I originally wrote this article on a September 17, the very day of Cassandra Peterson’s anniversary. She will turn 58 years old this year as she still continues to wear her beehive wig and tight black clothing. She often admits that when that very dress will make her look too grotesque and/or flabby for her age, the Elvira character will retire. Even today we can marvel at the sight of this woman in her mid-fifties displaying a more than generous figure when personifying the ultimate Mistress of the Dark.
Cassandra Peterson was born on September 17, 1949, in Manhattan, Kansas and grew up in Colorado Springs. As a youngster, her idol was Ann-Margret, after seeing her performance alongside Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas, where A-M dances frenetically from start to finish. With a straight goal in mind, Cassandra finished high school and then moved to Vegas, where she became the youngest showgirl ever in the colorful history of the town. Happily, Elvis, in one of his many stops in Vegas, met Cassandra, advising her to became a singer. When the King himself backs you up, how can you go wrong? There’s a rumor that Cassandra can be seen as a dancer in a club in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever, resulting in her being an unexpected Bond Girl.
Suddenly, Cassandra found herself in Europe, as she became lead singer in an Italian rock band. Stopping in Rome, good luck permitted her to be cast in a future movie classic, nothing less than Fellini Roma. In 1973, she appeared in Working Girls in the U.S., with a rare (and very brief) nude scene. Cassandra created her own variety show, Mama’s Boys, which she would take on tour around the country. At the end of the seventies, she joined an improvisation group having already Pee Wee Herman, Jon Lovitz and the late Phil Hartman as members. No doubt that this experience gave her solid grounds in playing comedy. All this alongside appearances on television (for Fantasy Island, Happy Days and St.Elsewhere) and motion pictures (for Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie and Eyes of a Stranger).
But, finally, our actress’ big break was on the horizon. I will digress a bit here, as I’ll explain the “horror host” phenomenon on American TV. At the start of the fifties, as the new media of television was in its infancy, many stations bought packages of old horror movies from the thirties to be scheduled for late night programming. Very popular at that time was the series of Universal monster movies, which was introduced to a whole new generation watching these productions in what was often titled Shock Theatre. Thus, the tradition of having an host to introduce horror pictures to viewers was born with Vampira in 1954.
All this to mention that hosts were soon to be in vogue: other popular characters were Zacherle, Ghoulardi, Sir Graves Ghastly and many more, the vast majority using macabre humor and satire to spice up the viewing experience. So here’s when and why Elvira was born, becoming host of Movie Macabre in October 1981 at KHJ-TV, a Los Angeles station. As she ridiculed the many lousy grade-Z pictures that she hosted, Elvira didn’t shy away to use self-parody, with many subtle and unsubtle play on words, raunchy jokes and allusions to her personal life (and her prodigious physique). Of course, this was helped by an outrageous and sexy costume, a different wig that the one known today, and a personality based on the “Valley Girl”-type popular at the time.
May 28, 1982, remains an important date for Elvira’s popularity, as she was host to a 3-D showing of The Mad Magician, starring Vincent Price. The film was really broadcasted in three dimensions, as was Elvira’s bits. More than two million and a half special glasses were sold in the Los Angeles area. Were viewers more interested in an old and corny Price vehicle or in the sight of the charming hostess’ ample chest? YOU TELL ME. This event would be followed by a first visit to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Movie Macabre would be now broadcasted across the country (excluding the State of New York!). Elvira recorded an album for Rhino and gave a short show in Times Square’s Tower store. As Cassandra believed that no more than 10 persons would visit, a mob was involved in a riot and the police authorities were called to take charge. Elvira would next start a tradition to appear in popular TV shows, like CHiPS. At the end of 1982, she even was nominated for an Emmy for Best Local Show.
Elvira Day was held on March 9, 1984, in Los Angeles, as announced by Mayor Tom Bradley. In 1985, Elvira launched her own videocassette line, as she became host to Thriller Theater for LIVE Entertainment, introducing many classic bad movies. For us Canadians, it was the first opportunity to have a glimpse at what could be a typical Movie Macabre soirée. In selecting the titles herself, Elvira choose to be selective, refusing to present too gory productions (nixing Cannibal Ferox, for example). Cheesy monster movies from the fifties remained her personal favorites. Somewhere, a lucky artist got to reproduce our fiendish friend to became an immortal in the Movieland Wax Museum. D.C. Comics, in 1986, were the first to produce an Elvira comic book.
In 1987, Elvira became the first woman to be spokesperson for a beer company, that being Coors. 1988 is the year when Elvira invaded movie theaters with Elvira Mistress of the Dark. The movie didn’t do much at the box-office but would become an incredibly good seller on home video. Elvira began a big tour to promote the movie overseas, particularly in England, Spain and Japan. This time, Marvel Comics took care of the film adaptation in comic book form. The movie won the Critics and Audience prizes at the 18th International Fantasy Film Festival in Paris. Not the most subtle thing, Elvira Mistress of the Dark remains a pleasant viewing experience, for the star’s many one-liners and imaginative costumes, as for its Las Vegas-style closing number.
1990 was the year when the official Elvira perfume came to be, named Evil, and which would be distributed in 15,000 stores. At this point, enumerating all the products bearing Elvira’s name could take an entire website: video games, costumes, books, pinball machines, musical albums… a marketing flood still going strong to this day. Ah, those Elvira calendars…! 1991 saw the birth of Cassandra’s only child, Sadie. In 1993, CBS canceled The Elvira Show after viewing the pilot episode, deciding that it was “too sexy”! Ignorant weaklings! Without any sign of being tired, Elvira continued to pop up everywhere, introducing Alice Cooper or White Zombie on stage, sharing bawdy jokes with Howard Stern on radio, participating in a horror show at Knotts Scary Farm (which she does since 1982). Her name would be associated with a series of frightful novel for youngsters and she eventually produced her own beer label, Elvira’s Night Brew!
In 1997, her first official haunted house opened, Elvira’s Nightmare Haunted House in Atlanta. She appeared on Nash Bridges as an owner of a S&M boutique (ouch!). In 1999, she was present at the Annual Roses Parade in Pasadena, well placed on a chariot displaying the newly created stamps honoring the great horror actors.
What about Cassandra Peterson in all this? She appeared sans Elvira disguise in Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold in 1987, playing the princess of the title city, under her real face, that of a gorgeous redhead with contagious smile. She also became a militant for groups fighting cruelty against animals. In 1994, she hosted an E! special dedicated to Scream Queens. She more recently was a guest right here in Montreal to introduce her last movie, Elvira’s Haunted Hills. And she has the distinction and honor of being the only Cult Siren that have met the webmaster of this site (namely, me) in person… and I made her laugh with some lame jokes.
Elvira’s contribution to the world of horror fandom remains considerable. Since 1981, she’s one of the genre’s most passionate defenders. In consulting many of her interviews over the years, I can only deduce that she’s an intelligent and wise businesswoman. What is her secret to conserve a youthful appearance? Is she the originator of the serum that many of our Sirens use? In any case, if Elvira is unable to spice your life with a bit of joy, well, there’s no hope for you. Everyone on their knees, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is now our High Priestess! Adore! Love! Worship! Make sacrifices!
1972 Fellini Roma 1973 The Working Girls 1980 Coast to Coast; Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie 1981 Jing of the Mountain 1982 Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again 1983 The Sting II; Stroker Ace 1985 Pee-wee’s Big Adventure; Get Out of My Room 1986 Echo Park; Balboa 1987 Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold 1988 Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; Pledge Night 1991 Ted and Venus 1992 The Ring of the Musketeers 1993 Acting on Impulse 1996 Dear God 1997 Superstition 2001 Elvira’s Haunted Hills 2004 Red Riding Hood 2008 Her Morbid Desires 2010 All About Evil