I’m sat in Pioneer Chicken, a fast-food joint off Sunset Boulevard, deep in discussion with Vampira, the world’s first TV horror host. Maila Nurmi, the Finnish-born performer beneath the famous black wig and nails was a phenomenon in the 1950s.
Her iconic gothic style, sardonic wit and eye-popping hourglass-figure made her the ghoulish fantasy of guys and ghouls across the globe, despite appearing on a show that was only broadcast to the Los Angeles area.
Every week the voluptuous vamp would emerge from dry-ice studio fog to the sound of creepy organ music. She would unleash a blood-curdling scream and utter puns in an exotic, sexual, Marlene Dietrich-like drawl - “I am…Vampira. I hope you all had the good fortune to have had a terrible week."
But this is not simply an interview with a vampire. Conversing with Naila Nurmi means taking a voyeuristic journey through the lives of mythological cult icons of fifties Hollywood. It seems that Vampira’s finger was always firmly on the jugular pulse of the tinseltown scene. Captivating tales with James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley pour from her octogenarian lips, memories recalled with intensity and insight.
Since Maila claims psychic capabilities, one can also add a touch of the paranormal to this Hollyweird concoction. She speaks of clairaudience, strange premonitions and visions. Most sensationally, it was such psychic sensitivity that found her haunted by the spirit of James Dean, whose death profoundly affected her.
She’s certainly one tough cookie - strongly opinionated and gutsy. Before international fame, back when she was modelling for the likes of Bernard of Hollywood, Vargas and a young Man Ray, she still wasn’t taking any crap from studio big shots.
Even movie mogul Howard Hawks - who discovered Maila performing a skeleton striptease in a New York show - suffered the wrath of Vampira’s razor-witted tongue, despite having just turned Lauren Bacall into a household name.
“I thought he was stupid, so I tore up my contract,” she giggles, tucking into her rice. “I told him to kindly find a place for it in one of his numerous waste baskets.”
But in 1956, her outspoken manner caused her blacklisting from the system. Broke, she accepted a measly 0 to play the reanimated corpse-bride of Bela Lugosi in the trash sci-fi epic Plan 9 From Outer Space. Irony, for this movie cemented her position in popular culture and led to Tim Burton’s marvelous biopic of director Ed Wood, one that cast model Lisa Marie as Maila.
At eighty-three, she’s still hip and sharp like Vampira’s fingernails.
So how did your famous horror host role come about?
I decided I wanted to become an evangelist and had to sponsor myself. How could I do it? Well, television was just warping people’s minds - and they paid big. I thought I’d satirise soap operas, take improbable people and make them do all these bourgeois things. Since Charles Addams had already done it in comic form, I wanted it to bring it to television. So that is why I made the dress, went to a masquerade ball and won first prize. They discovered me and that was the end of it. But Vampira wasn’t really acting. It was television, just a lot of hogwash.
What went wrong with the revival of Vampira in the early eighties and the subsequent launch of the Elvira character?
Well I was dealing with KTTV for three months but they suddenly didn’t want me to come to the studio anymore. They eventually called me in to sign a contract and she was there (Cassandra Peterson). They had hired her without asking me.
So it was going to be the Vampira name?
It’s Vampira all together. She did the whole thing with the Rocky Horror people. She was in 51 markets at one time with 350 kinds of merchandise; milked my cupboard bare. I could have made 0 million from that.
Did you successfully sue?
I sued for eight years but not successfully. But you know what? The limousines and the lovers and the houses—they can take all that. That money was meant for animal welfare and she spent it on houses and red limousines.
Boy has the devil got that bitch—it’s the devil in her blood. Initially they wanted me. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want Vampira to be anything but perfect. I certainly didn’t want her to be portrayed as a slut. Angelina Jolie would be a good Vampira.
You were very good friends with James Dean. Was he openly gay among friends?
No. As he said, “do I look like someone who would go through life with one hand tied behind my back?” That was a courageous statement in those days.
Jimmy was primarily heterosexual but he used men sexually to get ahead, and if he saw someone he liked, he liked them. More often it was women, but maybe that was because he had never got the really pretty girls before. He had always got the ugly leftovers that nobody else wanted.
Do you remember when you heard that James Dean had died?
Yeah I was at home with Tony Perkins (Psycho). Jack Simmons (actor in Rebel Without A Cause and friend of Dean) had just left to visit some lesbian whores that lived a block away. We knew we had to tell Jack before someone else did, but then we had to go tell Ursula (Andress), Jimmy’s ladylove.
We drove up and I waited in the car because I didn’t really know her very well. It was in a dead end street, and now dark. Then suddenly, Marlon (Brando) appeared at the car - he had been hiding in the bushes. Ursula had called him in hysterics screaming, “They are trying to kill me. They’re threatening me. They think he killed himself because of me. You have to come.”
She would have used any device to get to Marlon at that time, even though she was trying to break up John Derek’s marriage. She wanted Marlon above all; she even bought the same car that he had. So he went, but looked in the windows first to be sure that she was really upset. Then Jack found him in the bushes. “Maila’s over there, in the hearse,” he said.(laughs) So he came over to offer condolences.
I heard that the spirit of James Dean visited you.
He visited a lot of people. He was very active. Now a lot of people made it up too I’m sure, but even people who weren’t psychic had experiences. He was that strong. Jimmy was following me around and was with me a lot of the time for the first six months. There would be an ashtray, I’d look and say “don’t anybody touch the ashtray, it’s gonna go up. That’s Jimmy’s sign that he’s here.” And it would go up!
Did you have psychic tendencies early on?
Yeah, I was very psychic in those days. My first husband Dean Eisner (writer of Dirty Harry and Play Misty For Me) and I lived in Laurel Canyon. He came home from work one day and said a story editor was writing a TV series about us. He said they called it “Laurel Canyon”, but apparently sold it under the working title Bewitched.
That was written about Dean Eisner and I. You see my mother was a witch. She wasn’t practicing, but she couldn’t help but be a witch. It was natural. It exuded from her, the very essence of her. And I was very psychic too.
Didn’t you share some strange, paranormal experiences with Marlon Brando?
We were sitting around and chatting in the dining room and Einstein had died just three weeks before. Suddenly Marlon says, “There’s someone here. It’s Einstein. He has a message for us.” I was included in the message. “You young ones have to hurry up,” That’s what Einstein told Marlon, who wasn’t inventing it - he believed it. Marlon really wanted to believe that he was a humanitarian, and Einstein was urging him to hurry up with his duties.
Marlon was a very humane human being, though he didn’t know how to be humane with his own children. Some of his best friends despised him and said he was a brute and a beast and nothing in-between. How do you like them apples?
What was your first introduction to any of the Ed Wood clan?
I was a young girl window-shopping on Hollywood Boulevard. I was bending low to see the detail of some shoes and someone whizzed around the corner on roller skates, almost bumped my fanny and crashed into me. “Pardon me,” said he, and “Pardon me,” said I. He was wearing an ascot and a beret. It was Bela Lugosi on roller skates. He was on his way to a cigar store.
Did you find Ed Wood to be an intelligent guy?
No. But anyone who has become a phenomenon has a karmic current carrying them. Nobody who is normal has such drive. That’s got to be driven by something larger than life. There was something there that I didn’t understand or respect because I was an intellectual snob, but it was there alright.
How did Ed Wood react when he heard you didn’t want to speak his words?
Paul Marco told him, so I don’t know. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but my God, I could not say those words. I wish I had them today because I threw them away. Do you know what jewels those lines must have been? I tried to say them, but I curdled my own blood. (laughs) They were awful!
What kind of state of mind do you think Ed Wood have when he later made porn films?
He loved the porn. He was in his element. He would have been very unhappy if he had known he couldn’t have done porn again. He just kept writing them so fast. He’d write a whole pornographic book in just two days.
Finally, is it right you had an encounter with Elvis before he became famous?
I went to Las Vegas to perform with Liberace and went him to see Elvis’ show. I had never seen someone boldly standing on a stage – supposedly a heterosexual male – wearing turquoise eye shadow and grinding his hips like that. The orchestra, one by one put down their instruments. They crossed their arms and refused to play. The audience started booing, and they booed him off the stage. Then a voice said to me – and I wasn’t on any drugs – “go around the side of the hotel. There’s a swimming pool and you’ll find someone in a canary yellow jacket.”
I went around and in the dark moonless night, far away I could see the double doors of the casino, golden with light. They opened and a figure came into the doorway. It was Elvis, wearing a canary yellow jacket. He looked confusedly into the darkness, so I said, “I’m over here.” We walked towards each other, sat down and talked. I told him that I was a performer and that what happened was absolutely awful. He said, “every night before I go on, I talk to God and he always answers me. But tonight he didn’t answer. When them curtains opened and I saw all those white heads and them glasses, I knew why.“
I told him I admired his courage and they only did that because they’re sheep; one person booed and so then they all did. They’ve never, ever seen anything like you and it frightened them. But, Life Magazine are going to discover you and they will kiss your shoes.”
He said, “it’s coming out Thursday” and it did. I was thirty-three and he said to me, “I know you’re getting old and all, but if you’d like to come back after the show, I’d be proud to take you back to my bungalow.” (laughs) His hallowed words! And so Elvis went back to do a second show.
Many thanks to Joe Moe and Forry for their assistance with this interview.
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