If you’re making a list of notable horror figures in pop culture, Elvira absolutely must be on that list. The creation of actress/comedienne Cassandra Peterson, the so-called “Mistress of the Dark”, was born on Los Angeles television station KHJ back in the early ’80s. An audition was held to find a new host for their late night weekend horror show Fright Night following the death of original host Larry Vincent. Peterson, who was once a member of the comedy troupe the Groundlings alongside former Saturday Night Live star Phil Hartman, landed the gig. Given free rein to create her own character, she devised Elvira.
Known for a cleavage-revealing black gown, a dark wig, and a sarcastic sense of humor, Elvira quickly became a hit. Her penchant for double entendres — coupled with witty commentary on the films she showed — made watching the newly-titled Movie Macabre a must. Eventually, her L.A. fame expanded to the entire country and, in fact, the whole world. Elvira is, without a doubt, the single most famous horror host in history. To celebrate this unique and beloved performer, we offer up some personal trivia about Cassandra Peterson and the character she created.
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Elvira.
15. Her mother owned a costume shop
Peterson was born in Manhattan, Kansas on September 17, 1951. Her family later moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado. From a young age, she found herself drawn to horror-themed toys, rather than the Barbie dolls that most girls played with. The theatrical, larger-than-life quality of horror appealed to her. That attraction to the theatrical was likely fueled by the fact that her mother ran a costume shop, where young Cassandra often served as her model.
As a girl, she liked to dress up as popular television characters from the day, such as Ginger from Gilligan’s Island or Miss Kitty from the popular Western, Gunsmoke. She enjoyed helping around the shop, but more than that, she liked the fantasy element that came from dressing up in various costumes. Peterson has said in interviews that she always knew she would one day grow up and have a job that required being in costume. That feeling would turn out to be prescient.
14. She was badly burned in a childhood accident
When she was a toddler, a very frightening accident befell Peterson, one that left her permanently disfigured. The two-year-old climbed up on a chair to reach the stove, pulling over a pot of boiling water that her mother was using to cook Easter eggs. She suffered third-degree burns on roughly thirty-five percent of her body, with the most severe burns occurring on her neck and shoulders. The burns were so severe that she required skin grafts.
In later years, other kids teased her about the scarring left behind from this incident. Peterson quickly learned that she could deflate such criticism by making jokes about it herself — essentially beating those who would make fun of her to the punch. Developing that ability came in extremely handy in the future when, as Elvira, she would make people laugh through self-deprecating humor. From a painful childhood experience, she was able to find personal triumph in adulthood.
13. Elvis gave her career advice
For a brief time, Peterson dated no less than the King of Rock-and-Roll himself, Elvis Presley. Their relationship was short-lived, but he played an important role in her future, offering her some advice that would shape the course of her career. At the time, she was working as a showgirl at The Dunes in Las Vegas. That’s where she met Presley and they began dating.
In an interview with Den of Geek, Peterson explained that she and Elvis were sitting at a piano singing together one day. He told her that she had a good voice, going on to recommend that she take vocal lessons and pursue a musical career. He felt that she was too good to be working as a showgirl, especially in a town like Vegas that undeniably has a seedy side. She dutifully followed his advice — as anyone receiving advice from Elvis should have — by hiring a vocal coach the next day and landing an upgraded singing role in the show she’d been appearing in. She eventually left Vegas, too.
12. She worked with Federico Fellini
It was the early 1970s. Peterson found herself in Italy, pursuing a career as a singer (as suggested by Presley) and fronting a rock band called I Latins Ochanats and the Snails. While the music thing didn’t exactly work out the way she hoped it would, her time in Italy paid off after a random encounter with one of her favorite filmmakers, the world-renowned Federico Fellini.
The director, best known for classic films like 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita, was in Rome shooting his movie Fellini’s Roma when he spotted Peterson walking down the street. Fellini remarked that she resembled a younger version of his wife, the actress Giulietta Masina. He then immediately offered her a small role in his production. Even if it wasn’t a huge part, Peterson got the opportunity to work under the guidance of a true master of cinema for an entire month. It was the kind of education any aspiring performer would kill for.
11. She may have appeared on a Tom Waits album cover
Tom Waits is a legendary singer-songwriter whose career has been thriving for more than forty years. His distinctly gravelly voice makes his work immediately recognizable, and his songs, which often focus on the downtrodden or marginalized, are the product of a unique creative mind. In 1976, Waits released an album called Small Change. The cover features the singer in a go-go dancer’s dressing room, sitting on a makeup table. To the left and slightly behind him is a naked girl. That might be Cassandra Peterson; she’s not entirely sure.
Whether or not that’s her on the cover has long been a source of speculation. Given that no one else has ever stepped forward to claim it’s them, the likelihood seems reasonably high. Peterson discussed the topic with the A.V. Club, saying, “I don’t remember having done it. But of course, I don’t remember a lot of stuff I did in the ’70s…It looks like me! I’ve stared at it really, really hard, and I’m pretty sure it’s me. I modeled for a lot of album covers…but I don’t remember that one.” Is it her? Take a look and decide for yourself.
10. She lost her virginity to Tom Jones
Elvis was not the only famous person with whom Cassandra Peterson was romantically involved. In a 2008 Blender interview, she revealed that she lost her virginity to Tom Jones, the Welsh singer best known for the hits “It’s Not Unusual”, “What’s New Pussycat”, and, later, his cover of Prince’s “Kiss”. (Jones is also famous for being such a sex symbol that female audience members routinely throw their undergarments at him during shows.) While the thought of being deflowered by such a musical icon may seem ideal, it turned out to be less than comfortable. In fact, Peterson required stitches afterward.
Jones was apparently so well-endowed and so aggressive in the sack that he inadvertently injured her. According to the actress, “I ended up with a little tearing, a little bleeding, and going to the hospital. I had to get stitches.” Peterson described the incident as “painful and horrible.” Nonetheless, she thought that she and Jones would officially become an item. Seeing him the following night with two of his backup singers convinced her otherwise.
9. Coors beer made her a household name
Elvira was big in L.A. as the host of Movie Macabre, but it was the Coors beer company that helped springboard her to national fame. In the 1980s, Coors decided to dub itself “the Official Beer of Halloween.” They signed Elvira up to do a series of commercials, then placed cardboard cutouts of her in liquor stores and beer distributors across the country. If you wanted to buy alcohol at the time, you were definitely going to see the horror hostess. Her star factor rose exponentially.
In the aforementioned A.V. Club interview, Peterson said the promotion came to an abrupt end for unusual reasons. She had been hired by the corporate advertising department, and they were thrilled with the success of the marketing campaign, which went on for several Halloween seasons. The Coors family, on the other hand, was very religious, and they disapproved of her being the spokeswoman for their company. Her association with horror iconography, no matter how satiric, freaked them out. All marketing featuring her was promptly ended. No longer associated with Coors, she went on to start her own beer brand, dubbed Elvira’s Night Brew.
8. She starred in her own line of comic books
Befitting for such an exaggerated character, Elvira eventually spawned her own line of comic books. In the ’80s, DC published a series called Elvira’s House of Mystery that lasted for eleven issues, followed by a special. It was a spinoff of an already existing title. Later, Claypool assumed control of the series, re-dubbing it Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Their line ran for about fourteen years, with 166 issues published. There were some plans to do another comic more recently, but as per her interview with the A.V. Club, Elvira says no less a luminary than Stan Lee advised her not to, saying that the comics boom is coming to an end. (No disrespect to Mr. Lee, but we beg to differ.)
Because of her comics appearances, Elvira has been a regular at annual Comic-Con celebrations, though that tradition may soon come to an end. In July of 2016, she told L.A. Weekly that any future appearances will probably be out of character because she’s not sure if people are interested in seeing a 65-year-old woman in such an outfit. “My character is based very much on the sexy,” she told them, “so continuing to try to be sexy until you’re really old might not work.” Of course, the reality is that any Elvira fan would love to see her in person, no matter what her age or what she’s wearing.
7. She turned down Playboy
Considering that Elvira has such an overtly sexy image, it’s not a surprise that Hugh Hefner and Playboy came calling. And since Peterson had done nudity as a showgirl and as a High Society model in the ’70s, it wasn’t a stretch to think that she might happily pose for the magazine in the guise of her famous alter-ego. However, she turned Hef down, despite the offer of a million bucks.
You won’t believe who advised her not to do the naked shoot: it was her fans! Elvira attended a horror convention and, during a panel discussion, asked the gathering of her hardcore fans whether she should pose for Playboy. They almost unanimously said no, claiming that it would ruin the mystique. Despite being ready and willing — and even starting to work herself back into shape, post-baby — she listened to their advice. Hefner was disappointed, and Peterson claims that, to this day, he refers to her as “the girl who got away.”
6. She’s a smart businesswoman
One of the reasons why Elvira has been so popular for so long is that Cassandra Peterson is a very smart businesswoman. Over the years, Elvira has had dozens of pieces of licensed merchandise. In addition to the comic books, there have been Halloween costumes (a perennial best-seller), drinking glasses, action figures, life-sized cardboard standees, music CDs, t-shirts, trading cards, and calendars. There was even an Elvira pinball machine.
Video games were eventually produced as well. In the early ’90s, Accolade released an eponymous survival-horror game for the PC and several consoles, including the Amiga. In the game, Elvira is being held captive by the undead minions of the evil sorceress Queen Emelda. It’s up to the player to rescue her and prevent the queen from rising. While well-received, the game was somewhat controversial for its death scenes, which were incredibly graphic for the time. A follow-up game, Elvira II: The Jaws of Cerberus, also contained some gruesome moments.
5. She developed an un-aired sitcom
In 1993, former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts wrote a sitcom pilot for Elvira. The Elvira Show found the Mistress of the Dark living in Manhattan, Kansas, where she worked as a fortune teller and love potion saleswoman. She lived with her witch aunt Minerva (played by former Who’s the Boss? star Katherine Helmond) and a talking black cat, who was prone to making wisecracks.
CBS ordered the pilot, but didn’t pick the show up to become a series, thanks in part to some bad luck. On the day that the network president was supposed to choose which pilots to air, he became ill and was hospitalized. Another network suit was charged with fulfilling his duties, and he was not impressed with what he saw. Particularly objectionable was Elvira’s trademark low-cut outfit, apparently, and that marked the official end of The Elvira Show. Only one episode, which you can watch in its entirety online, was ever produced. That said, if the concept sounds vaguely familiar to you, that’s because Sabrina, the Teenage Witch co-opted it a few years later, to far greater success.
4. She starred in her own movies
During her years as host of Movie Macabre, Elvira introduced a lot of other people’s films, but in 1988, she made one of her own. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, directed by SNL vet James Signorelli, has her inheriting her late aunt’s mansion in a small New England town. Her provocative dress and demeanor clash with the conservative locals. (In one clever joke, the town is called Fallwell, an homage to televangelist Jerry Falwell.) She makes friends with the local cinema owner, working with him to start a late night film festival.
Peterson helped co-write the script to ensure it stuck close to her vision for the character. It should have been a triumph, but it turned out to be something of a disaster. Reviews were mixed, at best. Even worse was the fact that the movie’s distributor, New World Pictures, endured some significant financial problems just as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was set to come out. This affected their ability to properly release and market films. Instead of a big, splashy opening, Elvira debuted on September 30th, 1988, in just 627 theaters, earning a disappointing $1.6 million in its first weekend. (It narrowly beat out Tom Cruise’s Cocktail, then in its tenth weekend.) After two weeks, it was gone for good, with a total box office take of just under $5.6 million.
3. Peterson appears in movies and TV as characters other than Elvira
Cassandra Peterson has appeared on TV and in movies as Elvira for decades, but you may not have realized that she also appeared in both mediums as characters other than Elvira. Aside from the uncredited role in Fellini’s Roma, she additionally appeared as a dancer in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Many of her earliest roles were nameless bit parts along those same lines: a hostage in Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, a dinner party guest in Coast to Coast, a “busty nurse” in Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again, etc. She even appeared in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, playing a “biker mama.”
On the small screen, Peterson popped up on Happy Days, CHiPs, St. Elsewhere, Fantasy Island, and Nash Bridges, among others. She does a lot of voice work, too, with credits that include Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, and LEGO Scooby-Doo: Haunted Hollywood. Elvira may be her most popular character, but it’s clear that she has versatility.
2. She’s an award-winning actress
Over the course of her career, Elvira has been nominated for and/or received multiple awards. In 1988, she was on both ends of the spectrum. The Saturn Awards — which honor the best work in science-fiction, fantasy, and horror on television and in film — nominated her as Best Actress for Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. She lost to Catherine Hicks in Child’s Play, but it was still a meaningful recognition. That same year, she received a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actress for her work in the same film. In this category, she lost to Liza Minelli for the one-two punch of Arthur 2: On the Rocks and Rent-a-Cop.
In 2001, Elvira was the recipient of the Spirit of Silver Lake Award from the Silver Lake Film Festival, an honor bestowed upon those who have contributed to independent cinema in some significant way. In March 2016, she got a Lifetime Achievement Award from HorrorHound, the respected horror film festival. Over the years, this same award has gone to such genre luminaries as Tom Savini and Clive Barker. Not bad company to be in, and Elvira was certainly a worthy honoree.
1. She’s a well-established author
Aside from her on-screen talents, Elvira has a knack for writing. She once penned a series of comic-horror paperbacks, co-authored with friend and writing partner John Paragon. (You may know him better as Jambi the Genie on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.) The books had titles like The Boy Who Cried Werewolf and Transylvania 90210. She has described the writing process as a true 50-50 split, with her writing one chapter and Paragon writing the next, with this repeating until conclusion.
Elvira’s newest literary work is an eponymous coffee table book that celebrates her 35th anniversary as a cultural icon in photographs. Peterson herself wrote the commentary that accompanies the pictures, offering insight into her many accomplishments. The 240-page book contains more than 350 images, some of which have never been seen before. Furthermore, it can be purchased in a regular edition or an edition signed by the Mistress of the Dark herself. Any hardcore Elvira fan will want to own a copy. To order one, or to just keep up with Elvira in general, visit her official website.
What do you like most about Elvira? Do you have a favorite memory or appearance? We want to hear about it! Give us all your Elvira-related thoughts in the comments.
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