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R.I.P. Maila “Vampira” Nurmi 1921-2008 Maila Nurmi, the legendary 50s horror host icon Vampira, died at home in her sleep on January 10 at age 86.
Maila Elizabeth Syrjaniemi was born on December 11, 1921 in Petsamo, Finland (now the Pechenga District in Russia). She is allegedly the niece of Olympic track champion Paavo Nurmi. When she was two years old, her family moved to the U.S. Nurmi moved to LA at age 17 for the same reason everyone moves to LA: to pursue modeling and acting. She had a variety of modeling gigs, appeared in several pin-up magazines and played a vampire on the New York theater stage in Mike Scott's Spook Scandals. Director Howard Hawks saw Nurmi in New York, decided she would be the next Lauren Bacall and brought her to Hollywood. His next film project stalled, however, and Nurmi grew tired of waiting around and quit.
In 1953, Nurmi and her then-husband writer/director Dean Riesner (Play Misty For Me, The Outer Limits) attended choreographer Lester Horton's annual Bal Caribe masquerade ball. She won the costume contest, hands down, with a macabre look inspired by Charles Addams' cartoons in The New Yorker.
"Screaming relaxes me so."
KABC program manager Hunt Stromberg, Jr. was so impressed by Nurmi's appearance at the party that a few months later he tracked her down and offered her a job. Nurmi became TV's first horror movie host on Channel 7's show The Vampira Show (a.k.a. Lady of Horrors to some people). (It should be noted that there were a few radio horror hosts at the time.) She altered her masquerade ball costume to be less like the Addams cartoon and took her husband's character name suggestion. Vampira made her television debut on April 30, 1954.
Vampira would slither, strut and slink at 11 p.m. on Saturday nights on KABC-TV in LA for almost an entire year. Wearing a long black wig and a skin-tight black dress that emphasized her 17-inch waist, Vampira would emerge from a smoky fog, take a puff of her cigarette (using a foot-long cigarette holder, of course) and make quips about the horror movie being shown that night. She had long fingernails painted "hemorrhage red" and entertained the viewers with her search for her imaginary pet spider Rollo. Off screen she used a black parasol to shield her from the sun while being chauffeured around in a black Packard and screamed at stoplights just for the fun of it. On screen, she made bad puns, recited weird poetry and gave out bizarre cocktail recipes.
Her ghoulish appearance and her twisted sense of humor were a hit. Vampira was profiled in LIFE, Time, Newsweek, TV Guide and many other magazines. She was a popular guest on many national TV shows and received an Emmy nomination for Most Outstanding Female Personality.
The films Vampira introduced are listed in this episode guide (compiled by www.arglebargin.blogspot.com, based on various LA periodicals):
4/30/54—Dig Me Later Vampira (preview show)
5/1/54—Charge is Murder
5/8/54—The Face of Marble
5/15/54—Revenge of the Zombies
5/29/54—Corridor of Mirrors
6/12/54—Devil Bat’s Daughter
6/19/54—The Flying Serpent
6/26/54—The Mask of Dijon
7/3/54—Strange Mr. Gregory
7/10/54—The Man With Two Lives
7/17/54—Corridor of Mirrors
8/14/54—Mystery of the 13th Guest
9/11/54—Murder By Invitation
10/23/54—The Shadow Returns
10/30/54—King of the Zombies
11/6/54—Doomed to Die
11/13/54—House of Mystery
11/20/54—My Brother’s Keeper
12/4/54—Castles of Doom
12/11/54—The Charge is Murder
12/18/54—Return of the Ape
12/25/54—Man With the Gray Glove
1/1/55—Apology for Murder
1/15/55—Murder is My Business
1/22/55—Phantom of 42nd Street
1/29/55—Case of the Guardian Angel
2/12/55—Killer at Large
2/19/55—She Shall Have Murder
2/26/55—The Lady Confesses
3/5/55—Larceny in Her Heart
3/26/55—Strangler of the Swamp
4/2/55—Woman Who Came Back
Why did KABC cancel Vampira's show after barely a year? The studio alleged that there were concerns about Nurmi's on-screen antics going too far. Through the years, however, Nurmi herself claimed that she was fired and then blacklisted because she refused to sell the rights to the Vampira character that she had created.
Following her show, Nurmi had a brief but memorable role in Ed Wood's movie Plan 9 From Outer Space, in which she uttered no dialogue and was on screen for about ten minutes. She was reportedly paid $200 for the role. (Her salary at KABC was $75 a week.) Nurmi made a few other films besides Plan 9 in the years immediately following her TV show, including Too Much, Too Soon (1958), The Beat Generation (1959), The Big Operator (1959) and Sex Kittens Go To College (1960).
"Unpleasant dreams, darlings."
THE LATER YEARS
Nurmi had a tough time throughout the 60s and 70s. Various biographies claim that she refinished furniture, laid linoleum and cleaned the homes of celebrities for 99 cents an hour. She designed clothes and eventually ran a store called Vampira's Attic from her home, from which she sold clothes, antiques and memorabilia.
Her name popped up in the tabloids occasionally, sometimes referencing her rumored contact with James Dean's ghost and sometimes regarding her personal tragedies. Nurmi was burned while in a beauty parlor and had to shave her head. (Some sources claim that she was attacked and burned by an irate fan.) In a separate incident, she sustained burns trying to rescue a cat from a fire.
Nurmi embraced her cult status and enjoyed her role as Vampira. She appeared on screen as herself in James Dean:The First American Teenager in 1975 and had some movie roles throughout the 80s. At least two songs – Plan 9, Channel 7 by The Damned and Vampira by The Misfits – were inspired by her. She made promotional appearances in LA with The Misfits and played Vampira in a punk band called Satan's Cheerleaders. (I don't know if she played an instrument, but I imagine that playing Vampira was good enough.)
The 90s brought about renewed interest in Vampira, beyond the Ed Wood retrospectives and the occasional convention-like events. In 1995, Nurmi was interviewed for a Finnish documentary called Vampira:About Sex, Death and Taxes. She appeared (as Vampira) in the 1998 film I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, which was based on an unpublished Ed Wood script and is not available in the U.S.
Nurmi took her store online in 2000 with the launch of VampirasAttic.com. Her filmed interviews during this time include an interview in 2000 for The Secret History of American Movies and the late-night horror host documentary American Scary in 2006.
Filmmaker Kevin Sean Michaels interviewed Nurmi and tracked down all available footage (all 3 minutes' worth and hopefully more) for his 2006 documentary Vampira:The Movie. Both the documentary and the director appeared at ScreamFest in Orlando last October.
In her last years, Nurmi was reclusive, content to stay at home with her pets, friends and family of caregivers.
THE CONTROVERSIES, RUMORS AND MYTHS
*The Vampira/Elvira lawsuit. There are numerous theories swirling around the internet regarding this lawsuit. Everyone agrees that in the 80s, Nurmi sued Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson. Some sources claim that Nurmi served as a consultant for a planned TV re-launch of Vampira, only to have the show's creators develop Elvira instead. Others maintain that Nurmi expected to portray Vampira on screen herself and refused to sell the rights upon learning that Vampira would be played by another actress.
Most articles and websites state that Nurmi had to withdraw the lawsuit after running out of money. There are a few reports of Nurmi losing the suit, and a couple of claims that she won. According to the court documents posted on the Vampira:The Movie website, the court decided against Nurmi. The difference between "likeness" and "close resemblance" was an important factor in this decision, along with a technicality about Nurmi's allegations being limited to props and mannerisms instead of Elvira's entire look. (You can read the court documents for yourself here.)
(Note: My email to Peterson’s publicist regarding a statement or comment from Elvira about Nurmi’s death went unanswered.)
*The waist. Officially, her measurements were cited as 38-17-36, but some bios list her waist as even smaller. In an interview, Nurmi once said that she wrapped her waist in papaya powder at night.
*The fashion influence. Vampira was Goth before anyone knew what Goth was. Her use of coffins, skulls, props, wigs, makeup and the color black opened the floodgates for every horror host, punk rocker, Goth vampire chick, evil villainess and eccentric from Natasha (of Boris and Natasha) to Cruella De Vil to the Halloween costumes in stores each year.
*The personality. Nurmi was legendary for her sense of humor, her love of animals, her wackiness, her compassion and her stories about Hollywood life and people.
*Her friends and lovers. She was friends with Mae West and told stories about eating Swedish meatballs that West cooked. She was friends (and possibly more?) with Marlon Brando, Orson Welles and James Dean. Dean reportedly was drawn to Nurmi because he thought she was interested in the occult. There has been a lot of speculation about Nurmi and Dean's "paranormal connection," with special significance being given to the fact that Nurmi's TV show was cancelled the same year that Dean died.
*The film I Woke Up Early The Day I Died. A movie that begins and ends with cemetery scenes and is completely without dialogue. Nurmi said in interviews that the film was brilliant and got glowing reviews in Spain. The movie received horrible reviews everywhere else, however, which apparently sent the production company CineQuaNon Pictures International into bankruptcy. After debuting in a few New York theaters in September 1999 (and screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, according to a New York Times review), the film remains out of circulation, tied up in litigation or lost in a closet somewhere. It is allegedly available on VHS in Germany and there are multiple websites containing reviews and screenshots.
"I give epitaphs, not autographs."
Because The Vampira Show was broadcast live and not recorded for future airings, no videotapes of the episodes exist. A kinescope containing about three minutes from the August 14, 1954 program was discovered a few years ago. This footage, originally used in a KABC promo, was reportedly turned over to a video restoration expert who would restore the program's "live broadcast" look.
Besides the kinescope and the ten or so minutes of her in Plan 9 From Outer Space, the only other chance of footage of Nurmi as Vampira is a rumored ten-second clip of her on stage with Liberace, which allegedly appears in a History Channel documentary on Las Vegas. There are also rumors of original scripts being held in private collections.
Over the past couple of years, VampirasAttic.com has asked fans for JPEGs of photos, magazine articles, autographs, pictures painted by Nurmi, etc. for its online archive. That archive is currently inaccessible and the Vampira's Attic YouTube channel has been discontinued.
There was no formal announcement about Nurmi's death because she did not have an official spokesperson or manager. Word spread through the online horror fan communities after notification from Nurmi's friend and caregiver Dana Gould. The Associate Press reported her death on January 15, based on information from the Los Angeles County coroner's office.
In December 2007, Rue Morgue magazine conducted Nurmi’s final interview. That interview, along with a memorial, will be published in the March issue of Rue Morgue.
The SBIG (So Bad It's Good) Film Fest plans to honor Nurmi when they screen Plan 9 From Outer Space later this month. There are multiple online memorial and tribute sites.
Nurmi's friend Dana Gould told me via email that funeral arrangements have not yet been made. He is waiting to see if the Los Angeles County coroner's office can locate any of Nurmi’s relatives. He's planning a memorial service in LA in February and is setting up a donation fund for her cemetery plot and headstone.
Rest in peace, Maila. And thanks.
(Sources used for this article include: Retrocrush.net, Coilhouse.net, LIFE, ExplodingKinetoscope.blogspot.com, BrightLightsFilm.blogspot.com, VampiraTheMovie.com, Pussycat Magazine, HorrorDVDs.com, HalloweenAllYear.com, AmericanClassicsTelevision.com, CultSirens.com, aManOutOfTime.livejournal.com, BrainsOnFilm.com, The New York Times, Rue Morgue, Wikipedia, IMDb and probably others I forgot to jot down.)
"FANGRRL" is ©2008 by Lisa Ciurro. All graphics, except where otherwise noted, are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2008 by Nolan B. Canova.
Maila Nurmi, the legendary 50s horror host icon Vampira, died at home in her sleep on January 10 at age 86.