Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Birthday, Vampira! (aka Maila Nurmi)

On this date in 1921, the first television Horror Host, the one and only "Vampira," a.k.a. Maila Nurmi was born.

It was director Howard Hawks, of all people, who discovered Maila while she was performing in Michael Todd's Grand Guignol midnight show "Spook Scandals." Hawks escorted the lovely blonde beauty to Hollywood with the hopes of grooming her into the next Lauren Bacall. Cast in the film version of the Russian novel Dreadful Hollow, the project was put on hold so many times that Maila walked out of her contract in frustration. She became a cheesecake model and an Earl Carroll dancer for several years in his revues, sharing a chorus line at one time with future burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr.

Married at the time to child actor-turned-screenwriter Dean Riesner, she came up with the idea of "Vampira" at a masquerade contest where she based her costume on Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoons. Heavily painted up with long fingernails, a mane of raven-colored hair, and slim-waisted black attire, the Morticia gimmick won the best costume award that night...and more. She caught the attention of local TV and was placed under contract to Channel 7 in Hollywood to see if she could encourage late night viewers to stay up and watch its regular programming of cheapjack horror schlock. The macabre madam was a genuine hit (for one season, at least, in 1954-1955), adding a sexy nuance and silly double entendres to her campy horror set. She earned an Emmy nomination in 1954 for "Most Outstanding Female Personality." Fan clubs sprouted up all over the world. She appeared in Life, TV Guide and Newsweek magazine articles, and could be seen around and about town and in Las Vegas judging contests and making variety special appearances. Songs were written about the "Queen of Horror" by such notables as Bobby Bare and The Misfits.

She even appeared with arms outstretched and ghoulishly attired in the worst cinematic turkey of all time, Edward D. Wood Jr.'s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), as Bela Lugosi's zombie-like mate, for which she is infamously associated. Lugosi actually was a fan of hers and had always wanted to work with her. Wood shot some footage of her years later as a tribute to Lugosi (he died in 1956 during filming) and added it before the film's release.

Nurmi passed away on January 10, 2008 in Los Angeles of natural causes.

IMDb Mini Biography courtesy of Gary Brumburgh

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