The Gothmother: Maila Nurmi

Before Elvira, before Lily Munster, before Morticia Adams, before Maleficient, there was Vampira. Natasha charts the rise and fall of the original glamour ghoul, Maila Nurmi.

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Gliding through a corridor billowing with dry ice, the black-clad wraith, lets out a blood-curdling scream.

The camera zooms in to focus on her heavily arched black eyebrows, plunging décolletage and extreme hourglass figure.

“Screaming, it relaxes me so”, Vampira purrs, giving the camera a knowing wink.

It’s April 30, 1954 and post-war American audiences don’t know what to think. Television is still in its infancy and no one has seen anything like The Vampira Show before.

‘Who on earth is this terribly seductive, macabre woman with the three-inch fingernails (painted her trademark ‘haemorrhage red’), long raven tresses and impossible 17-inch waist?,  they wonder while not being able to tear their eyes away from the sophisticated spectre on screen. 

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TV’s first horror host

The late-night American variety show which aired on Los Angeles ABC television affiliate KABC-TV screened from April 30 1954 through to April 2, 1955.

Vampira was television’s premier horror host. Her role was to introduce the evening’s feature film – a low budget horror flick such as White Zombie- while reclining on a skull-encrusted Victorian sofa.

At the time, movies were seldom aired on television. The big studios had zero desire to provide their competitors with content, so the only films to feature came from poverty row outfits such as Monogram and PRC.

Viewers tuned in week after week to watch the saucy seductress bath in a cauldron, stroke her pet spider Rollo, and share ghoulish cocktail recipes mixed up in her poison bar.

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A scream queen is born

Vampira’s look took its inspiration from pulp sci-fi, B-movie horror films and American burlesque. Her personality borrowed from silent film queens such as Theda Bara and Gloria Swanson, plus fictional characters such as the Evil Queen from Disney’s Snow White and the Dragon Lady character from the Terry and the Pirates comic strip.

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Her aesthetic was inspired by the spooky New Yorker cartoons by Charles Adams which were later adapted for the TV show The Adams Family in 1964, and her costume was the embodiment of John Willie’s fetish artwork in the underground magazine Bizarre.

Although it was unseen outside of the Los Angeles area, The Vampira Show quickly became a cult classic and fan clubs sprung up all around the world.

She was even nominated for an Emmy award as ‘Most Outstanding Female Personality’ in 1954.

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At her height of her fame, Nurmi would stroll the streets in Vampira drag. She even hired a funereal-style black 1932 Packard convertible to chauffeur her around town while she sat holding a black parasol. She soon became a fixture in nightclubs and jazz clubs of LA.

During this time, Nurmi became best buddies with James Dean. The pair loved to cruise the late-night dives swapping morbid stories or hanging out at Googie’s Coffee House on the corner of Crescent Heights.

However, just as she was on the brink of mega stardom, her show was cancelled and by the late 1950s, her TV career was over and she gradually fell into obscurity.

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Early beginnings

She was born Maila Elizabeth Syrjaniemi in 1922, to Finnish-American parents, although there are conflicting reports of her birthplace. Biographer and historian W. Scott Poole writes that she was born in Massachusetts, however Maila herself claimed to have been born in Petsamo, Finland.

She lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle during her childhood, moving from Massachusetts to Ashtabula Ohio, before settling in Astoria, Oregon.

Her father was a lecturer and editor and her mother, a part-time journalist and translator.

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An actress prepares

Maila moved to Los Angeles, California in 1940 to pursue an acting career, and later in New York City.   

She supported herself with various jobs as an actress, a ‘blonde bombshell’ pin-up model for soft-core men’s magazines, and as a burlesque dancer (at one stage she shared a chorus line with none other than Lili St. Cyr). She also did stints as a chorus girl, a showgirl and a hat check girl on Sunset Strip.

As legend has it, she was apparently sacked by Mae West in 1944 from the cast of Catherine was Great because West was worried about being upstaged by the fledgling actress.

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She gained notoriety on Broadway for appearing in the burlesque show Spook Scandals in which she rose out of the grave, hung out in a fake cemetery and emitted her famous blood-curdling scream.

In 1946, she was cast in film adaptation of the Russian novel Dreadful Hollow, a Howard Hawkes production with screenplay by William Faulkner. However, the project was put on hold so many times that she walked out of her contract in frustration.

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Her big break 

It was in 1953 that a 31-year-old Nurmi showed up at choreographer Lester Horton’s masquerade ball with her husband in an outfit reminiscent of Morticia Adams from Charles Adams New Yorker cartoons.

Her skintight black dress and porcelain white skin caught the eye of TV producer Hunt Stromberg JR who invited her to host horror movies on the Los Angeles TV station KABC-TV.

Her job was to entice late night viewers to stay up and watch the stations schlock horror, spicing things up with double entendres and campy hijinks.

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Maila’s child-actor-turned screenwriter husband Dean Riesner coined the name Vampira to describe her new character and a cult icon was born.

Despite being a hit, the show was cancelled in 1955 over murky contractual disputes and Nurmi’s refusal to sell the rights to the Vampira character to ABC.  Instead, the character had a short-lived revival in 1956 on rival channel KHJ-TV but Nurmi eventually left the project due to ‘creative differences’  The studio sent out a casting call and Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) auditioned and won the role.

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The ‘worst film of all time’

She returned to the big screen in the late 50s with roles in films such as Too Much, Too Soon, The Big Operator and The Beat Generation.

However her most infamous movie appearance was in the master of low budget horror Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The epitome of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, it’s been dubbed ‘the worst film ever made’ and posthumously billed Bela Lugosi as a guest star.

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In Plan 9 Nurmi played a Vampira-eque zombie (filmed in 1956 but not released until 1959). The screenplay was reportedly so bad that she refused to read out loud the lines in the script.

“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but my god, I could not say those words. Do you know what jewels those lines must have been? I tried to say them but I curdled my own blood. They were awful!” she said afterwards.

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Nurmi followed up with I Passed for White (1960), Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) and The Magic Sword (1962). She even appeared in one of Liberace’s Vegas shows.

In the 60s she opened an antique store on Melrose called Vampira’s Attic and released her own line of clothing and jewellery.

Rebirth of a legend

Vampira may have vanished but it was thanks to the cultural underground that she was she was reborn.  Horror punk band The Misfits helped stoke an appreciation for the fading icon, Vampira and The Misfits were great mates, and  often hung out together at West Hollywood Vinyl Fetish.

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Vampira was immortalized in a namesake song by The Misfits and The Damned’s Plan 9 Channel 7.

During the ’80s she was the frontwoman for a punk band called Satan’s Cheerleaders- although she was more of a beatnik than a punk.

Vampira also sparked many imitators-  including Cassadandra Peterson’s Elvira character which was blatantly ripped off from Nurmi’s on-screen image- although Peterson elevated it to cartoonishly buxom heights.

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Nurmi unsuccessfully tried to sue Peterson and remained bitter about the appropriation of her work.

 “I’m just waiting for her plastic surgery to backfire- for her bosoms to poison her,” she famously sniped.

Resurrected for a new generation

Vampira came back on the radar in 1994 when Tim Burton’s kooky film Ed Wood D Jr hit the screens.

In this kooky biopic of the low-budget auteur, Vampira was portrayed by Burton’s then girlfriend Lisa Marie. Despite it being rather a wooden, weirdly sullen portrayl of Nurmi’s character, it helped introduce Vampira to a new generation of fans.

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Her fall from grace

With her star on the wane, Maila moved in with her mother and was reportedly lay floor tiles and cleaned the homes of celebrities, in between collecting unemployment benefits. She died alone in her small Hollywood apartment in 2008, aged 85, and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Although long forgotten by Hollywood, her legend lives on and is the province of horror fans and goths/ psychobillies and she’s finally recognised as being light years ahead of her time.

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In 2012 Maila was the subject of a documentary film called Vampira and Me directed and written by Ray Greene- following a successful radio documentary series, which featured extended interview footage of a 74-year-old Nurmi.

Although not one to blow her own trumpet, Nurmi remained philosophical about her legacy.

 “I don’t have any babies or any social history that’s remarkable, so I’m leaving something behind, you know, when the time comes to say goodbye, I’m leaving something. Vampira wasn’t really acting, it was television, just a load of hogwash.

Her legions of fans would disagree.

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One thought on “The Gothmother: Maila Nurmi

  1. R.I.P. Vampira. In mystification and entrancement I watched and admired you as a boy of nine back in ’54, and never forgot! No question – that absconding, tasteless faker will receive her just reward. – Jimmy.

    Like

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