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Maila Nurmi (born Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi, December 21, 1921 in Petsamo, Finland—now Pechenga, Russia) created the well-remembered 1950s character of Vampira. Her portrayal of this character as a television horror host and in films was influential over decades that followed.
Born Maila Syrjäniemi, she claimed to be the niece of the Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi, who began setting long-distance running world records in 1921, the year of her birth. She moved to the United States with her family when she was two years old and grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, home to the largest Finnish-American community in Ohio. Arriving in Los Angeles at age 17, she modeled for Alberto Vargas, Bernard of Hollywood, and Man Ray, gaining a foothold in the film industry with an uncredited role in Victor Saville's 1947 film, If Winter Comes.
Origin of Vampira
The idea for the Vampira character was born in 1953 when Nurmi attended choreographer Lester Horton's annual Bal Caribe Masquerade in a costume inspired by a character in The New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams. Her appearance with pale white skin and tight black dress caught the attention of television producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr., who wanted to hire her to host horror movies on the Los Angeles television station KABC-TV, but Stromberg had no idea how to contact her. He finally got her phone number from Rudi Gernreich, later famed as the designer of the topless swimsuit. The name Vampira was the invention of Nurmi's husband, Dean Riesner (1918-2002), screenwriter of Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, Play Misty For Me and numerous other movies and TV episodes.
On Friday night, April 30, 1954, KABC-TV aired a preview, Dig Me Later, Vampira, at 11:00 p.m. The Vampira Show premiered on the following night, May 1, 1954. For the first four weeks, the show aired at midnight, moving to to 11:00 p.m. on May 29. Ten months later, the series aired at 10:30 p.m., beginning March 5, 1955. As Vampira, Nurmi introduced films while wandering through a hallway of mist and cobwebs. Her horror-related comedy antics included talking to her pet spider Rollo, and encouraging viewers to write for epitaphs instead of autographs. When the series was cancelled in 1955, she retained rights to the character of Vampira and took the show to KHJ-TV 9. A single kinescope episode of The Vampira Show and several episode scripts are held by private collectors.
Nurmi made television history as the first horror movie hostess. In the years that followed, Universal Studios released a syndicated package of 52 horror classics under the program title Shock Theater. Independent stations in major cities all over the U.S. began showing these films, adding their own ghoulish host or hostess (including Vampira II and other lookalikes) to attract more viewers. This trend flourished over the next few decades, culminating in the 1980s with Cassandra Peterson's sexy Elvira, Mistress of the Dark character.
Nominated for an Emmy Award as "Most Outstanding Female Personality" in 1954, she returned to films with 1955's Too Much, Too Soon, followed by The Big Operator and The Beat Generation. Her most notable film appearance was in Ed Wood's camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space, as a Vampira-like zombie (filmed in 1956, released in 1959). In 1960, she appeared in I Passed for White and Sex Kittens Go to College, followed by the 1962 film, The Magic Sword. (See Filmfax no. 13, December 1988 for more on Vampira.)
Nurmi was acquainted with Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and briefly dated Orson Welles. In the early 1950s, she was close friends with James Dean, and they hung out together at Googie's coffee shop on the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Her explanation for their friendship: "We have the same neuroses." Dean commented, "I have a fairly adequate knowledge of satanic forces, and I was interested to find out if this girl was obsessed with such a force." 
In the early 1970s, Nurmi opened "Vampira's Attic", an antiques store in her home on Melrose Avenue. She also sold handmade jewelry and clothing. She made items for several celebrities including Grace Slick of the music group Jefferson Airplane and the Zappa family. In the 1980s, Nurmi was asked by KHJ-TV to revive her Vampira character for television. She worked closely with the producers of the new show and was to get an executive producer credit, but Nurmi eventually declined their proposal. KHJ-TV continued with the show and changed the name of their character to Elvira. Later, Nurmi sued Cassandra Peterson, the actress who played Elvira. The case was dismissed when Nurmi was unable to pay for legal expenses. In 1994, Maila Nurmi was portrayed by actress-model Lisa Marie in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, and she was the subject of a 1995 Finnish documentary, About Death, Sex and Taxes by Mika J. Ripatti. Her last film role was in 1998's, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died.
In 2000, Image Entertainment released Plan 9 from Outer Space on DVD. The disc contains a bonus two-hour documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion with extensive interviews with Nurmi and other cast members.
In 2001, Nurmi opened her official website http://www.vampirasattic.com, and began selling autographed memorabilia and original pieces of art on eBay. Today, Nurmi lives with her pets in a small North Hollywood apartment. Unlike Elvira, Nurmi has authorized very few merchandising contracts for her Vampira character, though the name and likeness has been used unofficially by various companies since the 1950s. In the 1990s, Nurmi authorized a Vampira model kit and figurine, and in 2004, she authorized merchandising of the Vampira character by Coffin Case.
In 2000, Nurmi was featured alongside cult filmmakers Roger Corman, Doris Wishman, David F. Friedman and others in Ray Greene's documentary Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies, about the American exploitation films of the 1950s and 1960s. In 2006, Nurmi was interviewed for American Scary, a documentary about local late-night horror movie hosts. In 2007, Nurmi was the subject of another documentary called Vampira: The Movie. The documentary, directed by Kevin Sean Michaels, featured interviews with Maila Nurmi herself, with numerous horror stars about Vampira, and with Cassandra Peterson about the Elvira lawsuit.
She was inducted into the Monster Kid Hall Of Fame at The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards.
In Popular Culture
- In 1958, singer Bobby Bare recorded a song about Nurmi's character entitled "Vampira."
- The New Jersey horror-punk group The Misfits recorded a song with the same title included on their 1982 album, Walk Among Us.
- London Punk pioneers, The Damned, paid homage to Vampira with the track "Plan 9 Channel 7" on their 1979 album Machine Gun Etiquette.
- The Devin Townsend Band had two songs, "Vampolka" and "Vampira", on the album Synchestra. "Vampira", the first single from the album, was made into a music video.
- The minor Simpsons character Booberella is an obvious play on either Nurmi's character Vampira, or the more buxom Elvira as played by Cassandra Peterson, given her low cut top (and other blatant references to her breasts), stereotypical "Horror" accent, and being the host of a horror film television channel.