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To celebrate Halloween, Yahoo Movies spent the last week talking to stars who scared us silly in classic horror movies. Go here to read our complete Halloween coverage.
At 35 years young, Elvira has been Halloween royalty ever since she hit the horror scene in 1981 as the newly installed hostess on L.A.’s then-independent station KHJ-TV. From her humble origins riffing on Z-grade movies in the wee hours, the Mistress of the Dark now oversees a frighteningly successful empire that includes costumes, comic books, feature films, TV appearances, live shows, and all manner of merchandise.
It may seem like an unlikely rags-to-riches story, but as Elvira’s alter ego, Cassandra Peterson, age 65, tells Yahoo Movies, it is a destiny that was foretold decades before 1981. While putting together an all-new anniversary “coffin table book” celebrating the pop culture icon she created, Peterson received a package from her mother containing a forgotten childhood photo. “It’s a picture of my very first Halloween when I was 5 years old,” she remembers of her childhood in Kansas. “I was dressed in this little black-and-orange crepe paper number with a crown and a scepter. I asked her what I was dressed as, and she said, ‘You told me you wanted to go as the Queen of Halloween!’ I guess everything happens for a reason, right?”
Elvira’s ageless appeal can be credited to many factors: certainly her outfit, cleavage, attitude, humor, and hair have inspired numerous tributes and imitations over the decades. For Peterson, though, it all comes back to Halloween, Elvira’s busiest time of year. “People may forget about me for a few months, but then I’m back, like Santa Claus!”
Beyond the new book, available for purchase at Elvira.com, the Queen of Halloween is ringing in her 35th year with appearances on shows like Comic Book Men and Halloween Wars, as well as the latest edition of her annual musical revue at Southern California’s Knott’s Berry Farm, appropriately rechristened Knott’s Scary Farm during the ghosts and goblins season. In our epic career interview with Peterson, we covered Elvira’s early days on the ol’ boob tube, her forays into feature filmmaking, and what’s in store for the character after she permanently boxes up the wig.
Elvira was born, so to speak, during an era when independent TV stations like KHJ-TV kind of operated like the Wild West. Did it help being able to workshop the character in that kind of environment?
When I first appeared on local television as Elvira, I was allowed a lot more leeway than I expected. After I got the job, my friend made a sketch of what my dress should look like. I said, “There’s no way I can wear this on TV,” and they were like, “Just make the slit on the leg higher and it’ll be great.” Local TV stations didn’t really worry about standards and practices, so I made it pretty edgy. The station manager would come in just about every other week and say, “We’ve got a complaint again about your dress being so low-cut. You have to fix that.” I’d go, “OK, I’ll have them make the neckline higher.” And then I wouldn’t do anything at all, and he’d come back a couple weeks later and go, “We got a complaint.” It just kept going on like that. I never changed it!
Later on, when I went into syndicated television, I was still able to do that, but we really had to cut back on the edginess for national appearances, like the Coors campaign, for example. And the cleavage was always a big problem. I’ve always wondered whether Elvira would have been more widespread if I hadn’t made her so sexy. But I’ve been doing it for 35 years, so I really shouldn’t complain, right?
The cleavage is certainly eye-catching.
Yes, that’s what draws them in; it’s kind of the hook, and then they get the humor. I certainly consider myself a comedian; I was with [the improv troupe] the Groundlings for four and a half years prior to creating Elvira. And, of course, there’s the horror as surrounding the whole thing. I’ve always been a huge horror fan, so for me to be able to work in that realm is fantastic.
A lot of Elvira’s early appearances on late-night talk shows are available on YouTube. It’s interesting to watch them and see you figuring out the character outside of the “horror hostess” persona.
I was always figuring that out. I still am, I think. Depending on what show it was, I had to decide whether I was going to be edgy and if I was going to cover up the cleavage. Like when I appeared on The Magical World of Disney, my face was just peeping out of this big black blob of hair! [Laughs] I was always trying to find how far could I push Elvira while still being invited back on national TV again, trying to make her edgy, but not so edgy that kids—and I’m talking about older kids here, like 12 and up — couldn’t enjoy her. And I’m still going, “Too far? Not far enough? I don’t know.”
Your Groundlings training really shines through in Elvira’s appearance on Alan Thicke’s 1980s talk show, Thicke of the Night. You run circles around him.
Basically, I was thrown out there to improvise. I had some jokes in my bag that I could pull out, but all those late-night appearances were pretty much improvisational. You weren’t given the questions or anything upfront, so you had to be prepared. If I hadn’t had a background in improvisation, the character certainly wouldn’t have been as successful. But the fact that you say I ran circles around Alan Thicke … I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not! [Laughs] No, no, I’ve got to stop the Alan Thicke bashing here.
Let’s use Johnny Carson as an example then. What was your first Tonight Show appearance like?
Oh, it was so surreal — you can’t even imagine. I’d grown up idolizing The Tonight Show and Johnny Carson. It was the biggest, hottest show out there for so many years, and to be invited on that felt like I had made the big time for sure. I was on The Tonight Show five times with five different hosts, and I’ve got to say that Johnny Carson was the best, hands down. He made the guests look good.
Growing up in the ’90s, I remember Elvira appearing on shows like Totally Hidden Video and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. It’s funny to go back and watch your ’80s appearances on CHiPs and The Fall Guy when, again, the character isn’t fully formed.
In those early appearances, I really didn’t know what the heck I was doing — who I was or who Elvira was. One of my first major national appearances was in the movie Stroker Ace with Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson. I played this girl trying to pick up Jim Nabors, a very challenging role! [Laughs] They originally had me wearing this blue, big-shouldered dress that was all the rage in the ’80s. I looked like I was on Dynasty or something, but then I still had my Elvira wig and my Elvira makeup. I was like, “This so doesn’t work.” Later on, I got to a place where I could say, “I’m Elvira. This is the look I have, and you’ve got to write around me, not make me into somebody else.”
What are some of those rules?
There are three basic things that I based this character on: spooky, funny, and sexy. All of those elements have to be there in order for her to be Elvira. If one of them is missing, I’m not Elvira. So when people want me to do these little walk-ons in horror movies where I play a sorceress kind of character, I’m like, “Can’t do it.” Which is a bummer, because I hate turning down stuff, but if it doesn’t have Elvira’s sense of humor, spookiness, and sexiness, it’s just not her. These days when they ask me, “Oh, can you cover up the cleavage?” I’m like, “Nope, sorry.” It’s part of the character. Actually, it’s two parts of the character. [Laughs]
Watch the trailer for ‘Elvira: Mistress of the Dark:’
Your appearances on The Fall Guy introduced you to Sam Egan, who would later be part of the writing team for the first Elvira movie, 1988’s Mistress of the Dark.
Sam got the character immediately. Both times I did The Fall Guy, he knew exactly what Elvira should be doing and saying. My writing partner, John Paragon, and I needed somebody to be in the room who really knew what they were doing when it came to a movie script. We had been writing together for 21 years, so we were good at writing one-liners, but we really needed an adult in the room, and NBC, which produced the movie, insisted on us having a babysitter. So we got Sam, and he was just the perfect guy; he really kept us on track.
The movie bombed during its theatrical run, but it has become a seasonal favorite since.
All the critics just hated it. Even Roger Ebert, who was my friend, hated it! But it stuck around and stuck around and gained momentum over the years. More and more people like it, and I’m happy to say that when I see it every once in a while, it holds up. Maybe the best thing about the movie is that we couldn’t afford CGI. A lot of CGI from that era looks so tired and ridiculous. Thankfully we only had cheesy effects, not special effects.
It is surprising that Roger Ebert wasn’t an enormous fan of the movie given his well-documented friendship with mammary aficionado Russ Meyer.
Right? I ran into him many times over the years, and he’d always tell me, “Oh, I just love Elvira!” But when he and Siskel reviewed Mistress of the Dark on their show, they thought it was horrible and that I was a horrible actress. I was like, “Actress? I’m not an actress. I’m Elvira!” It would be like saying, “Gosh, Pee-wee Herman is such a horrible actor,” or “Pat is such a horrible character.” It’s funny: both Paul Reubens and Julia Sweeney were also Groundlings, and that’s what we did. We didn’t act so much as create characters.
The plot of the movie pits Elvira against puritanical small-town adults, led by Edie McClurg’s Chastity Pariah. If anything, studios and ratings boards are even more skittish about sex and sexuality these days. Could you make the PG-13 version of the movie again today?
I probably could remake that movie today, and it would be just as relevant with all of that. Although let’s hope it’s getting a little better. I think if Elvira showed up in that town today, she’d have more people that were on her side than just a few teenagers. When I first syndicated my television show, it was picked up in all these various markets. And guess where our most successful market was: the Bible Belt. That says something, right?
Over the years, you’ve hinted that there are deleted scenes sitting in a vault somewhere. Any chance those might be released one day?
Not deleted scenes so much, because I managed to get pretty much everything I wanted into the movie. Actually, more than what I wanted, because NBC had this crazy idea that we had to have teenagers in the movie! They said that if we didn’t have teenagers, teenagers wouldn’t come to see the movie. So we ended up writing them in, and that meant there were a million characters in the movie, so all the reviews complained, “There are too many characters, and no character development!” How can you develop characters when you’ve got, like, 25 of them? I do have a lot of behind-the-scenes footage that my husband at the time [Mark Pierson] shot for fun. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to show it, because I unfortunately don’t own the rights to Mistress of the Dark.
So no scenes that explain what happen to Frank Collison’s henchman character, for example? He kind of vanishes from the movie.
Good question. What happened to Frank? I think that is one of the things that ended up on the editing floor. The director, Jim Signorelli, had done a lot of the commercials and Saturday Night Live episodes, and he had final cut, which didn’t make us too happy. He locked himself in a room with the editor and just went to town on it. But in the end, it all came out all right.
I was happy that our producer Brandon Tartikoff — who was the president of NBC at the time — was a huge Elvira fan and gave me so much leeway to do and say what I wanted. We were also able to keep it PG-13 too, which was a real goal because my audience was younger. And I’m happy to say they’re younger again! For a while, I thought my audience was going to die off, and now suddenly, I’ve got this whole new audience, thanks to the advent of the Internet.
They definitely let you get away with the tassel twirling grand finale.
Well, that scene was a major challenge. I had this talent of twirling tassels. I taught myself to do it when I was 14 years old. When other kids were practicing piano, I was practicing twirling tassels! I don’t know why, but I thought, I must utilize that talent somewhere in my career.
We wrote that scene around it for the movie, but when the time came to shoot it, NBC said we had gone over budget. They wanted to end the movie with Elvira sitting on the stoop of her house. … I was begging and pleading that they not just stop the movie there, and they finally coughed up the money after a couple of weeks, so we went back and shot it in one day. Of course, on that day, I got the flu and was in my trailer sicker than a dog! I was able to do it — I still don’t know how.
When you made Elvira’s Haunted Hills 12 years later, you had full creative control. Did that make it a more satisfying experience?
The lesson I learned on Hills was: Don’t fund a movie yourself. Ever. [Laughs] I finally made my money back, but it took years. Creatively, I did get to do everything I wanted to do. The only thing that limited me was money. We made the film in Romania for a million dollars, whereas the first film had a budget of maybe $13 million. At one point, Elvira was in a coach riding along a mountain edge, and I wanted six black stallions snorting and running through the night. What we got instead were these old brown nags that honestly looked like they were on their way to the glue factory!
In retrospect, I think I would do something very different if I were to make the film again. I loved Hammer horror movies and Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe films, like The Pit and the Pendulum, when I was a kid, so I was doing very much of an homage to those films while trying to keep Elvira in character. But I was walking a very difficult line there, and I think the movie doesn’t play as well to people who don’t know about those movies.
Watch the Haunted Hills trailer:
That speaks to something that you’ve tried to do throughout Elvira’s career: poke fun at these older movies while also making clear she kind of loves them.
Yes, exactly. And that’s getting harder and harder because you don’t get the types of movies that are as easy to make fun of. Back then, the horror movies had this naïve quality that was kind of refreshing. Now, the movies are pretty harsh with lots of blood and gore and not that much to joke about in general.
Making fun of bad movies is a cottage industry these days. Does Elvira deserve credit for helping launch shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000?
I’d like to take a little credit, because I’ve been doing this long before Mystery Science Theater came along. I certainly don’t think they stole my idea, but I think that I helped them launch that idea. … I enjoy their show, and I’d like to see more people do that kind of thing because people love it. The horror host in particular is something that I’m always afraid is going the way of the dinosaur. It’s become so difficult to get the movies that are great to make fun of, because of rights issues.
MST3K recently funded a new season through Kickstarter. Is there any chance of another Elvira show? Her most recent series aired on Hulu in 2014.
It’s all up to finding the right movies. I’m always looking around for someone who owns a library that I could utilize. Some of the ones that are already in the public domain are movies that I’ve done and done and done and done. I think I’ve hosted Night of the Living Dead five times. Thankfully, I love that movie, so it doesn’t get boring to watch, but how many jokes can you squeeze out of that? I’ve squeezed them all out! For the Hulu series, I did get the chance to do movies like Puppetmaster, and those are great. So there might be some more of those coming down the pike, but I’m not sure yet.
Do you have a plan for how Elvira can live on if and when you decide to retire?
Licensing and marketing-wise, there’s no reason why the character can’t live on long after I quit doing it. If Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe are any barometer, they’re still working a lot, and they’re not around! [Laughs] For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on an animation project, and that’s definitely a way the character could live on for more generations. She’s already so much of a cartoon character, so making her an actual cartoon would not be that big of a leap.