Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Taking the "Un" Out of Undead.

Well now we've lost someone in 2008 that I'm sorry to lose. (Not that I'm not saddened by the loss of Brad Renfro, but really, did that one surprise anyone? Sweet Emily Perry, at 100 years and counting, was a better life insurance bet than Little Brad, the poster boy for Hollywood self-destruction.) Vampira died today. Now I know it seems odd to say someone has died when they've been a walking corpse for more than half a century, but it turned out, I learned today from Little Dougie, that Vampira wasn't a real vampire at all, but an 86 year old actress named Maila Nurmi, and she was the very first TV Horror Movie Hostess of all time. She invented ghoulish horror movie hostessing, a genre of entertainer now sadly extinct, that was particularly dear to Little Dougie, who is, after all, the author of the pointless (i.e. not about me) book The Q Guide to Classic Monster Movies, which was basically Little Dougie doing all his horror hosting all at once in book form, and even dedicated to the master who perfected the form Little Maila created.

Little Maila was born Maila Syrjäniemi (No, I haven't a clue how to pronounce it either.) on December 11, 1921, in Petsamo, Finland. One can easily see why she spent most of her life telling people she was from Transylvania. She spent most of those years telling people she was undead too, so they should have known better than to believe her. Her uncle was a multiple Olympic medal runner Paavo Nurmi, although whether his name was really Syrjäniemi, or Vampiro for that matter, I have no idea.

Mike Todd first dug her up somewhere, and the great film master Howard Hawks saw her in Todd's show Spook Scandals (naturally), and brought her to Hollywood to star in one of his upcoming film masterpieces. (Masterpieces were pretty much all old Howie made, except for Land of the Pharaohs, and Howie should have known better than to cast Joan Collins in the first place, so he has no one to blame but himself. He was trying to make what he called "An intelligent Cecil B. DeMille film", and everyone knows there's no such thing.) Howie planned to make her "The next Lauren Bacall," although the original wasn't worn out just yet. Demonstrating the patience, wisdom, and sound career sense that made her the obscure Hollywood hanger-on she was for 5 decades, she grew restive waiting for Hawks to get his film mounted (Whether there were similar delays getting Maila mounted, I have no way of knowing.), and walked out on her contract, apparently preferring to host cheap, old horror movies (Several starring me as it happens) on local Los Angeles channel KABC 7 as Vampira. Was she beautiful out of her ghoulish make-up? Well let me put it like this: she was personally fired from the Broadway play Catherine Was Great by Mae West herself, and dear, frumpy, chaste old Mae only fired women from the cast if she feared people would be looking at them instead of her. On the other hand, by 1944, when this incident occurred, looking better than Mae was not much of an accomplishment, and I knew Munchkins that towered over tiny Little Mae.

But Little Maila created Vampira, by basically stealing the look of Charles Addams' cartoon character whom came to be known as Morticia, invented Horror Hostessing, and went on TV, where she was enormously popular, and even garnered an Emmy as "Most Outstanding Female Personality." 1954 was one hell of a year for her. She even became good friends with delectable Little James Dean. Sadly, James, and her career both died in 1955. Her TV show was off the air again so fast that it's amazing it's as remembered as it is, particularly since no copies of any of her broadcasts survive.

But her true screen immortality lay shortly ahead, in the notoriously worst motion picture ever made, the Citizen Kane of crap, Plan Nine From Outer Space, directed by the beloved transvestite incompetent Ed Wood, the movie Bela Lugosi made some 3 years after his own death. (Talk about procrastinating!)

That's Vampira herself in Plan Nine, sharing the screen with the most magnetic actor of all time, Tor Johnson. Talk about sex appeal and talent. Tor had seen both! I may be the only person to have seen Tor's Hamlet, a performance that surpasses even Mel Gibson's! I'm sure others would have enjoyed seeing Tor play Hamlet as well, but there was only room for the one chair in that kitchen, particularly once Tor himself entered. He displaced a lot of air. And as for sex appeal: no one else on earth had the sex appeal of Tor, which was fortunate for the survival of the race. With actors like Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Vampira, it's small wonder that Plan Nine has the reputation it has today. It's what the Royal Shakespeare Society would be like, if only they were all incredibly untalented and inept.

Maila went on to do several other unforgettable forgettable films: The Big Operator (Which, despite it's title, is not about a well-hung surgeon, more's the pity.), The Beat Generation, an educational picture called Sex Kittens Go to College, and I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, which means she hasn't slept in this week. She also reteamed with Ed Wood for Night of the Ghouls, although without Tor and Bela, the magic didn't repeat, and it is merely awful, rather than spectacularly ghastly.

Her most widely seen screen appearance isn't even really her. Lisa Marie played her in Tim Burton's wonderful romp about the notoriously untalented film folks of the 1950s, Ed Wood. What greater monument to a career well-spent can there be than to be played in an A-Film by Tim Burton's girl friend? Fortunately for Sweeney Todd fans, these days Tim is nailing an actual actress, Helena Bonham Carter. Of course Tim maintains that he doesn't cast his main squeezes in his films because he's sleeping with them. It's just a co-incidence that his current bedmates are always in his movies, whether they are actual actresses, like Helena, or striking-looking mannequins like Lisa Marie. Conversely, Little Douglas actually met Maila a couple times, and he says Lisa Marie caught her distant, other-worldly self-involvement quite accurately, along with her two inch waist. Here's Lisa as Maila

Never adverse to publicity, Maila filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against sweet, talented, and charming Cassandra Peterson, best known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, for stealing her character, look, and act. And this, after Charles Addams did not sue Maila for blatantly stealing his character!

Well here's Addams's Morticia, Carolyn Jones's authorized version of her, Anjelica Huston's authorised version of her, Maila's Vampira, and Cassandra's Elvira, to compare for yourselves.

The only one of the bunch to have worked a variation I can detect is Elvira's quite different bouffant hairdo. Of course, Jones and Huston also brought charm and tremendous talent, attributes that Maila didn't really have in spades. But on the whole, they look like a row of paper dolls.

But she did invent the horror host. Soon after, John Zacherley in Philadelphia began his ghoulish hosting duties as "Roland". He soon went on to New York City, where, as Zacherley, he a achieved national fame and popularity far surpassing Vampira's brief flame out.

In 1962, Little Douglas fell madly in love with Jeepers, played by Bob Guy, on Jeepers' Creepers on KCOP channel 13 in Los Angeles. All Dougie wanted in life was to grow up to be a horror host, just like Jeepers. This picture of Jeepers, who was only on the air a single year, still hangs in Dougie's home. Pathetic, isn't he? Of course he has my picture up too. Hmmm.

Though Bob Guy left after a single season, Jeepers' Creepers continued, hostessed by Ghoulita, played by the delightful Letitia Harvey. Quickly Little Dougie was even more enamoured of Ghoulita than he had been of Jeepers, though he never gave up hope that Jeepers might one day return, even if only for a single guest appearance. It was never to be, although a single Jeepers episode still exists, which Dougie cherishes. Bob Guy himself is long dead. All that remains of Ghoulita's giggling low comedy is her audition tape, which Dougie also hoards with glee. About seven years ago Miss Harvey, who still graces the planet, sent him an email that made him ridiculously happy.

Like Jeepers before her, Ghoulita was on the air but one year, but during that year, Little Dougie saw almost every single one of her broadcasts. They were his favorite 90 minutes of each week, and he laughed and laughed. But then she left, and was replaced by Jeepers' Keeper, played by the late Fred Stuthman.

Dougie, who was now on the sunny side of puberty, never developed the fondness for Jeepers' Keeper that he'd had for Jeepers and Ghoulita. JK was more heavy handed and less charming. but he never stopped watching, and Jeepers' Keeper kept the show running another two years.

It wasn't until 1970 that Little Dougie, and indeed all of Los Angeles, fell in love with another horror host, but this time it was the man who was to be the King of All Horror Hosts, Seymour: Master of the Macabre, the Epitome of Evil, the Most Sinister Man to Crawl Across the Face of the Earth.

I won't belabor the Seymour story again, as my loyal readers all read Little Dougie's account of his love of Seymour, and how Dougie came to actually write for, and befriend the beloved TV star right here, back on Halloween. If you missed that posting, Mister Halloween, just click on this link and read it. Seymour and Dougie became close personal friends, and Seymour became the Best Horror Host That Ever Has Been. Others have come and gone, Grimsley, Arach Nid, Moona Lisa (Another Vampira-ish charmer, Little Dougie worked with her once, and found her a delight.), and of course charming Elvira came and has never really gone away again, but Seymour is ever the gold standard. His tragic death from cancer at age 50, at the height of his popularity, is a wound that Dougle still feels, and his new book is dedicated to Larry Vincent, the man in Seymour's hat and cape. If this odd little nook of show business interests you, there's a very good book out called Television Horror Movie Hosts by the late Elena M. Watson, published by McFarland & Co. It exhaustively chronicles dozens of horror hosts from all over America. Vampira quite deservedly is chapter one. The chapter on Seymour, good as far as it goes, oddly omits any mention of Little Dougie, despite his being a vital member of the creative team during the show's final season, as well as actually appearing on the final segment of the final Seymour show. Writing Seymour's stage and TV shows, and that appearance was as close to realizing his boyhood dream of being a horror host himself as he ever got.

What happened to the horror hosts? Well, home video hurt the market. If you want to watch Bride of Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man, why not rent or buy the DVDs, and see them uncut. commercial-free at your leisure? But what really killed them was Saturday Night Live. Late night on Saturdays was the prime Horror Host time slot. Seymour's last time slot was exactly that which SNL took over a few months after Larry Vincent's death. It occupied that slot in every market, and drew the exact same audience. Both Grimsley and Elvira battled SNL, but you'll notice that they're no longer on the air, and SNL sails on, as impossible to kill as Frankenstein's monster himself.

The great horror hosts are a joy that is over, and with the death of Maila Nurmi, the minor-talent who as Vampira, created the niche in the first place, that adorable, enjoyable era is truly, finally dead.

Unless someway, there's yet a sequel? Are horror hosts dead, or are they, as Henry Frankenstein said of his creation back in James Whale's Frankenstein, over the head of my own then-future husband Boris Karloff, "He's not dead; only waiting, waiting for a new life to come."

Cheers darlings.

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