August 18, 2012

Vampira, Orson, and the Whole Damn Thing!

When I first heard the news that Maila Nurmi (above) had passed away, I immediately realized that part of Hollywood history had passed with her. Maila, was, of course, the legendary “Vampira”, whose television show in the early days of the medium, 1953 to be exact, was a publicity juggernaut that catapulted her onto the national stage. Maila was profiled in LIFE magazine, as well as appearances on countless talk shows and a gig with Mr. Showmanship himself, Liberace, in Las Vegas. Her resemblance to Charles Addams’ “Morticia” was intentional since her persona began at a costume ball where she stunned onlookers with her seventeen inch waist while confining her sexy form in a torn black dress adding to the macabre elements by wearing bloody scratches across her pushed-up cleavage.

Maila first appeared to me when I was very new to Los Angeles and working in a Beverly Hills antique shop on Canon Drive known simply as Tiberios. This was a very high-end Art Deco venue located next door to The Bistro, a resturant /bar which was always filled with the rich and famous. Maila came into the shop wearing a strange combination of early goth dressed in purples and blacks with spider rings and a cobweb necklace. I still did not make to the connection to her alter ego since she was just another wacko to me of which we got many during the course of a week in the store. She was selling silk ties at the time and Paul Tiberio bought a couple from her which surprised me since he really was not into buying things like that for the store. He then asked her if she made the jewelery she was wearing as he wanted to showcase some of her pieces in that section of his display case that dominated the center of the store. After she had left, Paul told me who she was and I was stunned since she looked nothing like the fabled Vampira, not to mention, she was missing some front teeth. He knew what a horror film buff I was but I was somehow glad he didn't tell me who she was at the time because I might have let some aspect of my dissappointment in her current appearence show through, but perhaps he should have told me since here was a woman who had known not only Bela Lugosi but was a walking reminder of the Hollywood of the 1950s which even then (1977) was already lost in the sands of time.

I would not see Maila/Vampira again until a few years later around 1983 when I began work on a PBS documentary entitled "The Horror of It All." The producer Gene Feldman was looking for interview material and we already had director Curtis Harrington and actor Dana Andrews talking about "Curse of the Demon." Actress Martine Beswicke discussed her days at Hammer and horror legend John Carradine remembered his days at Universal playing Dracula. Gene asked me to try and locate Maila to see if she would do an on-camera interview about Lugosi and the infamous Ed Wood film "Plan Nine from Outer Space." I explained to Gene that the last time I saw the woman behind the shroud, she was less exotic looking than he might have hoped for. In any case, Gene asked me to try and find her, so to that end I went to my friend Eric Cadin who ran a memorabilia shop on Hollywood Boulevard and knew her since he sold her memorabilia at that time consisting of signed photos and paintings done by Maila herself for her devoted fans. I soon discovered that she never kept a phone and would not answer her front door unless you had made pior arrangments with her well in advance. Maila had been the victim of several weird pranks including having dead animals placed on her doorstep, so in a way I understood where she was coming from. Eric also told me she worked as a hostess at a Finnish resturant called the Heliotrope House off Melrose Avenue. One of Gene's assisants and I booked a table there and went down to finally meet the elusive Vampira and offer her a chance to be on national television one more time. She did not come in the night we were there and all my attempts afterwards were met with indifference, as she did not wish to be interviewed and was not ready for her close-up, not yet anyway.

The next time I would see Mailia Nurmi would be very diffrent because something began to change for her. She had a renaissance not unlike that of Betty Page, the former pin up queen who found new fans and new career late in life. Vampira was now a legend thanks to the resurrection of her character in the mid-1980s by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (left), played by the sexy Cassandra Peterson. Unfornutately Maila felt cheated by KHJ Channel 9 in L.A. and went on a ballyhoo of her own, informing the media that Elivra was a fraud and there was only one Vampira and they were going to pay for not acknowledging her rights as the creator of the original character. Maila would never really get over this experince for the rest of her life.

Maila was now a bonafide cult icon and transformed herself into an attractive reboot of her former self. She now had her front teeth back and with it, a wicked smile that she flashed with ease at the cameras whenever they were aimed on her, which was often these days. She was also making decent money with her memorabila and could live a little bit better from what I was told were hard times in the past.

We would have our best meeting at a "glamour convention" that was partly connected to both Playboy magazine and some Japanese promoters. I was working as the manager for Martine Beswicke, who had two diffrent fanbases since she was a Hammer horror queen, having done such films as "Dr. Jeckyll and Sister Hyde", as well as "One Million Years BC" (which launched Requel Welch onto the world stage). Martine was also a "Bond Girl" having the distinction of appearing in two James Bond films, "From Russia with Love" and "Thunderball."  The Glamourcon was a perfect venue to sell cheescake poses as well as Hammer glamour.  Martine and I found ourselves seated directly across from Maila's table at the show. After we had set up our tables and placed the collection of photos in their best possible light, we then went over and reintroduced myself to the legenadry lady known as Vampira. She seemed to remember our two brief encounters or so she said, however it was Martine that held her gaze as we chatted away about the show and how tacky it was becoming as dozens of Japanese men kept going in and out of a tented area and soon we realized they were being treated to a lap dance/strip show, which in time, would be shut down but at that moment both ladies felt terribly out of place. Malia asked me if that was indeed the Martine Beswicke from England who made those "deliciously sexy horror films." When I confirmed it was the same lady, Maila said to me, "take me over to her I have to tell her something."  It was only a matter of moments later that two women would be connected for life since Maila told Martine that she fought like a tiger to get the station to try and locate this amazing actress named Martine Beswicke because only she could ever play Vampira as she envisoned the role to be played since Maila was now too old to repeat her perfomance of 1953. She, at least, wanted to control the way the show should look.

We were at the glamour con for another two days and during that time I really got to know Maila and she opened up about so many fascinating things about her life. She talked endlessly about James Dean (left) and I don't believe for one minute that they had a sexual relationship and she never said one way or the other. I just got the feeling they were two eccentric people who were drawn to one another since Hollywood was rather straight-laced at the time and Jimmy and Maila were very exotic and so not mundane or ordinary, so natually they would bond.  

Now on another note, Maila sat down with me one morning after we removed the sheets from our tables and told me in hushed tones about her "affair" with the great Orson Welles (right) and the love child she bore him. I sat there surrounded by oversized bras and pin-up photos listening to this revelation with both shock and awe. Was it true? Is there a middle-aged man walking the planet with the DNA of Orson Welles and Vampira? Well, anything is possible. Maila said they met in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and they both had worked for the tacky film producer Albert Zugsmith in 1958-60 when she did the silly "Sex Kittens Go To College" and Welles directed the mythic "Touch of Evil." The timelines matched and I so wanted to believe this story she was telling so who is to say.

The legend of Vampira is more than secure with her sinister image dominating the internet 24/7 whenever anyone references James Dean, Orson Welles or Halloween, the image of Vampira looms large of those dark horizons. The ghost of poor Ed Wood (left), the worlds worst director, has long been a beacon to fans of all things Vampira, even though she worked for only "a couple of days and for 200 bucks" on what has now become known as the worst film ever made, a title it may or may not deserve. She created such an iconic presence simply walking through a cardboard graveyard or merely standing beside a hulking Tor Johnson. Vampira was transformed at that moment into a fetish object of epic proportions.

I see her on sound bites and you tube clips looking very much in her dotage like Vampira would look at the same age and she seemed to be a peace with who she was and that in itself is an accomplishment. I think back to that eccentric lady dressed in vintage blacks and purples I first saw way back in 1977, remembering the scene with a warm nostalgia, decidedly bittersweet, then jarred to the present with Maila (right)smiling sardonicly through yet another interview of what it was like being directed by Ed Wood and at that moment I fully understand why Tim Burton placed Orson Welles in the same room with Wood in his bio pic of the late auteur. The connection was always there in the knowledage that somewhere in the world walks a man whose providence includes the greatest film director as a father and the the most sensational dark goddess of television and he dosen't even know it.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for an interesting read! I'm pretty well versed on Vampira lore and this is the first time I've heard of her saying that the liaison with Mr. Welles ummmm.... bore fruit, as they say!