There’s been many comparisons between Vampira and Elvira over the years, and no love lost. Still, these two dames have many common characteristics, notably that they’re the most popular female horror hosts in American television history… and that no one will ever forget them. So here’s the story of one of them, the one and only Vampira.
Maila Syrjanieme Nurmi was born on December 11, 1921, in Petsamo, Finland. Her uncle was an Olympic champion in track running, Paavo Nurmi. Her family moved to the United States when Maila was only two years old. The youngster was already dreaming of being an eventual Hollywood star and at the tender age of 17, she took a trip to Los Angeles to find fortune. Of course, glory doesn’t come easily and Maila became an exotic dancer and photo model to survive.
She would be present on New York’s theater scene, hired by producer Mike Todd for a mysterious revue called Spook Scandals, where she played a vampire. This show ran for one whole representation, but why worry when Howard Hawks became interested in Maila? His project was to make our Finnish beauty a new Lauren Bacall, so everyone returned to California, as he promised Maila the first role in a film written by William Faulkner, nothing less. This production never came to be and it was back to the dancing floor for Maila.
At some point in 1954, Maila disguised herself as Morticia Addams (a cartoon character from New Yorker Magazine who would eventually become popular on TV and films) for a masked ball. As simply as that, Vampira was born. Maila’s appearance appealed to Hunt Stromberg Jr., program director for KABC Channel 7, who was looking for somebody to spice up his night time programming. In a very short time, Maila officially became Vampira to host a show presenting horror movies each Saturday night at 11 PM.
Needless to say, her singular features, subtle humor and faux-blasé attitude contributed to make her a fast popular success. Introduced with appropriate organ music, Vampira came out of the fog at the start of each show, saying something like: “I am… Vampira. I hope you had a terrible week.” Before commercial breaks, she took the habit of reciting weird poetry or even give out cocktail recipes that could give chills to the most veteran witches.
Of course, her unusual figure was a key factor to her success, as Vampira claimed to be gifted with the following measurements: 38-17-36! Huh? Pictures can’t lie… And how can we forget these three-inches fingernails? It didn’t take long before publications like Time or Newsweek gave her some written space. Marlon Brando, Mae West and even James Dean became fans, the last even debuting an intimate relationship with Maila.
Oddly, all this attention would be cut short. Dean’s tragic death would seriously shake up Maila, not counting ABC trying to stop her in her attempts to pursue different career projects, as their intent was to completely own rights to the Vampira character. Consequently, the show would be canceled. Soon after, Maila was attacked in a beauty parlor by an enraged woman who burned her head, which she had to totally shave after. Other unfortunate burns would follow, as Maila tried to save her cat from a home fire.
Vampira resurrected with the help of Edward D. Wood Jr., who was shooting his ultimate classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space. Maila was hired for a single day of work (for $200 bucks!), playing a ghoul who came back to life via some extra-terrestrial ray. Her partner was the immortal Tor Johnson, of whom I will never have enough time to sing the praises. After reading the script, she insisted in not speaking a single word of dialogue, as she found the story completely awful. She starred in some more B-movies, but not one of them would achieve the popularity of Wood’s anti-masterpiece, still hilarious and cherished today.
Maila became the owner of an antique shop, creating her own line of clothing and jewels. Renewed interest in Wood’s films at the end of the seventies would make her once again popular for a new generation of fans. Musical groups like The Damned and The Misfits honored her in songs. As Vampira, Maila even turned up singer for a punk band. In 1981, seems like a television station contacted her for a renewal of the Vampira concept. According to Maila, many discussions took place in the following months and she remains convinced that her ideas were stolen for the Elvira character. She sued for ten millions.
Apparently, there remains some rare footage of the Vampira show in the KABC archives, as it remains extremely difficult to view her in the media that made her so popular. A Finnish documentary about Maila was shot in 1995, entitled Death, Sex and Taxes. In 1998, she returned to movies for I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, from an old Ed Wood script and starring Billy Zane. She can still be seen on the star conventions circuit.
It remains intriguing to guess what kind of cultural impact she could have made if her career would have been longer and more profitable. As an immortal cult figure, who knows what kind of importance she would have enjoyed in fully becoming mistress of her own destiny?
1947 If Winter Comes 1958 Too Much, Too Soon 1959 Plan 9 from Outer Space; The Beat Generation; The Big Operator 1960 I Passed for White; Sex Kittens Go to College 1962 The Magic Sword 1986 Population One 1998 I Woke Up Early the Day I Died