Monday, 5 November 2012

Icon Of The Month: Maila Nurmi

That's right, this month Horror host Maila 'Vampira' Nurmi, is my icon of the month.

Born as Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi, she claimed to be the niece of the Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi, who began setting long-distance running world records in 1921, the year before her birth. She moved to the United States with her family when she was two years old and grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, home to the largest Finnish-American community in the state. She and her family lived in Ashtabula until 1939, when they moved to Oregon.

She graduated from high school in Astoria, Oregon, before arriving in Los Angeles. She modeled for Alberto Vargas, Bernard of Hollywood and Man Ray, gaining a foothold in the film industry with an uncredited role in Victor Saville's 1947 film, "If Winter Comes".

She was fired by Mae West from the cast of West's Broadway play "Catherine Was Great" in 1944 because West feared that she was being upstaged. On Broadway, she gained much attention after appearing in the horror-themed midnight show "Spook Scandals", in which she screamed, fainted, lay in a coffin and seductively lurked about a mock cemetery. She also worked as a showgirl for the Earl Carroll Theatre and as a high-kicking chorus line dancer at the Florentine Gardens along with stripper Lili St. Cyr. She married her first husband, Dean Riesner, in 1949, a former child actor in silent films and later the screenwriter of Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, Play Misty for Me, and numerous other movies and TV episodes.

In the 1950s she supported herself mainly by posing for pin-up photos in men's magazines such as Famous Models, Gala and Glamorous Models. She also worked as a hat-check girl in a cloakroom on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. The idea for the Vampira character was born in 1953 when Nurmi attended choreographer Lester Horton's annual Bal Caribe Masquerade in a costume inspired by Morticia Addams in The New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams. Her appearance with pale white skin and tight black dress caught the attention of television producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr., who wanted to hire her to host horror movies on the Los Angeles television station KABC-TV, but Stromberg had no idea how to contact her. He finally got her phone number from Rudi Gernreich, later famed as the designer of the topless swimsuit. The name Vampira was the invention of Nurmi's husband, Dean Riesner. Nurmi's characterization was influenced by the Dragon Lady from the comic strip "Terry And The Pirates" and the evil queen from Disney's "Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs".

On April 30, 1954, KABC-TV aired a preview, "Dig Me Later", Vampira, at 11:00 p.m. T"he Vampira Show" premiered on the following night, May 1, 1954. For the first four weeks, the show aired at midnight, moving to 11:00 p.m. on May 29. Ten months later, the series aired at 10:30 p.m., beginning March 5, 1955. Each show opened with Vampira gliding down a dark corridor flooded with dry-ice fog. At the end of her trance-like walk, the camera zoomed in on her face as she let out a piercing scream. She would then introduce, and mock, that evening's film while reclining barefoot on a skull-encrusted Victorian couch.

Her horror-related comedy antics included ghoulish puns such as encouraging viewers to write for epitaphs instead of autographs and talking to her pet spider Rollo. She also ran as a candidate for Night Mayor of Hollywood with a platform of 'dead issues'. In another publicity stunt, KABC had her cruise around Hollywood in the back of a chauffeur-driven 1932 Packard touring car with the top down, where she sat, as Vampira, holding a black parasol. The show was an immediate hit, and in June 1954 she appeared as Vampira in a horror-themed comedy skit on "The Red Skelton Show" along with Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr. That same week Life magazine ran an article on her, including a photo-spread of her show-opening entrance and scream.

When the series was cancelled in 1955, she retained rights to the character of Vampira and took the show to a competing Los Angeles television station, KHJ-TV. Several episode scripts and a single promotional kinescope of Nurmi re-creating some of her macabre comedy segments are held by private collectors. Several clips from the rare kinescope are included in the documentaries "American Scary" and "Vampira: The Movie". In 2007, the kinescope film of Nurmi in character was restored by Rerunmedia., the restoration was funded by The Clint Hickman Collection and Coffin Case.

A reconstructed episode of The Vampira Show was released on DVD by the Vampira's Attic web site in October 2007. The release imitated a complete episode by using existing footage of the show combined with vintage commercials believed to have been directed by Ed Wood and the full-length 1932 feature film "The Thirteenth Guest". Nurmi made television history as the first horror movie hostess. In 1957, Screen Gems released a syndicated package of 52 horror movies, mostly from Universal Pictures, under the program title "Shock Theater" (marketed as "Shock!". Independent stations in major cities all over the U.S. began showing these films, adding their own ghoulish host or hostess (including Vampira II and other lookalikes) to attract more viewers.

Nominated for an Emmy Award as 'Most Outstanding Female Personality' in 1954, she returned to films with "Too Much, Too Soon", followed by "The Big Operator" and "The Beat Generation". Her most notable film appearance was in Ed Wood's camp classic, "Plan 9 From Outer Space", as a Vampira-like zombie. In 1960 she appeared in "I Passed For White" and "Sex Kittens Go To College", followed by 1962's "The Magic Sword". The classic clip from "Plan 9 From Outer Space" featuring Vampira walking out of the woods with her hands pointing straight out was used to start the original opening sequence of WPIX Channel 11 New York's Chiller Theatre in the 1960s.

In the early 1950s, Nurmi was close friends with James Dean, and they spent time together at Googie's coffee shop on the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. She explained their friendship by saying, "We have the same neuroses". The 2010 public radio documentary "Vampira And Me" by author/director R. H. Greene took issue with Hopper's depiction of the Nurmi/Dean relationship, pointing to an extant photo of Dean and Vampira sidekick Jack Simmons in full Boris Karloff Frankenstein make-up as evidence of Nurmi and Dean's friendship.

The documentary also described a production memo in the Warner Bros archive citing a set visit from "Vampira" while Dean was making Rebel Without a Cause. The Warner Bros. memo was first mentioned in the 2006 book "Live Fast, Die Young: The Making Of Rebel Without a Cause" by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, who were given access to the "Rebel" production files. An interview Frascella and Weisel conducted with actress Shelley Winters also uncovered an instance where Dean interrupted an argument with director Nicholas Ray and Winters so he could watch The Vampira Show on TV.

In "Vampira And Me", Nurmi can be heard telling Greene that Dean once appeared in a live bit on "The Vampira Show" in which Vampira, dressed as a librarian, rapped his knuckles with a ruler because "he was a very naughty boy." She was also involved with Orson Welles and claimed he was the only man she ever travelled to other cities to be with.

On June 20, 1955, Nurmi was the target of an attempted murder when a man forced his way into her apartment and proceeded to terrorize her for over four hours. Nurmi eventually escaped and managed to call the police, with assistance from a local shop owner. She married her second husband, younger actor John Brinkley, on March 10, 1958. She married actor Fabrizio Mioni on June 20, 1961, in Orange County, California.

By 1962, Nurmi was making a living installing linoleum flooring. "And if things are slow in linoleum, I can also do carpentry, make drapes or refinish furniture", she told the Los Angeles Times. Later in the 1960s, Nurmi opened "Vampira's Attic", an antiques boutique on Melrose Avenue. She also sold handmade jewelry and clothing. She made items for several celebrities, including music group Jefferson Airplane and the Zappa family.

In 1981, Nurmi was asked by KHJ-TV to revive her 'Vampira' character for television. She worked closely with the producers of the new show and was to get an executive producer credit, but Nurmi eventually left the project over creative differences. According to Nurmi this was because the station cast comedic actress Cassandra Peterson in the part without consulting her. "They eventually called me in to sign a contract and she was there", "They had hired her without asking me."

Unable to continue using the name Vampira, the show was abruptly renamed "Elvira's Movie Macabre" with Peterson playing the titular host. Nurmi soon filed a lawsuit against Peterson. The court eventually ruled in favor of Peterson, holding that "likeness means actual representation of another person's appearance, and not simply close resemblance." Peterson claimed that 'Elvira' was nothing like 'Vampira' aside from the basic design of the black dress and black hair. Nurmi claimed that the entire 'Elvira' persona, which included comedic dialogue and intentionally bad graveyard puns, infringed on her creation's "distinctive dark dress, horror movie props, and...special personality." Nurmi herself claimed that 'Vampira's' image was in part based on the Charles Addams The New Yorker cartoon character 'Morticia Addams', though she told Boxoffice magazine in 1994 that she had intentionally made her own TV character "campier and sexier" to avoid plagiarizing Addams' idea.

In 1986, she appeared alongside Tomata du Plenty of 'The Screamers' in Rene Daalder's punk rock musical "Population: 1", which was released on DVD. In 2001, Nurmi opened an official website and began selling autographed memorabilia and original pieces of art on eBay. Until her death, Nurmi lived in a small North Hollywood apartment. Nurmi rarely authorized merchandising contracts for her 'Vampira' character, though that wouldn't stop various companies using the name and likeness unofficially since the 1950s.

On January 10, 2008, Nurmi died in her sleep of natural causes at her home in Hollywood, aged 85. She was buried in the Griffith Lawn section of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. She had no children.

"Screaming relaxes me so." - Vampira

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