Like Night and Day

Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, sits in a bay window in the living room of her Los Feliz home.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Home life for Cassandra Peterson is more “Leave It to Beaver” than “The Addams Family” since she sold her Los Feliz house to Brad Pitt a few years ago and moved next door.

“We went Elvira-crazy in our old home,” she said, referring to her role as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, star of the new gothic-horror comedy film “Elvira’s Haunted Hills.”

Elvira products and memorabilia filled the Craftsman-style house Pitt bought in 1994. Built for an oil baron in 1910 and known as Briarcliff Manor, the 5,600-square-foot house, which Pitt still owns, has dark-wood-and-copper walls.


Now Peterson is a seeker of light in the four-bedroom, 3,800-square-foot home that she bought in 1995 for $800,000 with her manager-husband, Mark Pierson.

“We’re in the middle of redecorating to get more of a light and cheery look,” she said.

They already took out a wall to make a stairway airier and added wainscoting, ceiling moldings and French doors to the French New Orleans-style home, which was built in 1939.

The house, behind a jasmine-draped, wrought-iron fence, is among 36 built about the same time in a canyon still populated by coyotes and deer. The homes became a gated community in 1994.

One of the older features in the house is a wet bar behind some wall paneling that Peterson calls “a secret bar.”

Newer features are a pool and a playhouse, which Peterson and Pierson put in the backyard.

“I think I got the playhouse for myself,” Peterson said, “because our daughter, who is nearly 8, doesn’t use it that much.”

Peterson added a foundation, new roof and electricity to the secondhand playhouse she was given. “So we got a free playhouse for $5,000.”


Miniature pink roses cover the playhouse, which is next to a small vegetable garden where Peterson grows tomatoes, basil and other herbs.

“We eat mostly vegetarian,” she said. “We were vegetarians for eight years and then we fell off the wagon when I got pregnant and had cravings for chicken and dumplings.”

Peterson likes to cook, but her kitchen isn’t remarkable, her husband said. “We have no big freezers, no granite counters. We didn’t even remodel the kitchen. All we did was paint it. So it’s not opulent, but it is comfortable.”

Peterson learned to cook in Italy, where she lived after graduating from high school in Colorado. Prior to moving to Italy, she performed as one of the youngest showgirls in Las Vegas. While in Italy, she joined a rock band for about a year as its lead singer and had a part in the 1972 movie “Fellini’s Roma.”

After she left Italy, she became a member of the L.A.-based comedy group the Groundlings and appeared in supporting roles on such series as “Happy Days” and “St. Elsewhere.” She married Pierson 21 years ago and shortly after became a horror-movie host on the former KHJ-TV in Los Angeles.

Elvira was born, and through the TV show “Movie Macabre” she became nationally syndicated as a horror-film host in 1983, with her show playing in syndication until 1989.

Pierson and Peterson then marketed and licensed Elvira for more than 350 products--”from perfume to beer,” he said. Among the newest are an Elvira slot machine and an Elvira electric guitar. Pierson, a former professional musician, is a guitarist.

The couple still have an Elvira pinball machine in their den, and other Elvira influences such as a Rottweiler named Mina for a character in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula,” and three cats: Renfield, from “Dracula,” and Jekyll and Hyde, from the 1886 tale by Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

In making their current home less Elvira-like, they put many of their products in storage and moved others, along with some Elvira memorabilia, to Pierson’s office in a five-unit, 1936 apartment building in Hollywood. The couple bought the building with profits from the first Elvira movie, “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.”

The 1988 movie also made it possible for the couple to buy a 1958 Thunderbird, which they call a “macabre mobile.” The black convertible has a silver hood ornament resembling Elvira and grill ornaments that look like eyeballs with claws. The car twice has been on exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

“Welcome to Elvira World,” Pierson said, entering his Hollywood office, where there is a large photo/oil painting of Elvira; framed fake fingernails with Elvira’s likeness painted on them as entries in a contest from about a dozen fingernail artists; and a large portrait of the late actor Vincent Price, a friend of the couple.

“Elvira’s Haunted Hills,” which parodies classic Vincent Price and Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allan Poe films of the early ‘60s, is dedicated to Price. It is also being released in memory of actor Phil Hartman, whom Peterson knew from the Groundlings. The film opened to sellout crowds the July 5 weekend at the Laemmle Fairfax Cinemas, where it will continue an unlimited run on Fridays and Saturdays at midnight.

To make the new movie, Pierson and Peterson mortgaged their house and their apartment building for $1 million and obtained some funds from his parents. Pierson described the retired couple as “kingpins of real estate” in Malibu, where they were known for buying, fixing and selling homes.

“I buy and hold,” said Pierson, who grew up in Malibu Colony and keeps a surfboard in his office.

The silver-haired surfer and blue-eyed redhead are betting on “Elvira’s Haunted Hills” to keep their real estate afloat.

Peterson is stepping out from behind her black wig, heavy makeup and low-cut, high-slit dress to help promote the film, which she co-wrote with longtime writing partner John Paragon. The movie co-stars Richard O’Brien, who wrote music and lyrics for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975), in which he also starred.

“We capped off her 20th anniversary as Elvira with the movie, which we made last year in Transylvania [Romania],” said Pierson, who is the producer and plays a butler in the film. “We need to travel a lot to promote the movie as we have no film studios behind us.”

So far, he figures that through their appearances and pre-release screenings, they have helped to raise about $400,000 for AIDS charities. The couple also has been promoting their new movie at film festivals and horror/sci-fi conventions.

At 50, Peterson says she’s not yet thinking of retiring Elvira, no matter how uncomfortable the costume, with its high heels and cinched waist, but she is looking ahead to doing cartoon voice work, writing an autobiography and maybe going to a Halloween party as something other than the Mistress of the Dark.

“I always had the best costumes as a child, but now, it seems, I’m stuck with one for life,” she said. “I wish I could wear another costume someday.”

That day has already come in Los Feliz. Now when she’s at home, she’s more like June Cleaver than Morticia Addams.