R.I.P. Vampira

The '50s late night schlock movie hostess and icon of the goth femme generation has died at age 86.
Sashaying about in her low-cut, tattered black dress, with six-inch-long nails capping ghastly-pale fingers, and cracking wise about horrible things, VAMPIRA seemed quite comfortable with death. So, it should come as no surprise, and as a comfort to fans, that she apparently met her own peacefully.*

Maila Nurmi, aka '50s TV horror hostess Vampira, passed away in the early morning hours of January 10th at her home in Los Angeles. According to her website, the cause was cardiac arrest. She had recently turned 86.**

Maila Syrjäniemi was born in Finland, but immigrated to the United States as a small child. By 17, she had taken the surname of her famous uncle, world-class runner Paavo "Flying Finn" Nurmi, and moved to New York, then Los Angeles, in pursuit of an acting career.

Nurmi found little success in show business until 1953, when she attended a Hollywood masquerade ball dressed as the ghoul of Charles Addams's New Yorker cartoons. "I bound my bosoms, so that I was flat-chested, and I got a wig, and painted my body a kind of a mauve white pancake with a little lavender powder so that I looked as though I'd been entombed."

Her costume was voted best at the ball, and, months later, KABC-TV hired her as the hostess of a late-night horror show.

Vampira's low-cut dress accentuated her 13-inch waist and displayed more cleavage than was common for the day. But, while creating her alter ego, Nurmi had been influenced by beatnik culture and shaped by her own Depression-era upbringing. "The times were so conservative and so constrained, and people needed to identify with something explosive, something outlandish and truthful."

The fabulously macabre star of Channel 7's "The Vampira Show" played with her pet tarantula, revealed the ghoulish recipes for her vampire cocktails, and dramatically introduced grade-Z fright films while rattling off double-entendres and staring through her viewers with dark, dramatically arched eyebrows.

Maila Nurmi layered her own brand of camp over already-campy horror flicks, and brought sex appeal to graveyard TV programming. "The Vampira Show" was a hit, bringing its star national attention and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Female Personality. Vampira appeared in Life Magazine, and soon there were fan clubs around the world.

"I was high-rolling in Hollywood, and I was quite full of myself," Nurmi said in a 1994 interview with People magazine.

But in 1955, KABC axed the show. The next year, outlandish fringe filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Bride of the Monster) approached Nurmi with an offer of $200 to appear in his latest movie.

"I was scraping by on $13 a week," she told People mag. "I thought, 'Well, here I go. I'm going to commit professional suicide right now.'"

The 1959 zombie flick Plan 9 From Outer Space, featuring wrestler Tor Johnson and outtakes of the late Bela Lugosi, has been called the worst movie of all time. Vampira appeared in a few more films, but Nurmi's career was sinking quickly toward the grave.

By the early '60s, she was laying linoleum, doing carpentry, making drapes, refinishing furniture, and even cleaning celebrity homes.

But her fans never forgot.

"I met her back in the eighties, when this ELVIRA character was on the scene," wrote LOST PLANET AIRMAN on Metroblogging Los Angeles. "You should have seen the sparkle in her eyes when I said 'That phony broad's trying to be you!!!'"

According to Wikipedia, KHJ-TV asked Nurmi to revive Vampira, but she declined. The TV station continued the show with a new character: Elvira, as played by the busty Cassandra Peterson.

In the late '80s, Nurmi filed a lawsuit, alleging that Elvira had ripped off her character, copying the "distinctive, low-cut, tattered black dress, emphasizing cleavage and a voluptuous figure."

Nurmi lost the case. But her influence on today's goth teen look is undeniable.

"If Maila Nurmi had never created her alter ego, Vampira, I wouldn't know how to act, dress or put on make-up," wrote LORI NYX at laist.com.

Tim Burton's 1994 film Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp as Wood and the statuesque Lisa Marie as Vampira, introduced Nurmi to a new generation of fans.

"I will always remember the sparkle in her eye that was Maila," posted PATRICK L., who met her through the Plan 9 Companion video party in Hollywood. "What a vivacious, sexy woman! I can still remember her fun laugh."

Some online fans were frustrated at the lack of major outlet news postings related to Nurmi's death last Thursday, and one even preferred to treat the blog reports as rumor. However, by 1:30pm on Jan 15, Google News had listed 224 related articles, and the North Dakota news site KXMV.com was running this headline: "Bush talks to Saudis about oil...Final pitches...'Vampira' dies..."

* The opening paragraph is based on the statement posted on Nurmi's own Website. The L.A. Times reported that the cause of death still was under investigation by the L.A. County coroner's office, and this writer was unable to get an update either way by posting time.

** Her age, as posted here, is based on that given by Nurmi's Website. Most sources are reporting her age as 85.

[Thanks to MARIANA MCCONNELL at Cinema Blend for the posting. Thanks also to JOCELYN Y. STEWART at the Los Angeles Times and to BoingBoing.net for additional information.]
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