In our usual perusal of the internet’s nethers, we kept finding trails that pointed to a darker side of the “King of Rock & Roll”, notably, to a dame of darkness named Maila Nurmi, who pioneered the campy-vampire-starlet schtick in the 1950s, paving the way for the likes of Elvira. Who, speak of the Devil, also had a life-changing professional and romantic relationship with the King. Now, with their jet black hair and razor sharp brows, these women were the polar opposite of Anne Margaret-esque sex appeal. They were dark, they were weird, and they were a window into another side of Elvis…
Before she met Elvis, Maila had to ‘meet’ Vampira: her self-fashioned alter ego. She made her debut at 1953 costume party in Los Angeles, when Maila was inspired by a drawing of Morticia Addams in The New Yorker by cartoonist Charles Addams, and decided to recreate the look. So she synched in her waist, powdered her skin into a ghoulish glow, and went out on the town. It paid off: she caught the eye of Hunt Stromberg Jr. (the son of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s founder) at the party. Stromberg left that night feeling equal parts dazzled, and dumbfounded – who on earth was this mystery girl?
It took Stromberg months to track her down. Eventually, he got her number from Rudi Gernreich – who designed this little earth shattering fashion statement by the way – and got set on knowing her a little better. Her mother was American, and father had immigrated from Finland. Maila moved to Los Angeles in 1940 to act, but had mainly been modelling and running a coat check – and dreaming up this vampy alter-ego. Stromberg was sold, and immediately got to work on adapting her character – which she called “Vampira” – as the tongue-in-cheek host of the late night Vampira Show. It premiered in 1954 on KABC-TV, with Maila screaming in a cloud of dry ice fog, and getting cozy on skull covered lounge.
She had a pet spider named Rollo. She was barefoot. When a talk show host asked her, “Is that really your waist, or do you come in two sections?” she clapped back, “Yeah, two sections. I’m kind of a do-it-myself kit.” She was far from the Doris Day archetype, and Americans ate it up.
One of her biggest fans, in fact, was James Dean. The actor became obsessed with Maila, who often stepped out on the town in full Vampira costume, and the two became good friends. So popular was Maila’s character, in fact, that early drawing-board sketches for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) show a very Vampira-esque interpretation of the villain, Malificient:
Anywho, in 1956, she met Elvis. “I went to Las Vegas to perform with Liberace,” she later said in an interview, “and went with 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.'” And boom – there he was.
“He looked confusedly into the darkness,” she continues, “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.”
They were words of comfort, certainly, but also very valuable sincere bits of career advice. Elvis felt seen by Maila, and took an instant interest in her. “I know you’re getting old and all,” he told the 33-year-old, “but if you’d like to come back after the show, I’d be proud to take you back to my bungalow.”
At this point, Maila was married to actor and screenwriter Dean Riesner. Elvis was 21-years-old – over a decade younger than Maila – and rather brazen to court her. Maila always denied dating Elvis in interviews – but there are photos of them canoodling:
Maila’s run as Vampira lasted a few years, and then she quit showbusiness to work as a carpenter, amateur fashion designer and antiques dealer (who says the perfect woman doesn’t exist?).
The name of her boutique on Melrose Avenue was “Vampira’s Attic,” and clients included Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and Frank Zappa. In the meantime, Elvis went on to be, well, Elvis. And in 1967 he married his darling Priscilla, who arguably rocked her own Morticia Adams look.
Fast-forward to Las Vegas, circa 1970. Elvis is a full-blown musical icon when he runs into a 17-year-old show girl from the midwest named Cassandra Peterson. At the time, she’s working the stage for the show Vive Les Girls at the Dunes Hotel. But Elvis senses something different about her, and advises her to get out of the uniform, Vegas-showgirl track to grow as an artist. It’s a good thing he did, ’cause otherwise we’d never have Elvira.
“He is 100 percent responsible for me getting out of Vegas and going on with my career,” she said in a 2016 interview with AV Club, “Elvis said to me, ‘You don’t want to stay here, this is not a town you should be in.’ And I don’t think if that would’ve come from anybody but Elvis I would’ve done it.” He also asked her out on a date. “I spent an evening, a night, and part of the next day with him,” she told Huffington Post in 2016, “So I felt like I kind of got to know him, and got a little peek inside what was going on there. That was pretty amazing.”
That was the extent of their dating history, but Cassandra went on to audition for the revival of the Vampira show in Hollywood, replacing Maila as the campy, vampy TV show host. She got the part, and by 1981 Vampira was reborn as Elvira, America’s newest “Vampire Valley Girl” and “Mistress of Darkness.” It’s pretty wild to see how she saunters down the hallway just like her predecessor:
Naturally, this is the part where we could start queuing up the conspiracy theories. I mean what are the odds of such a vampy, inadvertent triangle between Elvis, Vampira and Elvira?
The Elvis-Vampire association has been touched on by various fan blogs, Reddit threads and even in a 1990s book and musical called Elvicula (as in, Elvis + Dracula) written in the 1990s by playwright Jonathan Hagloch. The dark hair, the popped collars, the fact that he would “put aluminium foil over his hotel windows to keep out the sunlight,” says Hagloch in an interview with The Chicago Tribune, all make him natural fodder for a post-post-mortem transformation into a vampire. We kinda get it. After all, what do you do with a man who was larger than life? Make him larger than death of course. As for his vampire muses, Maila passed away in 2008, and is buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Cassandra is just as alive as ever, and in the process of writing a memoir to be published in Halloween of 2020.