The rise and fall of America’s first horror host & glamour ghoul
Vampira: The First Glamour Ghoul of Horror
The story of the legendary Vampira Show is a tough one to tell. Only two minutes of the early 1950s series survive on YouTube, although an episode of the show was reconstructed and released in October 2007. The woman behind the campy, late-night horror hostess Vampira was Maila Nurmi, a native of Finland who moved to the United States with her family when she was two years old. She landed in Hollywood and started work as a print model in the late 1940s. She had a minor role in the 1947 film “If Winter Comes”. In 1949 she married her first husband, Dean Riesner (the screenwriter behind Dirty Harry). In 1953 she wore a costume modeled after the Morticia Addams character of the Charles Addams cartoons to a ball hosted by choreographer Lester Horton. She won the costume prize and caught the attention of Hollywood producer Hunt Stromberg Jr., who proposed she adapt the character for TV. Nurmi played it up as a camp vamp – a busty beatnik/wisecracking pun-loving sexpot with a killer figure. Her first husband suggested the character name “Vampira”. Vampira’s personality was based on elements of several silent film actresses including Theda Bara and Gloria Swanson. The Vampira character was influenced by the Evil Queen from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and from the Dragon Lady character in the Terry and the Pirates comic strip. The costume was inspired by the artwork of John Willie featured in the fetish magazine Bizarre. Vampira was sex and death all wrapped up in a tight black tattered dress with a slit up the leg. She had soft raven hair, long phallic nails, dark lips, and commanding eyebrows arched just so. And she floated through the night’s eerie fog, through the airwaves of the family television and right into the living room to let out a brash, horrifying, yet pleasurable scream and say with a coy smile, “Screaming relaxes me so,” right before she introduced the nightly flick.
At a time when TV’s Lucy could be considered a woman who followed her own mind yet still lived under the thumb of her husband, Vampira offered Americans an independent woman who was sexy and refined, yet downright twisted. She possessed a sexual confidence unseen on television to this point, talking to rubber spiders like they were sexual partners – suggesting that females can not only headline their own TV shows but be sexually aroused by beings other than their husbands. Vampira quickly reached a larger audience through a Life magazine photo shoot. She appeared on Red Skelton’s popular show alongside horror icons Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi. She hung out with James Dean and his entourage at Googie’s Restaurant, one of the few late night spots in 1950s Hollywood. She became part of “the night watch,” aspiring actors and directors that hovered around Dean, the strange and beautiful boy from Indiana who had yet to reach superstardom. Ratings for the Vampira show shot through the roof in the year to come and Nurmi seemed on the verge of major stardom. But KABC canceled her contract around the time of the death of James Dean. Despite her popularity, Vampira had spun a web of controversy that entangled her and the station. FCC warnings, a lawsuit by a starlet who thought her career had been ruined by the image of Vampira, and, finally, the end of Nurmi’s marriage to Reisner, a blow to the station’s public relations campaign that had attempted to portray her as a normal housewife who liked to play dress-up as a bit of “horrific whimsy.” Dean’s death, or at least the bizarre rumors that surrounded Nurmi in the aftermath of it, represented the final straw. Whisper magazine, ran an issue in February 1956, just a little over four months after Dean’s fatal automobile accident with the headline, “James Dean’s Black Madonna: The Most Chilling and Tragic Love Story in Hollywood History.” Their relationship remains ambiguous to this day, not entirely clear if it was platonic or romantic, and most of the stories surrounding the couple exist solely as rumors that cast Vampira as an evil witch who cursed Dean to death for scorning her. Vampira’s alleged infatuation with Dean led her to craft a postcard meant as one of her macabre jokes that shows her sitting alone on a folding chair next to an open grave. The card reads, “Darling, Come and Join Me.” The postcard was later snagged by journalists and printed in Whisper. Hell-bent on upturning the status quo for American women. Vampira made a defiant, albeit rather odd and slightly insensitive, statement that Vampira and only Vampira will control her own narrative. She then showed up, uninvited, at a Hollywood costume party dressed as a witch complete with the pointy hat. Her date came as a bandaged James Dean indeed playing with the rumors that she was a witch who could resurrect Dean from the grave and the witch who may have put Dean in the grave. After all this Vampira’s career faltered. Do in part from the scandalous rumors surrounding Dean’s death and her alleged occult ties. She would not accept the press crafting stories about her so she made them her own. She refused to be painted the petty, scorned lover. She refused to be America’s housewife and she wasn’t going to be its witch either.
By Ken Warren, 2017/18
Watch the rare opening from the original 1954 “Vampira Show”
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