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The Making of TV Vamp Elvira, She-Devil of the Late Show

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It was an innocent question, but with Elvira nothing is ever innocent. On the Tonight show Johnny Carson asked her to name her favorite horror movie. “The Head With Two Things,” she said, pausing just long enough for the host to blush at her double entendre. And then, flashing her patented Valley vampire look, she added, “Or was it The Thing With Two Heads?” With her push-up bra and put-down humor, Elvira has emerged as a sassy, brassy, sexy medium for the masses. As the popular hostess of TV’s syndicated Movie Macabre, she comes off like a playmate of the month decked out by Edward Gorey. “I think of her as a cross between Vincent Price and Mae West,” says actress Cassandra Peterson, 34, the strawberry blonde beneath the black beehive hairdo.

Halloween is high season for Elvira. With a catalog of Elvira products, she’s casting a dark shadow on the marketplace. If you don’t care for the black fingernail polish in Elvira’s cosmetics line, perhaps her fluorescent green hair spray will appeal. Besides the obligatory fan club, there is a line of horror movie videotapes, a comic book series, Elvira’s House of Mystery, and even Elvira greeting cards. On one card a viper cleaves to her bosom while the tag line proclaims, “Fangs for the mammaries.”

Elvira the vamp owes her success to Peterson, who flaunts her wet-kiss wit and bodacious body. “I got Elvira’s look from those sexy vampire cartoons and the doo-ron-ron hairstyle from the Ronettes,” says Peterson. But Elvira’s audience watches for the wisecracks, not the willies. During commercial breaks, Elvira delivers her shtik to viewers from a red lounge that looks like a last-stop bordello. On Movie Macabre, films like Wild Women From Wongo and Werewolf of Washington are punctuated by Elvira’s caustic commentary. The worse the flick, the better the licks.

Elvira “brings out my confident side,” Peterson says. “When I’m in the role, I feel like those guys in Las Vegas who are away from home. They do things that they would never do in their hometown.” Out of the crypt Peterson is considerably less scary. “I never get recognized on the street,” she says. “I’ve got the best of both worlds—an identifiable TV character and a private life where you don’t have to worry about looking gorgeous just to go grocery shopping.”

A childhood accident has colored her perspective. Peterson spent most of her youth in Colorado Springs, where her father sold insurance and her mother ran a costume shop. At age 2, Cassandra turned over a kettle of boiling water and suffered severe burns. She carries scar tissue on “almost every inch of my body that my costume doesn’t show.” As a youngster, “kids used to make up jump-the-rope rhymes about me being a monster,” she says. “Now I love my scars. I wear low-cut dresses just so they can hang out.” For Elvira’s appearances she wears both face and body makeup that takes two hours to apply.

As a youngster Peterson was inspired by Viva Las Vegas. “When I saw Ann-Margret with Elvis, I just knew I had to become her,” she says. At 17, Peterson moved to Las Vegas and was performing in Viva Les Girls at the Dunes Hotel. In Vegas she met Elvis Presley. “I was still a virgin—really!—and I was willing to do anything! But he never jumped on me,” she insists. “I know I was like a million other girls he dated, but he really did change my life.”

On his advice, she claims, she fled Vegas for Europe and a stint at the Lido in Paris before touring Italy with a spaghetti rock band. Peterson moved on to Los Angeles in 1971 but was relegated to TV bit parts and waiting tables. She later joined the comedy group the Groundlings.

Creating Elvira was a collaborative effort. In 1981 an L.A. TV station wanted a kooky host for its late-night B-movie program. At her audition Peterson submitted to an actual “scream test”—including tonsil close-ups. Producer Larry Thomas chose the name Elvira for his show’s hostess, but Peterson perfected the look. When she first appeared in costume, she expected to be castigated for too much cleavage. Instead Thomas insisted on her showing more leg.

Peterson considered the $125-a-week job just a fleeting gig. But after she took a job as an office temp and a coworker flipped to find Elvira in his midst, she knew she was bound for gory glory. “These occult guys write and send me pictures sacrificing animals and crazy stuff like that because they imagine I am like this devil chick. Hey,” she protests, “I’m a comedienne.”

And a cottage industry. In development are a doll, a lingerie line and perfume. With her husband and co-manager, Mark Pierson, 30, she plans a TV talk show that she describes as a combo of Fernwood 2-Night, Late Night With David Letterman and interviews in the bigfoot-and-UFO tabloids. “If there is a guy out there in Mississippi who was taken to Saturn for his summer vacation, I want him as a guest,” she says.