In 1954, tall, slender Finnish emigre and struggling actress Maila Nurmi went to a masquerade party dressed in long black hair and gown, and caught the attention of TV producer Hunt Stromberg Jr., and quickly got the novel idea to cast this starlet for a show to jazz up the schedule in the midnight hour. Soon, Vampira was born, as the swinging-est beatnik chick from beyond the grave, caked in white makeup, wiggled her 17-inch waist down a hallway of dry ice and cobwebs, introducing poverty row chillers with a trademark blasé delivery and tongue-in-cheek approach... at once campy and kittenish. Although "The Vampira Show" lasted one season (1954-55) and was only shown on one TV station (KABC in Los Angeles), this late-night filler became a cultural icon whose influence left a mark in fantasy movie fandom for half a century, and counting.
In short order, TV stations across the country began having their own horror hosts, and for the next three or four decades (until those rotten informercials killed the insitution of the late show), they would still fill running time in the wee hours of the morning by having some local celebrity in ghoulish make-up introducing and poking fun at the movies. For cinema insomniacs, a host (or hostess) introducing the late night movie offered a surrogate companion in the witching hour. As such this piece of pop culture is much like the drive-in... a beloved piece of movie-going iconography that forged a sense of community... and equally in dire need of revival today.
Vampira's legacy remains intact today, ironically, considering that no known copies of her show exist (only a recently-discovered kinescope of a promo offers to contemporary viewers any hint of the experience). It has been reported that Maila Nurmi was blacklisted, thereby harming her chances of getting substantial roles after her hit show. This is why she begrudgingly accepted an assignment from the great Edward D. Wood Jr. to star as the "ghoul woman" in his infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, shambling around his cardboard graveyard set with arms outstretched. And thanks to the posthumous interest in the career of Mr. Wood, Vampira has a new legion of fans. Any subsequent roles were mere walk-ons: in Albert Zugmsith's daft The Beat Generation, wearing short bleached hair and holding a rat, she was a beatnik poet rambling about square parents, and in Bert I. Gordon's colourful but cardboard fantasy The Magic Sword, she was an old hag. Whether as Vampira or Maila Nurmi, her all-too-brief screen moments stole the show.
Maila Nurmi initially patterned the Vampira character after Morticia in Charles Addams' cartoons, and when Vampira the actress had already faded from view, Carolyn Jones modelled herself from the Vampira image for the Morticia role in "The Addams Family." And then of course, in the 1980's, she began a comeback to horror hostess for KHJ-TV. But when she bowed out of the project, the show was reworked into "Elvira Mistress of the Dark", featuring Cassandra Peterson uncannily reviving the Vampira legacy by introducing cheesy movies, albeit with a lot more cleavage and more overacting. After an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Elvira show for copying her image, she faded from the spotlight again, only to be seen as a lively interviewee in countless documentaries of Ed Wood after the release of Tim Burton's mighty biopic. (In fact, she also appeared in I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, an unreleased and highly bootlegged adaptation of an Ed Wood screenplay, starring Billy Zane.)
In Passport Video's otherwise dreadful DVD presentation of Plan 9 From Outer Space, there is an interesting interview with Maila Nurmi, discussing the differences in character between Maila Nurmi and Vampira, as though the latter was a real person. In this moment she is separating the personalities of Maila Nurmi and Vampira, which is something that pop culture has seldom achieved. But this eccentric interview nonetheless proves that the character of Vampira has taken on a life of her own.
The life of Maila Nurmi, beatnik Hollywood fringe dweller, friend and (it is said) one-time lover of James Dean, would make for an interesting movie alone with her unusual screen presence, and on-again off-again flirtation with stardom, and we can hope that Kevin Sean Michael's documentaryVampira: The Movie, which makes the rounds this year, does justice to such a bizarre career.
Her passing yesterday at the age of 86 is another closing of the door to our collective pop culture. She was one of the last surviving people who had company with that Grade Z Genius Ed Wood- and while perhaps she would rather be remembered for her legacy on the small screen, this brief screen appearance ensures that her image will endure for generations to come.
Below: view the original promo to "The Vampira Show".