Horrors! It’s Elvira, Now Larger Than Life
You first notice her strawberry blond hair and relaxed manner. Cassandra Peterson looks comfortable in fading Levi’s, loose knit top and jean jacket and comfortable in her rather traditionally decorated home (meaning no special weirdness) in the Hollywood Hills.
In fact, she was easy to overlook in the confusion created by two barking Rottweilers and a handful of chattering people. She’s too natural, too unassuming, and, at 5 feet 7, much too small.
It’s hard to comprehend that this is Elvira, the slinky, usually sleazy vamp(ire) hostess who has turned bad movies into good television for the past seven years. And now she is trying to turn high camp into high finance with her own movie.
“Elvira: Mistress of the Dark,” from the theatrical arm of NBC Productions and her own Queen B Productions, is the first of what could unfold into a multifaceted future as a movie star, TV star, cartoon star and star of a bonanza of merchandise.
The ultimate earning power of the character begins with the handling of--and reception to--this first feature. In part, that’s why Queen B, run by co-managers Eric Gardner and husband Mark Pierson, decided to keep photographers away when she is just plain Cassandra, out of the Elvira costume and makeup.
“Believe it or not, lots of kids and people think it’s a real person,” she says in explanation. “They see me walking around like this, looking normal, and it kind of destroys the image.”
The 36-year-old Peterson, a Kansas native who headed West and ultimately joined the Groundlings improvisation theater troupe in the late ‘70s, expresses dismay but smiles as she tells stories of teen-agers who recognize the voice. She slips into Elvira’s slow, deep and sarcastic vocal style to mimic a typical reaction: ‘I thought she was a really cool woman--but she looks like my mom.’ ”
Actually, Peterson doesn’t look much different from the way she did in 1981 when she created Elvira for KHJ-TV’s weekend horror film presentation “Movie Macabre.”
She knows that past pictures will surface (for example, the ones on this page), “but mainly around here . . . and I’ll look younger anyway.”
Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman), a friend since their days as fellow Groundlings and now a Bronson Canyon neighbor, provided the lead for visual secrecy.
“And I’m much more anonymous than he is,” Peterson says. “Paul is thin and has short hair and he can’t change that, but people think I’m this Amazon woman and they think I’m really big and have giant, well, you know. But I don’t, I don’t look that way.”
Peterson believes the relative anonymity helps keep the character fresh.
“I owe it to the fact that I’m two different people, that when I’m tired I can get away,” Peterson reasons. “If you’re Madonna and tired of Madonna, you can’t get away from Madonna. When I am tired of being Elvira I take off the wig and makeup, and I can feel completely natural as myself--no one knows I’m Elvira. People come to the door and I tell them she just left.”
That also has helped her feel comfortable with the character, though she does recall a “Saturday Night Live” dress rehearsal attended out of wig and makeup but in her rather revealing costume during which she didn’t feel quite at ease.
“They needed me to put the dress on to see how the colors registered and I was completely embarrassed,” she says, again slipping into Elvira’s voice. “Everyone was looking at me and I had my hands all over trying to cover up.
“Funny,” she resumes more naturally, “when I’m in the character it doesn’t seem like I’m hanging out, but I know I am. I see it in dailies.”
“Elvira” the movie, which wrapped its 42-day shooting schedule around town last week, is being made for $7.5 million, a low figure by today’s standards.
But it’s quite costly, some might think, as a vehicle for a camp TV horror show hostess whose fame is based on a novelty program that originally cost a few hundred bucks to produce and highlighted some of the worst films ever made.
But you’ll get an argument from Brandon Tartikoff, the longtime TV executive under whose tutelage NBC Productions is making this film.
“This is not like ‘Nightmare on Elm Street'--let’s make it and get it out quick,” he said. “That would be a different film from the one we are making.”
The film they are making is a send-up of the kind of B movie Elvira has been hosting for years. It follows a down-on-her-luck TV horror show hostess from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (where Peterson once worked as a showgirl), then on to a small New England town to retrieve an inheritance from an elderly aunt. She winds up stuck in the town, and as a result of some mysterious powers that come with the inheritance the very moral townsfolk soon are convinced she is possessed.
The movie, made with a PG-13 rating in mind to tempt teen-age fans and lure older ones, is set for an August release.
It was written by Sam Egan, John Paragon and Peterson, and co-stars Edie McClurg, Jeff Conaway, a punk poodle named Gonk, and a ’58 Ford Thunderbird complete with leopard skin upholstery. Todd Rundgren, a client of Gardner’s music management company who writes music for the TV series “Crime Story,” is scoring the film. (“I didn’t force him on them,” Gardner says.)
Veteran producer Michael Rachmil (“Roxanne,” “Quicksilver” and the coming “Punchline”) was called in to coordinate activities as executive producer, and longtime NBC casting head Joel Thurm is serving as liaison between NBC Productions and the production team. New World Pictures under Steve White (a former NBC executive and a former Groundling), is distributing the film.
Rachmil is by far the most experienced movie maker in the group, though the man they tapped to direct, Jim Signorelli, also directed Rodney Dangerfield’s “Easy Money” and has had a decade of experience as the mind behind the “Saturday Night Live” commercial parodies.
“Part of the trick of making any movie is to define the universe in which the movie is being made, and as long as you stay in that world, even if that world is a bit cheesy, you get away with it,” Signorelli says of the project. “What I’ve done is identify the elements in the world of the character that are essential to its humor and protected them from being damaged.
“What we’re trying to do is not exactly parody but close to it,” Signorelli said. “We’re trying to tread the line between a send-up of something and a parody of something, but we’re not making a parody of a horror film.”
Budgetary constraints have changed some planning, but Signorelli contends “it keeps you honest in a way.”
“We’re making a horror movie just real enough so you can suspend that modicum of disbelief and get into it. We can’t really deliver monstrous prosthetic makeup because of the budget, but we feel we can get the point of the joke across because we have enough makeup to make it work,” Signorelli added.
KHJ, which is resting the syndicated “Movie Macabre” this season but might revive it by year’s end (and it’s in more than 70 other markets), probably didn’t realize what it had done when it relinquished control of the Elvira character--which Peterson originated for the station--in a succession of contract renegotiations with Queen B and Elvira.
According to Pierson, KHJ’s desire not to get involved in a fan club (now supposedly 35,000 strong) and a lack of interest in early merchandising efforts eventually led the station to give character rights to Queen B. A squabble with the woman who created “Vampira” on Los Angeles television in the ‘50s probably didn’t help.
“They didn’t want to be bothered with the problems and didn’t see the potential like we did” even after 2.5 million pairs of 3-D glasses were sold for a special 3-D Elvira broadcast.
“Each year they would offer us a certain amount of money and we’d say OK, but you also have to give us these rights or those rights,” said Pierson. KHJ still gets a share of profits, as does original “Movie Macabre” producer and creator Larry Thomas.
By 1984 Queen B controlled all Elvira rights and turned it into an ongoing business (now $1 million a year gross) through syndication, personal appearances and doodads--like greeting cards, costumes, hair dye (that washes off), porcelain plates, sunscreen, kites, a Holloween compilation record, T-shirts, posters and a line of home videos (the 24 releases have sold 250,000 units). A second line of cassettes is due to hit Australia next year.
Coming: a Marvel Comics series featuring Elvira timed to launch with the film’s release, a customized Monogram Models 1958 T-Bird model kit decked out like the one in the film, and an 18-inch Elvira collectable as part of a series of horror film characters being made by a New York firm.
“We have been trying to get an Elvira doll for a long time but here to now we have had a lot of resistance from toy companies,” acknowledged Pierson. “The cleavage kind of scares a lot of companies.”
NBC Productions bought a piece of the merchandising action. “They participate most when it’s an NBC property and least when it’s Elvira by herself,” said Pierson, “but they still participate.”
Essentially, they bought Elvira’s film and TV career as well.
NBC under Tartikoff had been trying to tag Elvira for a sitcom, but Queen B turned down several because, Gardner said, “we didn’t want to mitigate chances of the film.”
The original idea called for what Queen B’s Gardner dubbed “a Jekyll and Hyde” comedy, but he went on to say Tartikoff had other plans now: “He called and apologized for that idea and said we didn’t need a high concept idea for Elvira cause she was a high concept.
“In a way, this project also is a back-door pilot,” said Gardner, explaining that success with this film could lead to a succession of theatrical releases and ultimately a prime-time sitcom.
Tartikoff acknowledges the possibility but remains more cautious.
“If it works we have a character that we could reprise in another adventure,” he said, avoiding confirmation of sitcom plans. “The script and the story are episodic, but if it’s a successful film I’m enough of a realist to understand they won’t want to go running to 22 episodes (of a series).”
On a marathon night of filming on the back lot of the Burbank Studios, Elvira spent more time in her trailer than on the set as stunt-doubles filled in. Peterson sometimes waited five hours or more for her call but because of her new-found renown she spent little of it alone.
“It’s down to about 1,000 people a day because I put up the sign that says do not bother for any reason,” Peterson said. “The moment you’re relaxing is the moment they come up and ask how you got started or to talk with you.
“The thing is, I’m working 9,000 hours a week and I’m tired and I want a moment to myself when I can stop mugging,” she added as a way of apology. “My face hurts from making weird faces all day. I just want a moment not to move my face.”
She paused, then added with half a laugh: “I wrote myself into every entire frame of the movie. I should have learned my lesson from Pee-wee who told me not to write myself into everything.”
Next time, if there is a next time, she won’t. Elvira might have started as a lark, but for Peterson it has provided a more than comfortable living that promises only to get more comfortable if properly managed. To that end, she has retired from the car show/personal appearance circuit and has accepted only commercial endorsement offers from Coors. (“Beer is a perfect product for Elvira,” she says.)
“I just don’t want to spread her too thin and I don’t want to zoom up to the top and burn out and destroy my career. I feel the longer it takes to get there the longer you can stay on top,” she reasons. “Look at Cyndi Lauper--I love Cyndi Lauper and feel she’s more than talented, but she wasn’t so smart with her publicity.
“I have two theories on how long it will last for me,” Peterson says. “One is I could be like a Mae West and still be a sex symbol when I’m 72, the other that if it started looking old I would bail out right away. I think I can do it without looking pathetic for 10 years, but I don’t want to become some old broad running around in a wig and a lot of makeup.”
As long as it does last, don’t expect her to change her attitude about public appearances--and press photographs--out of costume.
“I didn’t plan this but it happened, and I am incredibly happy that I have this very strange character to hide behind,” she says. “It gives me the freedom to live like a normal person and go out shopping and to Disneyland whenever I want and no one ever looks at me.
“That’s why I’m getting more protective of showing myself,” she concludes. “I don’t want to blow the best deal any celebrity ever had.”