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Mae West Meets the Mistress of the Dark

October 10, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ Who’s Elvira? She’s Mae West, Morticia Addams and Cassandra Peterson caught up in a Cuisinart.

Who’s Cassandra Peterson? She’s Elvira.

″Elvira was always Elvira, I was always Cassandra. Now the line is kind of blurring. Sometimes I don’t know who I am,″ says Peterson, the host of a horror movie series who’s just made her first movie, ″Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.″

″Elvira becomes like my real self, which I try to do. Sometimes I become like Elvira. I throw Elvira-isms into what I do and say, depending on my mood.″

Most of those Elvira-isms are unprintable - they go far beyond ″Beulah, peel me a grape.″

″People say I have a lot in common with Mae West,″ Peterson said. ″I was a never a big fan of hers but I can certainly now see the common thread. We’re both kind of the bad gal with a heart of gold character. Lots of double entendres.″

They also share a similar anatomy: Peterson is well endowed.

For the uninitiated, Elvira is the host of ″Movie Macabre,″ broadcast locally in Los Angeles. Her fame quickly grew, moving beyond talk show appearances and commercials into a fan club and marketing windfall, with Elvira records, greeting cards, T-shirts, comic books and key chains. Peterson developed her alter ego seven years ago.

″I thought the movie would be a great idea for this character,″ Peterson said. ″The film companies didn’t think I had enough nationwide appeal but then I got spots on Johnny Carson and Bob Hope.

″Once I became national, NBC saw the potential and signed me up.″

As for Peterson, she is quite unlike her alter ego. She has long red hair and dressed very simply in jeans and a leotard shirt for a recent interview. She is married to Mark Pierson, her manager.

Elvira was born Cassandra Peterson in Colorado Springs, Colo., and had the good fortune to have a mother who owned a costume shop.

″I dressed up all the time. I would dress like Miss Kitty from ‘Gunsmoke.’ My aunt sent me this funny picture of me as a witch when I was 5 years old. I’ve got on a black wig and a witch dress. I look like a 5-year-old Elvira,″ she said.

Her love for switching costumes and identities did not equip her for the stage. In fact, she flunked her high school drama class.

″I was playing in ‘Our Town.’ I kept telling jokes, making funny faces. I got kicked out of the part. I was the class clown. I was making a farce of it,″ she said.

″Our Town″ was never for Peterson; ″Viva Las Vagas″ is more her style. In fact, in the 1960s when she was 17, she worked as a Las Vegas showgirl.

″I try to keep it really campy,″ she said. ″The film company thinks it a men’s cult. It’s straight camp. It’s a very self-depreciating character. It’s all a kind of setup. Some people don’t get it and some do.

″It’s like being a cartoon character. It’s like a male Pee-wee (Herman). A walking cartoon.″

Her costume and alter ego allow her a certain amount of privacy, she says.

″That is one of the great things. I’m the world’s luckiest celebrity. If I want to put on no makeup and put on curlers and go walking down Hollywood Boulevard, nobody will know it’s me,″ Peterson said.

However, fame caught up to her last month when Maila ″Vampire″ Nurmi, a former horror hostess, filed a $10 million suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, claiming she had developed the Elvira character in the 1950s before Peterson.

″Horror hostesses are all wearing just about the same outfit,″ Peterson said. ″You’ve got pretty slim parameters. Mine were that I had to be in black and had to have black hair and look sexy. Any similarity is purely coincidental. If someone told you to look like Dracula, what would you wear?″

But Elvira isn’t just a black dress and wig, it’s a whole other person.

″I always compare it to someone at a costume party. If you’re in a total disguise, you kind of go wild. Nobody knows who you are. You might do things you otherwise wouldn’t do. They suddenly become these wild animals. When I put on this costume and wig, I become this wild underside of my character.″

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