Pretty In The Past: Cassandra Peterson

Over the years Elvira has come to symbolize a charming form of unapologetic sexuality that remains both daring and endearingly old-fashioned at the same time.
Publish date:
October 31, 2012
pretty in the past, Cassandra Peterson, elvira

Boris Karloff was by all accounts, a genuinely wonderful person who bore zero resemblance to any of the villains he played throughout the majority of his long career. Yet, unlike many performers, he did not lament the role Hollywood firmly placed him in after his first major success. A child of poverty, all he wanted to do was go to work and if being typecast as a horror villain meant always having a job so long as they made horror movies, then being typecast was a blessing, not a curse. He loved what he did so much, he kept working until the last years of his life, even when he was so crippled by arthritis, he had to have weights sewn into his jackets to help him stand up straight.

This post isn’t about Boris Karloff (who was many things, but never anyone’s idea of pretty) but it is about someone who shares his same admirable ethos and dedication. For the past three decades, she has kept her own name largely out of the spotlight in favour of the character she created and in the process transformed herself into an international icon. Rather than bemoan her fate as a creative trap, she has worked hard to constantly keep herself in the public eye and relevant. In the process she has become a beloved figure whose appeal crosses all age, gender and social lines.

Her name is Cassandra Peterson, but most everyone knows her as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Cassandra started out as a dancer—more specifically a Las Vegas showgirl. At 17, she wasn’t yet old enough to drink in the places she worked in, but with her appealing curves and long red hair, managers didn’t make much of an effort to ask her for I.D.

She was still a virgin the night she found herself sitting at the piano of Elvis Presley’s hotel room, while the King of Rock and Roll serenaded her with some of his favourite songs. He found her charming and took the time to warn her against the dangers of drugs (specifically marijuana) and to urge her to follow her dream of being a singer. She left that night with a newfound sense of confidence in herself (and—a bit surprisingly—her virginity still intact).

Following Elvis’ directives, Cassandra eventually found herself in Italy, where she lead a rock band and appeared briefly in Federico Fellini’s Roma.

Back in the States she toured around in a nightclub act, played a stripper in Stephanie Rothman’s The Working Girls (which at one point was released on home video under the extremely direct title Elvira Naked, to capitalize on what is admittedly its only real virtue), and may—or may not—have been the model on the cover of Tom Waits’ classic 1976 album, Small Change (Cassandra has gone on record that she has no memory of ever posing for the photo, but admits it does look a lot like her).

Having spent the decade earning a living in show business that largely depended on her willingness to take her clothes off in public, Cassandra decided in 1979 to pursue an area that only left you feeling symbolically naked, not literally so - comedy. She joined a Los Angeles improvisational comedy group called The Groundlings (which was just 5 years old at the time, but has since become one of North America’s most influential comedy organizations) and spent her time with them developing a young valley girl character, which she described as a crazier, more brazen teenage version of herself.

In 1981, Cassandra took the character to an audition for a local job hosting a low budget horror movie show called Fright Night. She beat out over 200 others for the gig, based on the quality of her performance and… other… assets. The producers left it up to her to develop what her new onscreen persona would look like. After they rejected her initial idea, she decided to - literally - just let it all hang out in a costume that strained to contain her abundant dimensions.

She covered her already naturally pale skin in white pancake makeup and covered her hair with a tall black beehive. Wanting to give the character a slightly dorky edge, she spent time coming up with a name she thought sounded archaic and unattractive. She settled on Elvira (and in the process completely changed how that name would be perceived from that point on).

The show was renamed Elvira’s Movie Macabre and though few cared for the often-dismal films it aired, she received instant attention from the viewing public. This included an actress named Maila Nurmi, who had gained short-lived fame as a similarly buxom horror host named Vampira (and who remains best known today for her role in Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space).

Maila had briefly worked with the producers of Movie Macabre, but had quit when they hired Cassandra without consulting her. Maila sued Cassandra and the producers after the show aired, claiming Elvira bore too close a resemblance to Vampira.

The judge ruled against Maila, saying that the characters were distinct enough to avoid any potential confusion and it didn’t help her case that she herself had admitted that Vampira was a sexier, campier version of Charles Addams famous gothic character, Morticia. Since then the major differences between the two characters have become much clearer, largely because Cassandra was able to do what Maila had not—build a significant long-term career out of the character.

Movie Macabre quickly led to other TV appearances and several lucrative endorsements and licensing deals. By 1988 she had become famous enough to star in her own movie, and though Elvira, Mistress of the Dark didn’t do much at the box office during its initial release, it has gone on to earn a lot of affection from the people who saw it on home video and cable during the last 24 years. (I actually tried to see the movie in the theatre when it came out, but was denied admission because I looked too young for the 14 year-old age restriction—which was fair since I was only 13 at the time. I ended having to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit for a second time, and I’m still somewhat bitter about it.)

Since then, Cassandra has worked her ass off to keep Elvira from fading away like so many other once-popular characters. Not every effort has been successful (her Attack of the B-Movies, a one-shot major network attempt to rip off the success of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 actually set the record for the lowest-rated special in the history of television up to that time), but over the years Elvira has come to symbolize a charming form of unapologetic sexuality that remains both daring and endearingly old-fashioned at the same time, with the result that many people would miss her if she went away.

With that in mind, Cassandra hosted a reality TV show in 2007 called The Search For the Next Elvira, with the intention of finding the right person to take her place following her retirement. An actress named April Wahlin won the contest, but has yet to earn her prize, since - at 61 - Cassandra doesn’t appear to be retiring anytime soon, hosting a new round of Movie Macabre episodes last year and appearing on Hollywood red carpets in full costume as recently as the premiere of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.

Last year, I attended my first ever Sci-Fi/Comic/Horror/General Geek Expo. Over two dozen celebrities were in attendance, but the lineups told the tale of who people really wanted to see. I was able to get my autographs from Linda Blair and Adrienne Barbeau in minutes, but the people who wanted a brief audience with Captain Kirk and today’s subject had to spend at least five hours in line for the honour.

It was fascinating to behold the disperse group of folks waiting for Cassandra’s autograph. Many weren’t even born when her first movie came out, several (of both sexes) wore extremely faithful reproductions of her costume, while others could have just as easily been waiting for sports tickets or iPhones.

Most A-list movie stars can’t expect to be adored 30 years after their first big hit. Show business is cruel like that. But, sometimes, hard work, good humour, and the right attitude can keep you in demand way past the normal expiration date. And - as Cassandra herself would happily admit - a really epic pair of boobs don’t hurt either.

Picture Credit: Rex Features