Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Maila Nurmi, Vampira 1921-2008

Born December 21, 1921 in Petsamo Finland Maila Syrjäniemi who would later change her name to Maila Nurmi moved to the United States when she was still a baby. Her family moved around a lot as a child since her writer father traveled round the country to lecture on temperance.


Maila was discovered by famed director Howard Hawks, when she was performing on Michael Todd's Grand Guignol midnight show Spook Scandals. Hawks thought he could groom the beautiful blonde Nurmi into the next Lauren Bacall and cast her in his developing project Dreadful Hollow. The film was put on hold so many times Nurmi walked out of her contract in frustration and into a career as a cheesecake model and sometimes dancer.

Nurmi came up with the idea of Vampira at a masquerade contest where she based her costume on Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoons. Heavily painted up with long fingernails, a mane of raven-colored hair, and slim-waisted black attire, the Morticia gimmick won the best costume award that night...and more. She caught the attention of local TV and was placed under contract to Channel 7 in Hollywood to see if she could encourage late night viewers to stay up and watch its regular programming of cheap horror schlock. Her horror-related comedy antics included talking to her pet spider Rollo, and encouraging viewers to write for epitaphs instead of autographs. The first season of the show was made an instant hit by her sexiness, silly double entendres and terrifically campy horror set. She was even nominated for an Emmy in 1954 for Most Outstanding Female Personality.


Even in spite of it's success the show was cancelled in 1955 but she retained the rights to the character Vampira. Nurmi was the first female horror movie hostess in the country.

After the television show was canceled Nurmi went on to appear in a few movies, none really noteable aside from the infamous worst movie of all time Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. Appearing in her Vampira costume next to Bela Lugosi "look alike" Tom Mason she played the role of the ghoul's wife. A mute zombie like villain who doesn't seem to do anything except creep with outstretched arms.


Nurmi was acquainted with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and briefly dated Orson Welles. In the early 1950s, she was close friends with James Dean, and they hung out together. "We have the same neuroses" she once said of their friendship.

In the early 1970's Nurmi opened Vampira's Attic an antiques shop in her home on Melrose Avenue where she sold clothes, handmade jewelry and antiques no duh. She was known to have made items for several celebrities including Grace Slick and the Zappa family.

In the 1980s, Nurmi was asked by KHJ-TV to revive her Vampira character for television. She worked closely with the producers of the new show and was to get an executive producer credit, but Nurmi eventually declined their proposal. KHJ-TV continued with the show and changed the name of their host to Elvira. Later, Nurmi sued Cassandra Peterson, the actress who played Elvira. The court eventually ruled in favor of Peterson, holding that "'likeness' means actual representation of another person's appearance, and not simply close resemblance." Peterson claimed that Elvira was nothing like Vampira aside from the basic design of the black dress and black hair. Nurmi herself claimed that Vampira's image was based on Charles Addams character "Morticia Addams."

Nurmi and her charachter Vampira appeared in Life magazine, TV Guide and Newsweek articles. Fan have clubs sprouted up all over the world. There have even been several songs written about the horror movie queen.


Nurmi suffered a cardiac arrest and died in her sleep in the early morning hours of 10 January 2008, aged 86.

4 comments:

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I loved her in Plan 9.

Dr. Zaius said...

Hey, this is great! She will be missed, but you have done a very nice tribute to her.

Swinebread said...

Fantastic Post. Sad she is gone but we'll always have her iconic image.

Becca said...

It was a loss! I admit however I knew very little about her non-Vampira life before I did the research for this post. It was great to get to know a little more about this lovely woman!

And yes she was so great in Plan 9!