Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A GASP FROM THE PAST: VAMPIRA


 
Vampira in her heyday

   I spent a lot of my teens hunting down  the legendary screen siren and horror movie hostess Vampira... I was completely obsessed with her. It took me quite a long time to figure out that the friendly older woman I used to sit next to at  Angel's Coffee Shop in Hollywood WAS  Vampira, Maila Nurmi herself!   
Just before this story was published, I arranged for Vampira  to make a  live comeback, by popping out of a coffin at a Cramps  show in Northridge, California.

This article was originally published in LA Weekly on October 30, 1981


I first discovered Vampira when I was twelve years old.  An avid fan of horror movies and monster magazines, I saw her pictures, and fell in love. Later, when  I discovered James Dean and started reading everything I could get my hands on about him,   Vampira figured prominently in many of the stories.  As an adult, I was still completely fascinated and  spent hours trying to look her up, cruising down Melrose Avenue looking for her store and mooning over every publicity still I could find of her.  Like me, many of the people obsessed with Vampira weren’t even born during her short career span … It’s only because of Plan 9 From Outer Space, a few scattered stories and the old stills that they even know she existed.  Apparently that was enough to trigger the mania.

Her five-inch-long fingernails were painted “hemorrhage red,” as were her cruel-looking lips.  Her skin had a luminous alabaster pallor, in direct contrast to her stringy raven mane and tattered black shrouds which clung to her body like wallpaper … and what a body - her measurements were a stunning 38-17-36.  Her face was angular, with high-jutting planes for cheekbones and black Gothic arch slashes of eyebrows.

 Her icy blue eyes glittered with come-hither invitation and sly menace as she’d say in a throaty voice at the end of the Vampira Show she hosted on Channel 7,

 “Bad dreams, dahling.”

She drove through Hollywood in a chauffeured hearse, maintained that she signed “epitaphs, not autographs” and drank nothing but Bloody Marys.  One fan who worked at L.A. Children’s Hospital even offered her a test-tube full of her “favorite cocktail.”  She was considered one of the original beatniks and hung out at Googie’s and other bohemian coffeehouses.  She took in stray cats as well as stray actors, like Marlon Brando and James Dean.  She sent “Jimmy,” as she referred to him, a postcard of herself in a coffin with the inscription “Wish you were here” - a week later he was dead.

In 1956, she starred in the triple-B movie and cult favorite Plan 9 From Outer Space along with Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson.  Although she admits to being “a terrible snob” and has little regard for that movie, it was Plan 9 and its frequent runs in revival houses that has spurred the renewed interest in the prettiest vampire ever.

Hollywood legends are made, not born, as the old saying goes.  And most of the legends are made, at least in part, by untimely deaths - witness Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow and, of course, James Dean.  Vampira is not dead.  (Well, she always was, anyway.)  But she disappeared from the public eye over 25 years ago.  She not only dropped out of the limelight, she holed up and became a virtual hermit.  Why?  She says she  was getting a lot of crank phone calls and being pestered by bizarre people who thought she really was Vampira.  Notes written in blood would be delivered daily, and sometimes appetizing treats like decaptitated animals would appear on her doorstep as love offerings.  She was plagued with death threats by people who thought she’d be more sexually attractive as a corpse, and later, when Dean died, she was bombarded with people wanting to touch someone close to him.

Today, Vampira leads a quiet life in East Hollywood, working as a waitress and selling various items at swap meets and flea markets.  She shares her small apartment with three dogs and tries to keep a low profile.  In person, at the age of 60, she is still gorgeous.  Although she has a row of teeth missing on the right side of her mouth, her skin is clear and unlined, and the incredible bone structure is still there.  When she unwinds, she is animated and laughs easily.  She is extremely intelligent, not to mention well-informed on current events.

Vampira was born Maila Nurmi in Finland and migrated to the U.S. with her family at the age of two.  Her father was a newspaper editor and a temperance lecturer, and the family roamed around America before finally settling in Oregon.  Although Maila had a strict religious upbringing, she’d been acting since she was very young.  At the age of  seventeen, she moved to Los Angeles to stay with relatives and pursue a theatrical career.  In between too few acting jobs, Maila began doing exotic dancing up and down the West Coast.  At last, an offer to appear with a Shakespeare company just outside of Chicago came through, and Maila and a friend packed up and left on a bus for the “legitimate stage.”

“Well, we got off the bus,” she laughed, “and there was nothing there, only a field.  I saw a tent and thought, ‘This must be it.’  So we went over to the tent, and it turned out to be a carnival!  It was they who had hired us.  We were supposed to stand on these giant blocks of ice right outside of the hootchie-koo tent and wear ice-skates and hula dance!  We lasted about a week - it was a pretty rough place.  But the carnies were wonderful; they all pitched in for bus fare to get us back home.”

Back in L.A., Maila did cheesecake photos for Bernard of Hollywood, a well-known photographer.  His stable included Marilyn Monroe, Irish McCalla and Mamie Van Doren.  This helped to pay the rent until she moved to New York City to appear in Mike Todd’s Spooky Scandals, portraying, ironically enough, a dancing vampire.  Howard Hawks spotted her, brought her back out to Hollywood, and because he thought she had a rather sensuous Lauren Bacall type appeal, gave her the old “I’ll make you a star” treatment.  Things looked promising, but nothing ever came of it.  She lived in furnished rooms and generally weathered the starlet struggle.  She recalls waking up one night and having an experience with astral projection.

“All of a sudden I saw myself, but I was far thinner than I was then and about four inches taller.  I looked just like a vampire, and I was walking into Ciro’s with a blond young man following me.  He stepped on my train, and I looked back and stopped for a moment.  Then the vision went away.”

Eight years later, the vision became a reality. Maila and her  then-husband, producer Dean Reiner were to attend a costume ball. Maila  spent a lot of time  on her costume and made herself up as the wife in the Charles Addams cartoons, whose macabre work for The New Yorker  spawned The Addams Family television series. Maila’s appearance was so breathtaking that  Hunt Stromberg, Jr., head of ABC , spent two months  after the event searching for her to host the Channel 7 late-night horror movie show. She consented, and in 1954, Vampira was born.

She was an instant hit the moment the program aired. Red-blooded American males ( and of course, that was the way she liked them!) spurned innocent-looking blondes in favor of “The Ghoul Nextdoor”, who wowed ‘em weekly with vast expanses of cleavage, drinking “poison” from an ornate antique bar ans she lounged provocatively on  a sofa decorated with skulls. She’d open the show with a blood-curdling scream and croon,

“I hope you’ve all had the good fortune to have had a terrible week!”

In between bitingly sarcastic comments on the movies, which were generally just as horrible as Plan 9 but not nearly as humorous,  she’d make double-entendre necrophiliac jokes. Aside from a few housewives complaining about Vampira’s bosom and  licentious attitude, she was an all-around smash.  Life  magazine did a four-page spread on her, she was written up in Newsweek, and The Academy Of Television Arts And Sciences nominated her “Most Outstanding Female Personality” for 1954.  Offers for guest appearances poured in by the hundreds, and the fan mail was staggering. Newspapers did huge layouts on “The girl who put the HEX in sex appeal”, and Confidential, the most outrageous of the scandal rags, really played up the friendship between Vampira and “America’s Number One Teenager”, James Dean.

 Vampira befriended James  Deam when her star far outshone his. East of Eden  was doing well but wasn’t a hit. By that time,  Vampira  was making grand sweeping entrances into Hollywood hotspots like  Ciro’s.

“I was so sad because I was getting invited into such lovely places,” she laments, “And I couldn’t even eat an olive, or my waist-cincher would pop and I’d throw up!”

The pair met at Googie’s, the hip place  to see and be seen, and got along like gangbusters. The rest is  Hollywood history…but not  quite.

“ No one ever really got close to Jimmy, “ she recalls, “He was a loner. The whole ‘James Dean set’ was invented by the studios. I didn’t even know Sal Mineo. Natalie Wood was just a stupid little girl with a crush on him- she had a crush on everybody! Deennis Hopper was the only one who really admired him. People would fall in love with him at the movie theaters, but would’nt even recognize him on the street.”

 As far as their personal relationship goes, Vampira will only concede to telling short anecdotes like The Postcard Story. But she admits,

“We saw each other’s psyche reflected in each other, like Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles.”

Just around the time of Dean’s death, she was blacklisted by the ABC  Netwrok for refusing to relinquish the rights to the Vampira copyright to them. The day the contract was annulled,  she was planning on having a small party with Dean to celebrate her freedom, but it turned out to be the day he was buried.  Vampira went into seclusion and eventually passed through the public’s forgetfulness and imagination into nothing more than a puzzle-piece in the Dean legend.

“Jimmy died at the right time; he’s immortal,” she said, “His glory is bigger than valentino’s.”

Aside from a few pulp magazine articles with  lurid titles like Vampira And The Ghost Of  James Dean  Maila and her alter ego  vanished almost entirely.  The blacklist was in full effect and people in the biz  either wouldn’t touch her, or couldn’t get in touch with her.

“I was at the ABC offices and  one man said, ‘Do you know what’s in my bottom drawer? Over $60,000.00 worth of  offers for guest appearances for you, and we have refused every one of them.’  And that was just for the month of January! I couldn’t get any work at all- I was cleaning people’s houses and going back to my furnished room…”

In 1956,  hack director extraordinaire  Edward G. Wood met  Maila at a part at Bela Lugosi Jr.’s house. He was working on Plan 9 and wondered if she’d want a part in it.

“Well, I  asked how much, and he  was paying $200.00 for one day of work, so naturally I accepted- I was penniless. They weren’t a big movie company, you know. No limousines or anything like that. I went to the job every day on the RTD bus in my Vampira get-up.”

She launches into a gale of giggles before continuing,

“The dialog was terrible so I played the part mute. They were all amateurs. Wood was supposed to be wild- a transvestite, things like that- but they all just struck me as a bunch of half-assed backwoods people. I couldn’t imagine anyone believing it or wanting to see it, but it ran on 42nd Street in New York for ages, and look at it now!”

At a recent  Los Angeles  screening at the Nuart Theater, Nurmi tried to attend but  was refused because the show was sold out.

“My friend was saying ‘But this is Vampira, don’t you see? She hasn’t ever seen the movie and she wants to.  She’ll stand in the aisle…”

 The man at the box office  replied, “Vampira is dead.”

Such was the extent of her reclusiveness.

Once in an interview, she lamented, “My whole life has been one big Halloween party!” and maybe  most of it has been. But  like a true vampire, she will live forever with her otherworldly beauty and  her image as  “The Girl Of Your Screams”.

Think of Vampira at The Witching Hour, and hopefully all of you  dahlings out there will have the good fortune to have wondrously bad dreams.


#
 
One of my prized possessions: a signed poster  given to me by Maila  herself


  "The night owls will fly...the devils will brew
Halloween is the night for Vampira and you
The movies are Horrors at the stroke of eleven
Vampira's just dying to meet you on Seven!" 














3 comments:

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