Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 15 by Greg Dziawer

(l to r) Maila Nurmi modeling in 1951; Maila as Vampira; Maila with Elvis Presley.

Much has already been written, including a full-length biography, about Maila Nurmi (1922-2008), the slinky actress who so memorably portrayed TV horror hostess Vampira and who—credited as Vampira— appeared briefly yet indelibly in Ed Wood's sci-fi/horror opus Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). While Nurmi's sadly short-lived program, known variously as Dig Me Later, Vampira and The Vampira Show, was strictly a mid-1950s Los Angeles phenomenon, the actress managed to garner national attention during her brief time in the spotlight. Global attention, as a matter of fact, reminding me that pop culture is one of America's chief exports.

Vampira's worldwide fame is evinced by an intriguing article I discovered in the July 17, 1954 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. Headlined "She Lives on Horror" and credited only to "our New York office," the article vividly describes Nurmi's then-outré show and its devoted following. The Vampira Show had only been airing on KABC-TV for a couple of months by that point, but the article already describes Nurmi as "the linkpin in a new American cult." The article is quite a keepsake, considering that it includes an exclusive interview with the hostess herself when she was at the peak of her powers. KABC would cancel the series the next year, and Nurmi would try without much success to duplicate her success at crosstown rival KHJ-TV.

A 1954 article about Vampira.

The Herald article surprised me with its relative depth. The fancifully written text is studded with colorful details about Nurmi and the show she hosted, serving as a reminder that Ed Wood's coterie of collaborators led fascinating lives of their own. Nurmi gives her surname as Syrjäniemi and even helpfully spells it out for the journalist. She lists her place of birth as Petsamo, Finland, a fact that biographer W. Scott Poole disputes, and describes herself as "about 30." Maila and Ed had not crossed paths yet, so there is no talk of Plan 9, but the actress does discuss working with Mae West as well as a gig in a 1946 spook show called Spook Scandals. "I was the hit of the show," she boasts.

Maybe the most noteworthy aspect of the article is that Nurmi begins the interview in character as Vampira before dropping the facade entirely. "She laid aside the act," the journalist writes, "and became herself." Part of the transformation is physical: Nurmi removes her false fingernails and long black wig, revealing "a crop of close-cut blonde curls." She also uncinches her famous 17-inch waist.

If this article intrigues you and you have Amazon Prime, you can watch the excellent 2012 documentary Vampira and Me right here. While you're at it, check out this 1988 interview with Maila, too.

Far more about Maila Nurmi and other Wood collaborators is in the works for this series, so stick around in 2019 as I dive into the lives and careers of Captain DeZita, Tom Keene, Nona Carver and more!