|The Celebrity Collector:
Cassandra Peterson ("Elvira")
By Ken Hall
Cassandra Peterson has done
such a great job at playing her sexy-spooky alter ego, "Elvira,"
it's a little difficult picturing her as anything or anyone else.
After all, she's been at it for over 20 years. But Cassandra is also
a wife -- to Mark Pierson, who manages her career and produces her
movies -- and the mother of their daughter, Sadie, 8. To the rest of
the world, though, she's "Elvira."
It hasn't always been that
way, however, not by a long shot. Peterson is 51 now; if you do the
math it isn't hard to figure out she endured lean times to get to
where she is today. "I was your typical struggling actress," she
said. "I went to every audition, took a million acting, dancing and
singing lessons and spent years wondering where my next meal was
coming from. It was hard, hard work."
But her world was turned
upside down like a sleeping bat in 1981 when she auditioned to be
the horror hostess of a new TV show in Los Angeles. Just a local
gig, nothing big, but she got the part. "The other gals were taking
it seriously and trying to act scary, but I just decided to have
some fun with it," she remembered. "My character was more vampy,
sort of Valley-Girlish. They loved it."
The show, titled "Elvira's
Movie Macabre," was an instant hit and propelled Peterson into the
local spotlight. "I refined the character as I went along," she
said. "The wig was flatter in the beginning and the costume less
revealing. My reading got better." Audiences responded to the Elvira
persona. Before long the show was syndicated and reaching 85 percent
of the nation's households.
Beginning around 1982,
little gifts began coming in, all with a ghoulish or ghostly theme.
"The first item came from Jerry Jackson, the director of the Folies
Bergere revue in Las Vegas," Peterson said. "He gave me this
wonderful devil-head tobacco holder, with German writing on it.
Later on, he also gave me an Austrian bronze, depicting a black cat
stabbing another cat. It's very macabre."
Before you can say boo, a
collection was born. "It dawned on me that this Elvira thing was
going to last for more than a year or so, and I got swept up in the
spirit and tide of it," Peterson said. "At the time, we were living
in this turn-of-the-century, Craftsman house, with mahogany and
copper walls, glass hutches and Stickley furniture. It was perfect
for displaying all these scary little items."
Fans sent her little skulls
and other things along the way, but Peterson was slowly building a
nice collection of Austrian figurines from the '20s, '30s and '40s,
mostly depicting black cats with arched backs. "One time I dreamed
that the devil was riding on the back of a black cat," she said,
"and the very next day, in New Orleans, I saw in a shop an orange
devil riding on a cat's back."
She got the shivers, then
bought the piece. "It was in the early '80s and the figure is no
bigger than the tip of your finger," she said, "but it cost $400,
which is a lot of money, then or now! The figures I like have become
very expensive. They're old, nicely detailed and come from Europe.
And there aren't a lot of them. Not good ones, anyway. I suppose
I've collected a dozen or so, all cats."
Peterson also has an actual
skeleton of a vampire bat given to her by the actor (and friend)
Nicholas Cage. "He got it at a little store in New York called
Mandible that specializes in animal skeletons. It's mounted in a
glass cage, with a wooden frame. It appears to be suspended in
mid-air inside the case, and it's quite large, actually. As you can
imagine, it's quite the conversation piece."
Another item, this one sent
by a fan, is a doll called "Tragedy Ann" (a takeoff on the popular
doll, Raggedy Ann). "Its lips are sewn together, its dress is all in
tatters -- the doll is a mess, and my daughter carries it with her
everywhere," Peterson said with a laugh. (For the record,
incidentally, daughter Sadie's career goal is to split her time
between being an orthodontist and the next "Elvira").
Being Elvira has accorded
Peterson the luxury of traveling the world, both for pleasure and to
make professional appearances. When she's abroad, she keeps an eye
out for items to add to the collection. From Japan she's picked up
masks, from Italy skull figures. "France has almost nothing
macabre," she said, "but much of what I have seems to come from
Germany. It's amazing."
In England, Peterson bought
an ashtray with a spider web in it. It's one of her favorite pieces.
"The web is made of wires, the spider is bronze and the ashtray is
carved wood with a brass bowl," she said. "It's quite beautiful, and
interesting to look at." She's also got lots of jewelry: spooky
earrings, ghoulish bracelets, spider web necklaces; things like
that, many of them given to her by fans.
Also in the collection: a
ghoulish mask, made in Venice, Italy, and made of black, hand-tooled
leather ("very spooky!"); a pretty black handbag with a silkscreen
imprint of an Elvira-like woman; a piece of sheet music for the song
"The Witch's Dance," with a drawing of a witch and black cat on it;
a Charles Addams book, signed by Ray Bradbury; and an alphabet book,
written in a macabre style.
By far the oddest item ever
to find its way into Peterson's collection is a live python. "I was
at the supermarket and this guy comes up to me and tells me what a
huge fan he is and he raises pythons and he wants to give me one,"
she said. "So he runs home and brings back this foot-long baby
python. He looked cute at the time, but it grew to 13 feet and we
finally had to get rid of it."
Alice Cooper CD collection, Addams Family snow
globe, Elvira figures, bronze skull ashtray,
Cassandra Peterson was born
in Manhattan, Kansas, and raised in Colorado Springs. "They flooded
Randolph, Kansas, when I was seven to make a dam, so everybody had
to get out," she recalled. "I was a third generation Peterson and we
had all lived in Kansas except for this one aunt who had moved to
Colorado Springs years before. So we all just packed up and moved
Her father was an insurance
salesman and sometime trumpet player. Her mother, who today lives in
Florida, owned a costume shop in Colorado called Peterson's
Partyland. Young Cassandra loved snakes and had a king snake, a
black snake and even a rattler. "I also made Frankenstein models and
loved the old Roger Corman-Vincent Price movies from the '60s," she
said. How fitting!
As a teenager, Peterson
decided she wanted to become a dancer after seeing Ann-Margret in
the Elvis Presley film "Viva Las Vegas." She left home within days
after graduating from high school and found work right away,
becoming the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas history (at 17). She
even got to meet Elvis Presley, who saw her perform and encouraged
her to pursue a career in singing.
Peterson took off for
Europe, where she learned to speak Italian and toured extensively as
the lead singer in an Italian rock band. She settled in Rome, where
she met the legendary director, Federico Fellini, who cast her in
the '70s film "Fellini's Roma." After that, she returned to the
United States, where she formed her own nightclub revue called
"Mama's Boys," which toured nationwide.
Then, in the late '70s, she
joined the satirical improvisational troupe "The Ground-lings,"
which produced such notables as Phil Hartman, Pee Wee Herman and Jon
Lovitz. There, she honed her skills as a writer and performer. It
was the perfect warmup for her audition to play Elvira. "It's a part
I'd like to play forever," she said. "I hope Elvira will live on in
comics, films -- even a theme park."
When the TV show ended in
the mid-'80s, Peterson took to the screen in "Elvira, Mistress of
the Dark." It was released internationally and shown on TV. A second
film, "Elvira's Haunted Hills," was made last year but enjoyed only
limited theatre release. The movie, a gothic horror-comedy shot on
location in Transylvania, can be purchased online at http://www.elvira.com/ or in most video
Fans of Cassandra Peterson
and "Elvira" may write to the star c/o The Elvira Fan Club, P.O. Box
38246, Hollywood, CA 90038.
Cassandra Peterson has spent the last twenty-plus
years playing "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark." Her collection,
perhaps not surprisingly, is of ghoulish and macabre
go into the mouth of this devil's head porcelain bank, made in
either Germany or Austria.
German-made tobacco holder; gift from Jerry Jackson,
director of the Folies Bergere in Las Vegas.
Viennese ash tray, featuring a wire web, bronze
spider, mahogany outer bowl and brass inner
pot by L.A. artist Susie Ketchum, Royal Bayreuth devil teacup from
1982, Cassandra got this award from the Count Dracula Society.