WRITTEN BY CORRINNE LUZ
“My character is a complete, total business.” - Cassandra Peterson
It takes 90 minutes for Cassandra Peterson to transform into Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Layers of pale foundation are applied, along with red lipstick, three sets of eyelashes, black eyeliner, blush, and more. To create her iconic cleavage, she must wear a custom bra with metal supports reaching down to the naval. Then she has the black dress that cinches in her waist about four inches, the six inch heels, and a giant, black wig styled into a wisdom bump (“It’s not a beehive” (“Cassandra Peterson, A.K.A Elvira”). This is the day-to-day of being Elvira. But the Queen of Halloween is not a character Peterson plays for one month out of the year. The year-round business of Elvira out of “drag,” as she commonly calls it, is just as demanding as her physical transformation.
There are few people who could do the things that Cassandra Peterson has done -- bring a local TV character to the mainstream and maintain its popularity for over 30 years. Peterson has proven herself to be a business genius. So how did Cassandra Peterson turn a local horror-host gig into a career that has spanned over 30 years?
Cassandra Peterson was born on September 17, 1951 in Manhattan. From an early age, it was clear that Peterson had a natural flair for business. By 14 she had an agent and was working as a go-go dancer all over the Mid-West. By 17 she was a showgirl in Las Vegas, was posing for several men’s magazines, and won some small film roles in Diamonds are Forever (1971) and The Working Girls (1974). An evening with Elvis Presley changed the course of Peterson’s life; he advised her to take singing lessons and leave Las Vegas.
She took that advice, moved to Italy, and became the lead singer of two rock bands, The Snails and Latins 80. Peterson was offered a role in Federico Fellini’s Roma (1972) after a chance meeting with the Italian director.
Peterson returned to the United States, and she toured discos and nightclubs nationwide as a part of a comedy/musical group, Mama’s Boys before moving to Los Angeles, California.
In 1979, she joined The Groundlings, a local improvisational troupe. She was castmates with comedians Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-Wee Herman). While there, she created a Valley-girl character Peterson later transformed into Elvira. But despite her success with The Groundlings, Peterson was struggling to find a paying job in Los Angeles when she learned about a promising position.
Los Angeles horror-host Sinister Seymour had passed away, and KHJ-TV was looking for a female replacement to host a 1981 revival of Los Angeles’s weekend Horror Show Fright Night. They had approached Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, but negotiations had broken down. Wearing an outfit reminiscent of Sharon Tate from The Fearless Vampire Killers, Peterson auditioned with the character she’d developed during her time with The Groundlings. The producers loved her campy, Valley-girl persona, but asked her to rethink the character’s look. They wanted her in head-to-toe black; they wanted spookier. Luckily Peterson admired the look and attitude of characters like Morticia Adams. She “wanted to be like them because they were strong and cool and sexy…” (Williams) And so, Elvira was born.
Elvira’s Movie Macabre was an instant hit. Within the first two weeks of airing, Elvira was invited to appear on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show.
New episodes aired from September 29, 1981 to July 13, 1985, and the show was syndicated for 7 years. As “a sex-positive female who didn’t have to exchange her sexuality to appear intelligent or powerful” (Peeples), Elvira became a sex symbol and a feminist and gay icon. This loyal fan-base ensured her enduring popularity.
Peterson also proved to be a shrewd business person, and over the course of her tenure at the station, she managed to obtain full rights to the character of Elvira. In a December 15, 2016 interview for the BUILD series, she explains how this was accomplished:
“Every time my contract came up, it was quarterly, we would try to renegotiate, and
[the producers] would say ‘ We’re not going to pay you any more money.” And we
said, ‘Well, can we have the rights to do a fan club?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure
you can have that… And every time we would ask for more rights and one day we
looked and we had all the rights!’
This impressive long-game meant that not only would Peterson collect her salary, “[she didn’t] have to give half of it to Universal or Paramount or anyone like that” (Williams) for any merchandising, appearances, shows.
She spent a couple of years as a radio show personality and was hired to be a spokesperson (“spooksperson”) for Coors Light beer. The endorsement deal made Elvira a recognizable celebrity and a household name, especially when complaints lead to a brief censorship of the billboard advertisement. Peterson capitalized on the recognition with licensed merchandising.
Over the 30 year span of her career as Elvira, Peterson has developed and approved dozens of licensed merchandise ranging from the ordinary to the rather odd. There is an Elvira pinball machine, car air fresheners, make up, perfume, clothes, costumes, decorations, books, purses, pins, novels, comics, jewelry, craft beer, fans, sleep masks, mouse pads, glasses and mugs, wallets, figures and figurines, patches, comics, video games, calendars, albums, movies, photos, a board game, a guitar and guitar case, and even her own microbrew -- Elvira’s Night Brew.
From 1982 to 2017, Elvira starred in a stage show at Knott’s Scary Farm, the October-long Halloween event at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.
In addition to this, Peterson as Elvira has starred in commercials, and guest starred on many shows, including episodes of Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, CHiPs, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, The Girls Next Door, Face Off, Comic Book Men, Halloween Wars, and she was a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
But the Elvira machine doesn’t stop there; she has her own production company (Queen “B” Productions), and is her own corporation (Elvira, Inc.). Even more remarkable, she, effectively, acts as her own agent.
But before Peterson would take control with her own production company, she worked with NBC Productions on Elvira’s first feature film. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was released in 1988. But not the way it was intended to; it opened in only 150 theaters because the distributor, New World, filed for bankruptcy just before the movie’s release. At the time, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was panned, but it has since become a cult darling. It is celebrating its 30th anniversary with much more fanfare than its original release ever garnered.
Peterson turned to her own production company to release a follow-up film in 2001. Elvira’s Haunted Hills was produced with 1 million dollars of her own money. The film was not well-received, and Peterson credits the experience as an important career lesson: “Never use your own money to finance a project. Get investors!” (Potempa).
Peterson wants Elvira to be the Santa Claus of Halloween. She set out to recruit the first in her army of Elviras with a 2007 reality TV contest, The Search for the Next Elvira. Audiences were not ready for that, but maybe someday they will be ready for malls decorated with bats and cobwebs, and with an Elvira reclining on a red couch, waiting to hear what you want for Halloween.
Even with those setbacks, Peterson is forward-thinking. She is writing an autobiography, developing a TV show, and on October 4, 2018 is headlining a 30th anniversary showing of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark at Salem Horror Fest in Salem, Massachusetts.
Cassandra Peterson is always looking for new ways to bring Elvira to audiences around the world, around the year. Her willingness to take risks, and her keen understanding of the nature of her work have guaranteed that Elvira will endure so that we might all have “Unpleasant Nightmares.”
“Cassandra Peterson, A.K.A. Elvira, Discusses Her Book, ‘Elvira's Coffin Table Book.’” BUILD, AOL, 15 Dec. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=geBJEe-cKLA. Date Accessed: 26 Sept. 2018.
Mills, Michelle. “Here's Why Elvira Is Retiring from Knott's Scary Farm.” The Mercury News, The Mercury News, 19 Oct. 2017, www.mercurynews.com/2017/10/19/heres-why-elvira-is-retiring-from-knotts-scary-farm/. Date Accessed: 26 Sept. 2018.
Peeples, Jace. “Elvira, the Ageless Camp Queen of Halloween.” ADVOCATE, Advocate.com, 26 Oct. 2015, www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2015/10/26/elvira-ageless-camp-queen-halloween. Date Accessed: 25 Sept. 2018.
Potempa, Philip. “Elvira and Alter-Ego Cassandra Peterson Say 'Retirement' Is a Scary Word.” Nwitimes.com, Northwest Indiana Times, 24 Oct. 2013, www.nwitimes.com/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/theatre/elvira-and-alter-ego-cassandra-peterson-say-retirement-is-a/article_c0da7216-2dc0-53d5-a393-58e0a7a711e1.html. Date Accessed: 26 September 2018.
Williams, Rohan. “Elvira: Loyal Mistress.” Scenestr - Pop Culture & Entertainment, 12 Oct. 2012, 15:35, scenestr.com.au/arts/elvira-loyal-mistress. Date Accessed: 24 Sept. 2018.