Not too long ago, I was trying to explain the concept of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, to a group of millennials who had never heard of her. I started with the basic look: Goth makeup, black beehive wig, plunging neckline. I talked about her amused intelligence — how she so thoroughly grasped her own joke — and how her ability to combine camp and cleavage made her the rare sex symbol who appealed equally to gay and straight men. Above all, there was her ubiquity. For a while in the 1980s, her Liebestod (love death) image was everywhere you looked: TV screens, liquor stores, arcades, haunted houses. Halloween couldn’t proceed without her blessing.
My mistake, I see now, was in regarding her as past tense. The Elvira franchise, whether I knew it or not, has been humming along for four decades, on the strength of merchandise, appearances and nostalgia. As for Cassandra Peterson, the woman beneath the beehive, she has lost none of her showbiz instincts. The recent news that, for the last 19 years, she has been romantically involved with a woman doesn’t just animate the LGBT section of her fan base. It also helps broaden the audience for her new memoir, “Yours Cruelly, Elvira,” which is the same kind of engrossing oddity that her career has been.
Born in Manhattan, Kan., “the city that always sleeps,” Peterson grew up in Colorado Springs with an adoring dad, an abusive mom and a chaotic bunch of heavy-drinking relations. An encounter with Ann-Margret on the screen, coupled with her own early bloom (“I developed faster than a Polaroid”), had her, by 14, go-go dancing at the Fort Carson Army post, where the regulars called her “Big Red” on account of her hair. By 17, she was a topless showgirl in a Las Vegas extravaganza called “Vive les Girls!” (The wardrobe mistress used pancake makeup to cover the scars from a childhood burning.)
An audience with King Elvis inspired her to ditch Vegas for Italy, where she worked as an extra in “Fellini’s Roma” (1972) and sang with a bossa nova band. Back in the States, she toured with a gay revue, then settled down in Los Angeles for the usual bruising round of acting classes, auditions and groping. On at least two occasions, she writes, groping led to sexual assaults, one of them at the hands of basketball great Wilt Chamberlain.
Between short-term gigs, she drove around in an orange ’69 Volkswagen Beetle, came this close to playing Ginger in “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island,” and listened to an agent tell her: “No one, and I mean no one, in this town is looking for a thirty-year-old actress.” The breakthrough came in the summer of 1981 when a low-rent L.A. TV channel sent out a casting call for a “sexy Morticia Addams type” to introduce horror pix — “crème de la crap” titles like “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde” and “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant.” For her audition, Peterson didn’t bother with a costume and discarded the prepared script in favor of ad-libs: “What’s this movie about, you ask? It’s about an hour and a half too long. This flick’s so bad, I’d walk out on it even if it was playing on a plane.”
She got the job.
The character’s hairdo was inspired by Ronnie Spector. The name was literally plucked from a hat. Peterson enlisted one of her colleagues from the famed improv troupe the Groundlings to help write the copy: a weekly helping of “open,” “close,” and eight commercial “intro and outro” segments. Against anyone’s expectations, it took off.
She won high-profile fans: Michael Jackson, Vincent Price. She got letters from soldiers and bikers and “lots and lots of prison inmates.” Soon enough “The Tonight Show” came calling, and when Peterson’s TV-station home folded beneath her, she and her team syndicated the show nationally. In short order came Elvira costumes, records, comic books, calendars, model cars, dolls, posters, pinball games. What better sign of American success than this? She became the first female celebrity to endorse a beer. (I still remember her cardboard cutouts for Coors displays.)
Inevitably, there was a movie: “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark,” critically trashed upon its 1988 release but now, Peterson insists, a cult classic and “one of my proudest achievements.” It’s still pretty awful, but it encourages the thought that Elvira, no matter how high she climbed, was always most effective in the small doses of her original incarnation, dropping snark on whatever Z-grade schlock she was employed to present. No one has been a more withering critic of their own genre, and the very rolling of her cosmetically enlarged eyes suggests that we’re all in this together.
Pop culture, though, finds its own equilibrium, and so does Elvira. From the vantage point of 70, Peterson says her creation “has taught me some surprising lessons. She has helped me get through the hard times and get back up when I got knocked down. I’ve come to realize her personality comes from my teenage self — the self that was young enough to believe I could do anything, be anyone.” Elvira, she writes, “became everything Cassandra wanted to be.”
Louis Bayard’s novels include “The Pale Blue Eye” and “Courting Mr. Lincoln.”
Yours Cruelly, Elvira
Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark
By Cassandra Peterson
Hachette. 302 pp. $29
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