Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Vampira Has Gone to the Grave

Chances are you don't recognise the name "Maila Nurmi." You might recognise the name "Vampira." Vampira was the character Nurmi played as what was most likely television's "horror host (the macabre and often goofy characters who hosted horror movies on local TV stations)." Maila Nurmi was found dead in her home on January 10. Sources disagree about her date of birth, but she is believed to have been around 85 years old.

Maila Nurmi was born Maila Syrjäniemi in what was then Petsamo, Finland (now part of Russia). While still a toddler her family immigrated to Ohio. At the age of 17 she took the surname of her uncle, Finnish Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi, and sought a career in acting. In 1944 Nurmi appeared in Michael Todd's Grand Guignol Spook Scandals, which ran for all of one night. Regardless, she was spotted by director and producer Howard Hawks in the show, who took her to Hollywood in hopes of turning her into the next Lauren Bacall. She was cast in an adaptation of the Russian novel Dreadful Hollow, which remained in development Hell so long that she eventually walked out of her contract. Nurmi took various modelling jobs, posing for Aberto Vargas and Man Ray among others. She was also a dancer in Earl Carroll's revues for many years. Her only acting credit at the time was an uncredited role in the 1947 movie If Winter Comes.

Nurmi's big break would come as a result of attending a Hollywood masquerade ball. Nurmi wore a costume based on the character later called "Morticia" (on the TV show The Addams Family) from Charles Addams' famous cartoons running in the magazine New Yorker. With long finger nails, long black hair, and a long, black slinky dress, Nurmi made an impression on television producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr, then working at KABC-TV in Los Angeles. Several months later Stromberg sought Nurmi out and offered her the job of hosting a late night horror movie show. It was Nurmi's husband at the time, television and movie writer Dean Riesner, who came up with the name "Vampira." The Vampira Show debuted on May 1, 1954 on KABC-TV. Vampira would introduce horror movies, tell macabre jokes, and engage in other morbidly humorous antics. The show proved to be an immediate hit. Vampira appeared in such magazines as Life, TV Guide, and Newsweek. She even received a 1954 Emmy nomination for "Most Outstanding Female Personality." Unfortunately, after only a year on the air KABC-TV cancelled The Vampira Show when Nurmi refused to sell them the rights to the character. Vampira moved to rival station KHJ-TV for another brief run. Sadly, as her introductions were aired live, no footage of Vampira on her show survives. The only footage remaining of Nurmi in character as Vampira is a kinescope promoting KHJ-TV to advertisers survived.

Sadly, Nurmi's stint as Vampira would be the height of her career in entertainment. In 1958 she appeared in an uncredited role in the film Too Much, Too Soon. She appeared in Ed Wood's notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space, as well as such low budget movies as The Beat Generation, Sex Kittens Go to College, and The Magic Sword in the late Fifties and early Sixties. For the most part, however, her career in show business was over. In the Sixties she scraped out a living by laying linoleum, refinishing furniture, and even cleaning houses. In the early Seventies she opened Vampira's Attic, a boutique where she sold handmade clothing and jewellery. In the Eighties she sued horror host Cassandra Peterson, who hosted Movies Macabre on KHJ-TV as Elvira, alleging that Peterson had ripped off the character of Vampira. The court eventually found in favour of Peterson.

The Eighties and Nineties saw interest in Vampira on the rise once again. Nurmi appeared in the films Population I (1986), Dry (1996), and I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998). She also appeared in the documentaries The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr. (1996), Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (2001), and Vampira: About Sex, Death and Taxes (1995), a documentary about herself, as well as others.

Although Maila Nurmi's career as Vampira was actually very brief, she made a fairly large impact on pop culture. This is not simply because there are many who have fond memories of her show, but also because she pioneered the position of horror host at television stations. It was in 1956 that the classic horror movie King Kong aired on television for the first time. When it aired in New York City in May of that year, it was estimated that 90% of all homes with television sets were tuned into the classic film. This success did not go unnoticed on Screen Gems, who struck a deal with Universal to syndicate many of their classic horror movies in a package called Shock. Released to local TV stations in August 1957, Screen Gems provided stations with a promotional kit for Shock in which, among other things, they recommended the use of a host. Naturally many, many stations followed Screen Gems' advice and used hosts on their horror shows, no doubt largely due to the success of Vampira. Vampira would soon be joined by the likes of other famous horror hosts, such as Zacherley and Selwin. And while it is debatable whether Cassandra Peterson plagiarised Numi in creating Elvira, there can be no doubt that Elvira existed because Vampira had paved the way for horror hosts nearly three decades earlier. While Nurmi's career in show business was not long, it did certainly have an impact.


themarina said...

It baffles me that someone who was hardly on TV and had such a tragic life managed to make such an impact on the culture. I don't even know what Vampira looked like but everyone's heard of her and like you mention, she's been copied more than once. It's too bad she didn't really get the recognition she deserved.

- Rowthree.com

Mercurie said...

It is pretty amazing that she had the impact that she did. I think a lot of it came down to the fact that she was appeared on the scene so early in the history of American television and there had never been anything like her before.

d. chedwick bryant said...

Saw her in Plan 9, but otherwise don't really recall her.
I remember Zacherley the Cool Ghoul...

Nice Obit.

Snave said...

Ahhhhh, Plan 9! Visual "food of the gods"! I love that kind of stuff. I'll have to get out my old VHS of that one and watch it again!

Thanks for the information, Mercurie. That is interesting stuff!

Mercurie said...

I remember Vampira from Plan 9, and from various documentaries. I've hard of Zacherley and seen him in a few documentaries too. Sadly, the only horror hosts I had the opportunity to watch were the hosts of KRCG's Tales of Terror back in the Seventies (I wish I could recall their names) and, of course, Elvira.

That's a good idea, Snave. It's been a while since I've seen Plan 9 myself.