The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

October 28, 2012

A homegrown Vampira

Odd Tales of Ashtabula County

Star Beacon

— She materializes from the void at the end of a fog-enshrouded corridor. Ominous music plays as her long body pierces the fog and plays about her long legs; she approaches the lens as if in a trance. The camera moves in for a close shot of the seductive, long-haired woman in a skin-tight black dress.

And then she screams.

Scary, sexy and trend-setting, that was Vampira, the ghoul’s pin-up girl of the 1950s. As host of The Vampira Show, Maila Nurmi (Dec. 11, 1922-Jan. 10, 2008) is a legend among fans of classic television and film science fiction. She is credited as the first television  horror-movie hostess, creating a venue that would be repeated at television stations across the nation, including the “Ghoulardi” character at WJW in Cleveland.

Indeed, when Ernie Anderson’s Ghoulardi character was first transmitted into Ashtabula County homes on the night of Jan. 13, 1963, he was treading on the trendsetter’s home turf.

Nurmi, born as Maila Elizabeth Syrjaniemi, spent most of her childhood and adolescent years in Ashtabula, where her parents landed after immigrating from Petsamo, Finland, circa 1924. The family lived in Ashtabula until 1939, when they moved to Oregon. After graduating high school in Astoria, Ore., Nurmi headed for Los Angeles, where she worked as a model, had a small film roll ( “If Winter Comes”) and made a name for herself in the stage show, “Spook Scandals,” in which she “screamed, fainted, lay in a coffin and seductively lurked about a mock cemetery,” according her entry.

In 1949 Nurmi married Dean Riesener, who coined the name “Vampira” for her character, influenced by the Dragon Lady from “Terry and the Pirates” and the evil queen of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

It all started with a costume that Nurmi wore to a 1953 party, Bal Caribe Masquerade, held by choreographer Lester Horton. Inspired by Morticia Addams in “The New Yorker” cartoons of Charles Addams, Nurmi sported pale white skin and a tight black dress, which no doubt caught the attention of many of the male partygoers.

Hunt Stromberg Jr., a television producer, tracked down the stunning woman after the party and offered her an opportunity to host horror movies on KABC-TV. A preview of her show, “Dig Me Later, Vampira,” previewed 11 p.m. April 30, 1954. From then on, it aired at midnight as “The Vampira Show,” gradually moving earlier and earlier into the evening. By March 5, 1955, the show had moved to the 10:30 p.m. slot, where it stayed until the station canceled it later that year. Nurmi transported her name and show to a competing station, KHJ-TV.

As host, Nurmi introduced the night’s show after her trademark scream and used the commercial breaks as opportunity to insert horror-related comedy. She talked to her pet spider, Rollo, and gave her comedy spiels while reclining on a skull-encrusted Victorian couch.

She was always looking for a publicity stunt and to that end ran as the Night Mayor of Hollywood. Her platform was “dead issues.”

Vampira made national news in June 1954, when she hit the pages of Life Magazine and “The Red Skelton Show” featured her in a comedy skit with a horror theme. That same year, she was nominated for an Emmy as the “Most Outstanding Female Personality.” After her show as canceled, Nurmi returned to acting in films — “Too Much, Too Soon,” “The Big Operator” and “The Beat Generation.”

It was in the 1959 film, “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” that Nurmi created her iconic science fiction role, that of a Vampira-like zombie. Several other films followed: “I Passed for White,” “Sex Kittens Go to College” and “The Magic Sword.”

Vampira’s film career was as short lived as a zombie. By 1962 she was making her living installing linoleum flooring. She also sold antiques and handmade jewelry and clothing. Attempts to resurrect her Vampira character fizzled, but she has attained cult status among many science fiction fans.

She lived in a small North Hollywood apartment until her death in 2008.

Although married three times, Nurmi had no children. She is buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.