The Story of Yours Cruelly, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, is one of the most iconic personas in history. She first debuted in a tight black dress (with an impossibly long slit) on her weekly fright night show, Elvira’s Movie Macabre. Now, more than three decades later, this cult icon is still making headlines.

Elvira / Cassandra Peterson / Elvira / Elvira.
Source: Getty Images

Elvira (aka Cassandra Peterson) has starred in countless films, books, comics, calendar spreads, and even video games. And while it’s tempting to assume that she works only around Halloween, Elvira actually works all year round. In her words, “There’s no rest for the wicked.”

Let’s see where it all began.

It All Started With a Terrible Accident

At 18 months old, Cassandra Peterson overturned a pot of boiling hot water all over her teeny-tiny self. She suffered terrible, near-fatal, third-degree burns which called for extensive skin grafts and surgeries. She was left with permanent scarring, making her an easy target for school bullies.

Elvira poses for the media.
Source: Copyright: New World Pictures

“I totally think that accident paved the way for me to become Elvira,” Peterson once mentioned in an interview; “I literally adopted another person who had all the qualities that I wanted but couldn’t get on my own.”

She Felt Like a Misfit

Feeling like a misfit throughout most of her childhood, Peterson developed an affinity for anything scary, eerie, and unconventional. She fell in love with the horror genre and spent hours devouring different kooky movies and stories.

A photo of Angelyne, Nina Hagen, and Elvira in Hollywood.
Source: Pinterest

“In a weird, roundabout way, that accident led me to my love of horror and got me started on this path. I look at it as a good thing,” Peterson wrote in her autobiography, Yours Cruelly, Elvira.

A Go-Go Dancer

When she was a teen, one of Peterson’s idols was the Swedish-American dancer and singer, Ann-Margret, who starred alongside Elvis Presley in the movie Viva Las Vegas (1964). She dreamed of being a showgirl just like Ann-Margret.

A portrait of a younger Elvira.
Source: Pinterest

She even shared her aspiration once with her school counselor who told her: “If you really want this, do it!” And sure enough, after graduation, Peterson pursued her flashy ambition and flew to Las Vegas where she kicked off her career as a showgirl.

She Was the Youngest Showgirl Around

Peterson worked hard to talk her parents into letting her drive off to Vegas. They knew she was extremely young. In fact, when she revealed her age to one of her dance instructors in the city, he asked her parents to sign a release.

A portrait of Peterson as a showgirl before becoming Elvira.
Source: Tumblr

“I wasn’t able to enter the hotel, except through the back through the kitchen,” Peterson revealed in a 2017 interview with Vulture. “I couldn’t drink or gamble or go in the casino, but I could dance in a G-string onstage.”

She Spent a Night With Elvis

After spending a year in Las Vegas, Cassandra Peterson decided it was time to leave. Her decision came right after she sat for a talk with her childhood idol, the one, the only – Elvis Presley. Presley spotted Peterson dancing in Vegas, and invited her, as well as a few other dancers, back to his penthouse suite.

A portrait of Cassandra Peterson in character as Elvira.
Source: Copyright: New World Pictures

There, he took a liking to Cassandra, then 17 and the youngest one of the bunch, and, as Peterson recalls, they stayed up all night discussing everything from astrology to life in showbiz. They even did a few drunken duets together.

Elvis Encouraged Her to Move to L.A.

Peterson recalls Elvis telling her: “If you really want to be in showbiz, you’ve got to get out of this town…You just sang with me, and you’ve got a really nice voice. You should get voice lessons and go into singing.”

A photo of Elvis Presley in Las Vegas during a concert.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll told Peterson that dancing wasn’t a good career in the long run, because by the time she would hit 25, she would be too old for the profession. “You need to start thinking about a different career path if you want to stay in showbiz,” he advised. Convinced, Peterson packed her belongings and headed straight to Hollywood.

He Advised Her Not to Do Drugs

Not only did Elvis encourage Peterson to “take singing lessons” and “get the hell out of dodge,” he also told her that no matter where she was, what she did, and who she hung out with, she should “never ever do drugs.”

A portrait of Elvira.
Photo by Richard Blanshard/Getty Images

That’s solid advice coming from a man who abused opiates most of his life. He also took in high amounts of valium, barbiturates, Quaaludes, sleeping pills, and different hormones. So, I guess he was talking from experience, right?

She Was an Extra in a James Bond Movie

When she was working as a dancer with Vive Les Girls in Las Vegas, Cassandra Peterson and several of her peers were cast as extras in the 1971 James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. It was an exciting little appearance, one that made Peterson all the hungrier for stardom.

A movie still of Sean Connery as James Bond.
Source: Copyright: MGM

Peterson appears for a hot second in a scene with Leonard Barr, the actor who starred as stand-up comic Shady Tree. It was her first taste of acting and her first encounter with how showbiz runs.

She Was Part of a Sketch Club

There’s a reason why Elvira is so funny. Peterson used to be a member of L.A.’s well-known improvisation and sketch comedy group called The Groundlings. The group also included Saturday Night Live’s Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens.

A dated portrait of Peterson.
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Who would have thought to put Pee-wee Herman and the Mistress of Dark in the same room? If you’re interested in knowing more about her time as a comedian, make sure to read her enticing memoir.

Her Lengthy Battle With Vampira

Elvira’s lengthy battle with Vampira (Maila Nurmi) began way back when Peterson was chosen to replace Nurmi as the host on L.A.’s KHJ-TV. Peterson was then forced to rapidly choose a new name for herself.

A portrait of Maila Nurmi in character as Vampira.
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

She and her colleagues tossed a bunch of potential names into a coffee can and voila! Elvira was chosen. It was literally a random pick and ended up being the perfect choice. Peterson recalled thinking at the time that it “sounded like a Country-Western singer.”

She Was Friends With Another Horror Icon

Peterson is good friends with another horror legend – Vincent Price. And in honor of her good friend, she named her rescue puppy after him, calling him Vinny the Pee. Fun fact: Peterson might be scary, but she’s an avid animal lover and a steadfast animal rights activist.

A picture of Peterson and her dog / A portrait of Vincent Price.
Photo by Gregg DeGuire, WireImage, Getty Images / Keystone, Getty Images

Peterson writes in her memoir that Vincent Price taught her some valuable cooking lessons. But let us warn you, the advice is…uh…bizarre. She writes: “He taught me to cook fish in my dishwasher.” Yes, very strange indeed.

The First Female Celeb to Endorse a Beer

For a moment there, Coors beer made Peterson, or better put, Elvira, a national starlet. The beer brand catapulted her to national stardom by placing her at the forefront of a series of commercials for a beer campaign for “the official beer of Halloween.”

A photo of a personalized Elvira’s beer package.
Source: Pinterest

Not only was her face on TV, but there were cardboard cutouts of her placed in liquor stores all around the nation, making her a familiar face across the States. She became the “first female star in commercial history to endorse a beer.”

They Called Her the Daughter of Satan

Peterson’s partnership with Coors came to an abrupt end when the Coors family, being mega conservative, suddenly freaked out about her involvement with their brand. Tired of dealing with their outdated beliefs, she broke all ties with them.

Elvira performs on stage.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“They would actually call me the Daughter Of Satan and stuff like that, you know?” Peterson once revealed, “I was like, okay, well, this is pretty hard to deal with these people.” Elvira isn’t one to stand for such remarks, so she quickly got up and left!

Yummy, Yummy Brad Pitt

When working on Mistress of the Dark– Peterson’s first Elvira film – she recalled meeting a young, up and coming actor who auditioned for a role and wrote: “yummy, yummy” in her notes. The man in question? Brad Pitt.

A dated picture of Brad Pitt.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

“Years later, when I met him again, I told him he was very grateful to me for personally saving his career by not casting him in my film,” Elvira joked in an interview. If we’re being honest, we find it pretty hard to picture Pitt in one of Elvira’s films.

A Haunted House

Elvira’s memoir has two chapters dedicated to Briarcliff Manor, the star’s former house up in the Hollywood Hills. The spooky Spanish bungalow cost her a whopping $925,000 and is located just a few blocks from L.A.’s shopping boutique boulevard, Larchmont.

Elvira poses for a studio portrait.
Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Elvira recalled living there and described how hard it was to raise chickens on that land. She said that the place was likely haunted and that even the heart-shaped pool was troubled by restless spirits. She later sold the house to none other than her good pal, Brad Pritt.

Her Sitcom Never Saw the Light of Day

In the early ’90s, Peterson worked on a pilot for a CBS sitcom called The Elvira Show. Even though it came out superb, it never saw the light of day because, according to Peterson, a manager from the network canceled it on the spot.

A photograph of Peterson in character as Elvira, arriving at an event.
Photo by URLI/GARCIA/ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

He said, “We can’t have tits like that on CBS!” Seriously, that was the explanation he gave. Funny enough, two years later, Peterson discovered that Sabrina the Teenage Witch became an absolute hit for CBS.

Who Is Elvira?

So, how did Elvira get her start in L.A.? After years of trying to break into the business, Peterson, 30 years old at the time, finally landed a local gig as the host of a horror film show for one of L.A.’s TV stations.

A portrait of Elvira.
Source: Getty Images

She was given the task of creating a spooky, creepy look for her hostess character, and after throwing around a few ideas, she came up with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. She adopted a slick look with a bold neckline, a tight black dress, and an unapologetic sense of humor.

She Didn’t Think They Would Let Her on TV

When Elvira designed her on-stage look, she was afraid her managers would deem her outfit as “too revealing.” “I could hardly believe it,” Peterson recalled, “I really didn’t think they were going to let me on TV in that rather revealing outfit.”

A picture of Elvira.
Photo by Richard Blanshard/Getty Images

But what Peterson didn’t realize was that her superiors at the station wanted nothing more from the show than ratings, ratings and more ratings. So, of course, a revealing outfit fit perfectly well with their hopes of attracting viewers.

She Put the Whole Nation Under Her Spell

In less than two weeks, Peterson managed to grab the attention of a whole nation with her unique persona and kooky behavior. Elvira became national news, and she was invited to several talk shows including The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.

Elvira performs on stage.
Photo by Richard Blanshard/Getty Images

Apart from Carson’s late-night show, Elvira was also invited to Saturday Night Live and ABC’s Last Man Standing. It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of her in the ’80s. She was captivating, alluring, and interesting.

Her Family Owned a Costume Shop

Peterson’s family owned a costume shop, which, quite frankly, explains a lot. She discovered the power of playing dress-up and disguising herself at a very young age. She always had the best costume on Halloween, even winning $100 once in a local competition.

Cassandra Peterson attends an event.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

“Halloween was our big, big event every year. Relatives would fly out from all over the country to help my family at the store. And they would be preparing for it months in advance,” Peterson shared. “I grew up around the whole Halloween business, and here I am wearing a costume again every day and Halloween is still a big time of the year.”

Elvira’s Gigs Are Booked Before and After Halloween

The enthusiasm surrounding Halloween has grown immensely over the last thirty years. This means that Peterson’s schedule is normally booked from September through November and packed with a host of Elvira-related appearances.

A headshot of Elvira.
Photo by Dianna Whitley/Getty Images

Her performances include walking around Scare-Fests, hosting different carnivals, and just freaking people out with her spooky demeanor. Elvira has also recently produced a line of comic books and creepy graphic novels.

Elvira Is Still Her Full-Time Business

When Halloween season is over, Peterson sheds her spooky outfit and removes her spiky black wig. But that doesn’t mean Elvira season is over. The star still runs her own production company and deals with the marketing of her brand.

A picture of Peterson during a convention.
Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

“Everybody thinks I go to sleep on November 1st and don’t wake up until October 1st the following year, but all year round I’m busy,” noted Peterson. She’s a savvy businesswoman who says her character persists all year round.

Peterson Nailed Her Audition

As it turns out, Peterson’s Valley Girl character won her the chance to host her very own horror show, Elvira’s Movie Macabre. It was the early ’80s, and KHJ-TV was looking to air their weekly show, Horror Show Fright Night.

Peterson in character as Elvira in a still from the show.
Source: Source: Copyright: New World Pictures

What they needed, however, was a new, female host with a fresh take. In came Cassandra Peterson, who won them over from the get-go with her ever-so-natural kookiness and wit. She put on her Valley Girl act and won them over. The producers said yes, and from that point on, the rest is history.

Her Look Was Inspired by Sharon Tate

When Peterson was crafting her on-stage look for Elvira’s Movie Macabre, the producers gave her complete freedom to do whatever she pleased. She originally wanted to go with a “ghost-like” vibe, but her makeup artist and good friend, Robert Redding, suggested otherwise.

A portrait of Sharon Tate in Dance of the Vampires.
Source: Copyright: MGM

He told her, why don’t you go ahead and look at pictures of Sharon Tate from The Fearless Vampire Killers? She took his advice but gave Sharon Tate’s look a sexy twist. And there you have it! The story of how Elvira came to be.

She Was Raised by Drag Queens

Elvira’s confident attitude isn’t something one can fake. It had to come from somewhere, right? Exactly. In Peterson’s case, it came from the people around her. In an interview with The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Peterson revealed:

Elvira poses for the press.
Photo by Barry King/Getty Images

“I always tell people I was ‘raised by a pack of wild drag queens.’ I was around so many drag queens and gay men when I was young.” Among them were two drag queens, Mr. Bobby and Tawny Tan, who taught her a thing or two about dressing up and being as outrageous as she possibly could be.

A Fellini Movie Turned Her Life Around

In one of her many lives (yes, she writes in her biography that she’s lived a million), Peterson lived in Italy, where she was the lead singer of two local rock bands, The Snails and Latins 80. But she was still struggling to make ends meet.

A still from the film.
Source: YouTube

But then while strolling down the streets of Rome, legendary director Federico Fellini noticed her and thought she looked just like his wife when she was young. He offered her a part in his film. “I didn’t have any money or work and to have that fall out of the sky was like a miracle,” she revealed.

Elvira Was Refused a Raise

Even though she was a nationally syndicated superstar (after just two years of her series), the producers of her show refused to pay her accordingly. Gradually, she came to realize that she could be making a lot more than what she was paid.

Cassandra Peterson poses for the press.
Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Peterson demanded the rights to her fan club, which the station granted, and then, she demanded to own the appearance rights, which led to more and more rights. Today, Cassandra Peterson owns all of Elvira’s empire, 100% of it!

She Saw Her First Horror Film When She Was Just a Kid

In a sit down with David Weiner for his 2019 documentary, In Search of Darkness, Peterson revealed that she had watched the startling 1959 film William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill at a very young age.

A portrait of Elvira.
Photo by Richard Blanshard/Getty Images

She was around seven years old when she watched that Vincent Price shocker. Peterson recalled being repelled yet fascinated at the same time. She had nightmares for weeks, but it was well worth it. From that point on, she was a sucker for anything and everything spooky.

She Credits John Paragon With Helping Her Create Elvira

During Peterson’s time with the comedy improvisation group The Groundlings, she developed her Valley Girl persona who would eventually turn into Elvira. She later credited one of her comic peers, John Paragon (who would play Jambion in Pee-wee’s Playhouse) for shaping Elvira’s character.

A picture of Elvira with The Groundlings.
Source: Pinterest

“From the beginning, we developed this persona together,” Peterson told The Los Angeles Daily News. “Our brains became one big Elvira brain. His help was absolutely invaluable. It would not have been the same character had John not been around, that’s for sure.”

Elvira Was Supposed to Be Vampira’s Daughter

In 1981, KHJ-TV’s producers wanted to reboot The Vampira Show, which the station had taken off the airways back in 1956. The producers first brought in Maila Nurmi, the star who played the original hostess and still owned the character.

A studio headshot portrait of Vampira.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

However, Nurmi was in no condition to revive her classic role. So, producers decided to hire a new actress for the part and offered Nurmi a job in production and weekly royalties in exchange for the Vampira name. When Peterson was hired for the part, she was told she would be playing Vampira’s daughter.

Peterson Originally Envisioned Elvira as a Redhead in a Pink Dress

Elvira’s look was based on Sharon Tate’s character in one of Peterson’s favorite films, The Fearless Vampire Killers. The producers didn’t approve of it, though, insisting that her character must wear all black.

A portrait of Sharon Tate’s character.
Source: Copyright: MGM

So, with the help of her buddy Robert Redding, she came up with Elvira’s signature look: a tight black dress with a low neckline, heavy makeup, and a beehive hairdo inspired by the Ronettes’ leading lady, Ronnie Spector.

She Was Sued

The first dispute between Elvira and Nurmi had to do with the name change. Instead of The Vampira Show, Peterson turned it into Elvira’s Movie Macabre. In 1988, Nurmi sued Peterson, filing a $10 million lawsuit against her.

A portrait of Maila Nurmi during an event.
Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

She reported trademark infringement and “unfair competition” as the reason for the lawsuit. The matter was eventually settled after the judge ruled in Peterson’s favor. Nurmi wasn’t happy obviously, but, hey, who said life was fair?

The Man Behind “Thriller” Wanted Elvira to Be on the Record

The brains behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller, songwriter Rod Temperton, originally wanted Elvira to record the spoken-word bit of the song. But music producer Quincy Jones offered the gig to his good friend Vincent Price instead.

A still of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.
Source: YouTube

“If I had to lose out to someone, my idol would be my first choice,” Peterson wrote in her memoir. “But I still wonder sometimes how ‘Thriller’ would have changed the trajectory of my career.” Peterson ultimately got a chance to record a spoken word segment when she was featured in Kim Petra’s song, “Turn Off the Light.”

She Turned Down $10,000 Because of Her Love of Animals

According to Peterson’s memoir, she was invited to appear on Circus of the Stars in 1990, with a performance that involved “riding and training an elephant.” She was told she would be paid $10,000 for the stunt. She ended up turning it down.

Elvira performs on stage.
Photo by Barry King/Getty Images

An avid advocate for animal welfare, Peterson learned of the abuse circus elephants go through for the sake of entertainment and preferred not to take part in it. She also protested once against fur shows in Las Vegas. Proudly, she wrote in her book, “The demonstration was such a success that to this day, there’s never been another fur convention held in Las Vegas.”

She Came Out as Gay

For decades, Cassandra Peterson has been an activist for the LGBTQ community. In her autobiography, she finally reveals that she has been in a relationship with a woman for the last 20 years. They kept their relationship under wraps for a tremendously long time, for fear that fans might reject Elvira if they knew.

Cassandra Peterson attends an event.
Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Peterson told The Hollywood Reporter that her person is known as “a big horndog,” and she was afraid to risk her character’s reputation as an insatiable man chaser. For the same reason, she kept her 25-year marriage to Mark Pierson on the down-low as well.

She Has a Daughter

Cassandra Peterson and Mark Pierson married in 1981, and have a daughter, Sadie, who was born in 1994. There aren’t many details about her on the internet, as she prefers to keep her personal life to herself.

Peterson attends an event with her daughter.
Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic/Getty Images

What little is known, however, is that after Cassandra and Mark’s divorce, Sadie lived with her mom in Los Angeles and the two have a wonderful connection. Sadie doesn’t have an Instagram account, so there isn’t really a way to dig up some more data.

Elvira’s Halloween Favorites

There’s no way we’ll write an article about Elvira without mentioning her Halloween favorites! Let’s start by the most conventional Halloween item – candies. To our best knowledge, Elvira’s favorite Halloween candy is candy corn.

A photo of Elvira statue memorabilia on display.
Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Her favorite spooky TV show is The Addams Family. Her favorite romantic movie is Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. “I immediately just think of that movie. I loved that movie when I was a kid,” she once recalled. As for her favorite rock star, it’s Jack White!

Her Non-Elvira Gigs

Cassandra Peterson is a good actress, regardless of whether she’s in character or not. She’s tried a few non-Elvira roles in other movies, most notably, 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure where she starred alongside fellow Groundling member, Paul Reubens.

Peterson in a still from the film.
Source: YouTube

Other non-Elvira projects include a part in Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold, which was released in 1987, starring Sharon Stone and Richard Chamberlain, as well as All About Evil, in which she played a mom named Linda who warns kids not to go to the old cinema to watch scary movies.

How Old Is Elvira?

Today, Cassandra Peterson is 70 years old (she looks incredible though! Really…). She was born in Manhattan, Kansas, on Sept. 17, 1951. So, many fans are dying to know, how does she stay looking so fit and healthy at her age?

Elvira performs on stage.
Photo by Barry King/Getty Images

When asked by the press, Elvira joked that being immortal helps. That, and always washing your face before bed and also embracing “your dark goth side 365 days a year.” And always use the best skin care products.

Her Truly Bizarre Film

Peterson’s movie, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988), is a really wild movie that has become a cult classic. In it, Elvira quits her horror hostess job and moves to Las Vegas in hopes of having her own show. However, she needs a generous amount of money to fund it.

Cassandra is in character as Elvira in a movie still.
Source: Copyright: New World Pictures

Luckily, she finds out that she has just inherited a house from an old family member she didn’t even know she had! But things get a bit messy. The house is located in a very conservative community, and she ends up being chased after by her evil uncle! It’s a cheesy yet wonderful movie.

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