Wrapping up Maila Nurmi and Vampira

Yesterday, the songs I made from Dave Moore’s cycle of poems about Vampira had taken us up to her short run as the first “horror host” in the early days of television. As recounted in that post, by the time her little more than a year of  broadcasting fame had wrapped up, the idea of a sardonic costumed character hosting late night showings of horror and SciFi films went nationwide, with dozens of local reflections of that concept. None of them were exactly like Vampira though, and oddly, all of them were male.

Vampira’s creator, Finish-American Maila Nurmi kept at a show business career following her TV host stint, including some Los Vegas work with Liberace, but as the 1950s started to conclude, she was getting farther and farther from the brass ring. Should there be any wonder that this would have been so? No, there were few models of self-defined female performers in the Fifties, and it was her character, Vampira, not herself, that held what fame remained. And that character, combining as it did fears of death with fears of female sexuality, both attracted and repelled where it was remembered.

It was in this context that Nurmi took a role in a micro-budgeted movie with an incoherent script and famously eccentric director: Plan 9 From Outer Space.”  When the movie was completed, if such a disaster could say to have completion, it hung around in obscurity even lower than Nurmi’s for more than a decade.

Plan 9

Like 80s video game packages, Plan 9’s poster has higher production values than the movie.
Vampira gestures, Tor Johnson arises from the grave, and Ed Wood’s chiropractor fakes it as Bela Lugosi

Nurmi pressed on with living, less and less known. There were a couple more bit parts, and her day gig sometimes was “handyman” work in the homes of the more affluent. Poet Kevin Fitzpatrick remarked after reading Dave Moore’s pieces on Nurmi’s resilience that she was showing “Sisu,” that untranslatable Finnish characteristic that says that determination will get you through any challenge.

And then something odd happened. The same generation of film scholars and fans that helped recognize the value in genre fare like pre-war horror movies, low-budget serials, or the foreign oddness of Japanese monster movies began to look around all the blind corners of obscure film. What made a film that met few of the criteria of good cinema still interesting? Could it be that watching a film fail to fulfill it’s duties had a fascination in itself? What would the worst possible movie be like?

In 1978 a couple of movie critics put together a book called “The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time.”  Like many lists of superlatives, it generated plenty of response, but one response was to claim that they’d overlooked this now 20 year old film that was seen mostly on TV, late at night, when viewers just couldn’t believe the bad dream they were seeing. The authors, Michael and Harry Medved, figured there was another, better book about worser movies, and in 1980 they redid their lowerarchy with a follow up book that named “Plan 9 from Outer Space”  the worst movie of all time, and it’s director, Ed Wood, the worst director of all time. And since then, nothing has challenged that assessment, it’s become the “Citizen Kane”  of bad cinema, a movie seen by millions who are astounded by its, ah, quality.

Thus Vampira’s few minutes of (gratefully, given the script) silent footage in “Plan 9”  communicated Nurmi’s visual concept to a new generation looking to stand back from their times. The Misfits recorded a tribute song around this time, and now this year, The Haxans illuminate that song with an excellent cover. But of course, you want to hear how Dave Moore and I conveyed this part of Maila Nurmi’s story in the song-cycle. In case you’re in a hurry to get to your Halloween party, here are the three preceding songs from the Vampira song-cycle, along with the LYL Band telling the story of how Vampira would have been forgotten “If Not For Ed.”

Maila Nurmi arrives in L.A., and as she considers what persona to take on she considers celebrity evangelist Amiee Semple.

 

Why might someone like Nurmi choose a gothic character
in the midst of the supposedly peaceful and satisfied Fifties?

 

Maila Nurmi performs on TV as the first “Horror Host.”

 

The last part of the tale, how “Plan 9”  allowed Vampira to be seen by a new generation.

Hollywood TV

Once more we visit a song from the Dave Moore-written song-cycle looking at the innovative goth/horror persona created by Maila Nurmi in 1953-54. Today’s piece “Hollywood TV”  continues Nurmi’s story as commerce finds a place for her Vampira character as it seeks to fill out the expanding television time slots.

In the 50s, the moving picture industry faced an existential crisis of its own: television was going to deliver its kind of entertainment right to people’s homes, no need to go to the theater, no need to pay admission, make your own popcorn, Philco Playhouse and chill.

One way the old entertainment empire sought to use the new TV medium was to sell rights to rebroadcast movies that had completed—sometimes, long-ago completed–their theatrical runs. One studio, Universal Pictures, wanted to monetize their classic horror pictures it had released back in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s and so put together a package of these films for TV stations to buy and rebroadcast in 1956.

It’s hard to believe now, in an era when SciFi, Horror, and Fantasy are the dominant commercial film genres, that in the mid-50s these films were considered shoddy goods. They reflected back to 19th Century characters and tropes, even when they were made before WWII, and so they were not thought to be the stuff that a forward-looking post-war world was looking for.

But wait, we’re in 1953-54. Even this is still in the future.

Nurmi had created the Vampira costume for a Hollywood Halloween costume party in 1953, and the story goes this novel combination of sex and death was noticed there by an entertainment figure, through which she was eventually connected with a TV station looking to broadcast old movies. The TV execs thought such old-fashioned low-value fare needed something else to make it viable, a host to contextualize the old movies to be shown at night when such niche material could fill otherwise uncommercial air time.

So, in 1954, two years before the Universal “Shock Theater” package was offered, Vampira began hosting a show made up of old movies whose rights could be obtained on the cheap, with her character leavening the proceedings with quips and intentional perversity. This is an old show-business tactic, as even in vaudeville theater, a master of ceremonies might be called on to hype or explain the acts, or to fill time when a performer had dragged down the audience’s interest. And intentional perversity was decades old too, what with the Dada cabaret of the WWI years.

Even if this is recent history, in the lifetime of people still living, it’s hard to know how big the Vampira character’s impact was in her time. Her late-night show lasted about a year ending in 1955. A follow-up show with the character on another local station didn’t stick. During the years 1954-56, there was a substantial publicity push, a local Emmy nomination, a Life magazine profile, guest appearances in the Vampira persona on other TV shows; but there was the short run of the show, and a general tailing off of Nurmi’s celebrity and performance career afterward. How big were the waves in that ripple?

If we can’t see how big the first ripples are, we can see the waves that built off it, as they are substantial, and still rolling.

In 1956 came that Universal Pictures “Shock Theater”  package, eventually followed by “Creature Features” and others. Over the next decade, most major local TV markets gained a horror/SciFi host. The pattern was unmistakable. Costume. Macabre humor. Campy name. Maybe a little dry-ice fog, screeches and screams, and a haunted house décor. All parts of the Vampira scheme. What wasn’t copied? The Thanatos remained, however distanced by humor, but the Eros was toned way, way down, and the follow-on horror hosts were invariably male.

Shock Theater around the USA

It’s a boys club. Some of the horror hosts for “Shock Theater”  around the USA

 

In pop music, the erotic and self-possessed element of Vampira saw a revival by the late ‘70s with Poison Ivy and the Cramps, and in the UK, bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. Eventually a goth subculture and “look” developed often borrowing from first or second level influences of the Vampira character with various continental European influences.

The Cramps

Poison Ivy of the Cramps substituted midriff & pychobilly riffs for Vampira’s décolletage and goth ennui

 

It took a generation from the ‘50s before the female TV horror host was revived in 1981, back again in Los Angeles, with a character, Elvira, largely based on an updated Vampira. Nurmi had helped with the creation of the show, but had a falling out with the producers.

By the end of the 20th Century, the Vampira character was still being kept alive by a wordless cameo in a widely viewed “Worst Movie of All Time” “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”  Irony wasn’t just a pose for the character, it was the way the character survived.

More irony: the mostly male ‘50s children who watched Vampira, Shock Theater, Creature Feature, and the other black and white movies rerun on TV at night past their bedtimes, had grown up and became the new Hollywood elite, making tens, and then hundreds of millions for a revived Hollywood, revising the tropes of the shoddy goods whose TV rights had been sold on the cheap.

If you take pre-Comics Code EC Comics attitude, the TV horror hosts, their old movies and modern descendants, add some bite-sized marketing from the candy merchants, and there you have modern American Halloween. If you walk by the rack of tacky vinyl and polyester costumes at the store, past the Star Wars characters in kid’s sizes, over to the adult-sized costumes, and there you see a “Sexy Vampire” hanging, black and low-cut, long, dark-haired wig included. A colored sheet suggests it worn by a thin young woman with red lipstick, white makeup and weaponized eyebrows. Think, then, of Maila Nurmi for Dave and me, won’t you.

Oh, there’s a song. Dave Moore wrote the words, I wrote the music and performed it. You can hear “Hollywood TV” using the player below. Click it. If You Dare!

 

 

If Not For Ed

Here is a little Halloween sidetrack. Last year, before the Parlando project, when people asked me what I was doing, I’d tell them I was writing a rock opera.

Daft looks on their faces, particularly if they’d heard me sing. It was pretty much a conversation stopper.

“It’s about Vampira.” I’d follow up with.

Blank looks now.

But it wasn’t my idea. The idea was Dave Moore’s. Well, not the rock opera part—that was mine—but the idea of a series of pieces on Vampira was Dave’s. As I read those pieces they had voices, various emotional states, and a loose tread of events. It just seemed they needed music and I got working on that along with Dave. In the end, we had around 10 complete songs worked up as demos. This is one of them.

Vampira was the creation of Maila Nurmi, who in that character originated the concept of the drolly comic host presenting old horror movies on television in 1954 in Los Angeles; but by the time of this song in the sequence, she has left show business and is recounting one of her last roles, an appearance in 1958’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often judged the worst film of all time. Oddly enough, that conspicuous badness gave the film a robust second life. Plan 9’s auteur, Ed Wood, the Ed sung about in this song, even got his own biopic.

Nurmi’s successful earlier TV work was never archived (save for this small fragment). Since her attempts to find other outlets for her character came to naught, for many people she was only known from her short appearance in this bad movie.

So here is the story of a true original who, alas, is largely remembered for being part of the worst project in her career. To hear the song selection from the Vampira project, click on the gadget below.