood. In 1953 the best place to be seen and hopefully discovered was at the Halloween party of fashion designer Lester Horton. His party, the Bad Caribe, was where the coolest of the cool hung out on October 31, including luminaries in the underground “gay mafia.” The parties were high camp, so Nurmi decided to attend as a tarted-up version of the female character in Charles Addams' famous New Yorker cartoons -- it would be over a decade before the character would receive the name "Morticia Addams," for the Addams Family sitcom.

Her sexed-up Morticia Addams turned plenty of heads that night, but most importantly she caught the attention of Hunt Stromberg Jr., a producer for Los Angeles’ KABC-TV. At the time he was looking for a way to show a collection of cheapo horror movies, but he knew no one would watch them without a gimmick. Nurmi, in her sexy vampire costume, was a walking gimmick. 

Vampira Takes America By Storm

Source: (pinterest.com)

Premiering on April 30, 1954, Dig Me Later, Vampira was a truly groundbreaking television show. Prior to Nurmi’s show, no one had ever commented about bad movies, or stopped films to make jokes at the expense of the poor production. The series was a hit across the Los Angeles area, and a subsequent Life magazine photoshoot catapulted Nurmi to national stardom.

Little footage of the series survived, but what does exist shows Nurmi completely throwing herself into the role of Vampira. She screams at the top of her lungs during the show’s opening, and throughout the show, she tosses off pun-filled bon mots that would make the Crypt Keeper blush. The footage that has survived is a fascinating look into television production of the early ‘50s, and it’s proof that, when it comes to horror presenters, Nurmi set the standard for everyone who followed. 

Vampira Was Friends With James Dean

Source: (pinterest.com)

Nurmi’s return to Hollywood came with all the trappings of someone on the verge of success. She had a hit TV show, people recognized her on the street, and she became a part of “the night watch,” a group of aspiring actors and directors who hung out at Googie’s restaurant with a young man named James Dean.

Even though Dean was being primed for stardom in his roles in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, he was obsessed with Nurmi, and especially fixated on Vampira. The two often met at midnight at Googies where they would trade stories, or cruise dive bars together. Towards the end of her life, Nurmi spoke about her relationship with Dean, and she said the first time they met she thought he was a “little boy.” She told Please Kill Me

I saw a little boy looking for his mother, terrified that he can’t stand the world without his mommy – like a four-year-old child looking for mama. It was so clear. I channel you know, I see these things sometimes very clearly, and I just saw that very clearly. I can’t say that he raised one eyebrow, or that he cocked his head. I just saw the essence of him. That’s what I saw. Instead of a man standing there at the cigarette machine, I saw a little boy looking for his mother. 

The Vampira Show Was Cold And In The Ground Within A Year

Source: (pinterest.com)

1955 brought the end to the largest chapter of Nurmi’s life. On September 30 James Dean died in a car accident, and WABC formally requested that she turn over the rights to the Vampira character. When Nurmi balked, the station put the hit show in the ground, a mere eight months after its premiere. When the show ended, Nurmi was broke. She never made a huge profit off the series, and it’s not like she could show up as Vampira in movies -- or could she?

After a brief attempt at getting a new version of The Vampira Show off the ground, she moved in with her mother and had to clean houses to make money. In 1959, she finally accepted a role in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. In the film, she plays a zombified corpse who walks towards her victims with stiff arms outstretched, as if rigor mortis had set in while she was putting the laundry out to dry. She appeared in a few more films in subsequent years, but by 1962 she was out of the entertainment industry. Nurmi hung up her corset and put the pancake makeup in the trash. 

Vampira V. Elvira

Source: (pinterest.com)

Depending on whom you ask, Elvira is either a straight copy of Vampira, or the character was cut from the same cloth of non-legally binding fabric. The trouble started in 1981, more than 20 years after Nurmi stepped out of the limelight. She was working as a linoleum tile contractor when KHJ-TV approached her about bringing The Vampira Show back to the air.

It’s unclear how far along Nurmi got into the process of producing the new show, and accounts differ about her split from the production. Some stories say that Nurmi wanted dancer and actress Lola Falana for the role, but when the station decided to go with a different actress, Nurmi backed out. Nurmi says that she showed up to the studio one day to find Peterson there, and that’s when she quit, although Peterson says that’s not exactly how it happened.

When Elvira’s Movie Macabre premiered in ’81, Nurmi delivered a cease and desist to the station before slapping them with a $10 million lawsuit for using her likeness. At the time Nurmi told the press: 

There is no Elvira. There's only a pirated Vampira. Cassandra Peterson slavishly copied my product and made a fortune. America has been duped.

Peterson says that there was no attempt to copy Vampira. She told a reporter for the NWI Times:

The name 'Vampira' was the popular draw, but when the television station creating my show and myself went to register it, we found it was already held by an actress named Nurmi Maila, who wore this female vampire costume and hosted a local horror movie show in L.A. in the 1950s.

Peterson continued, saying that the one time they met, Nurmi gave her permission to use the name Vampira, but then her lawyer sent over a contract for “an outrageous” sum of money to use the name. Rather than pay the fee for the name Peterson and the other producers came up with the name “Elvira” and forged ahead. Nurmi’s likeness lawsuit was thrown out and she never received remuneration for her role in bringing Elvira to life. 

Nurmi Almost Had A Comeback In Her Final Years

Source: (pinterest.com)

Following the Elvira debacle, Nurmi retreated to the solace of her West Hollywood home where she more or less swore off Hollywood forever. She reportedly hung out with New York horror punks the Misfits whenever they came to town, and she appeared on a couple of small independent singles in the late ‘80s, but her life remained quiet.

The boom of ironic media in the ‘90s finally brought people around to Nurmi’s work, turning her into a kind of camp icon. The sheer breadth of her interviews towards the end of her life shows that she was never embarrassed about portraying Vampira, and it’s clear that she loved dishing on behind the scenes drama of her work with Ed Wood.

 In the end, Nurmi became a star, just not in the way she dreamt. On January 10, 2008, Nurmi passed away in her home from natural causes. You can still dig Vampira at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. 

Tags: Horror | Ladies | Maila Nurmi | Vampira | What Did She Do?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.