Vampira, undisputed Queen of the horror scene, started out her life in Finland with her given name Maila Syrjanieme Nurmi (She is the niece of famed Olympic runner Paavo Nurmi). She was two years old when her father moved the whole family to America where they settled in Oregon. As the years passed and despite her religious upbringing, a seventeen year old Maila decided to become an actress and promptly moved to the Los Angeles area.
In between acting jobs she would take the occasional odd job to stay alive. Exotic dancing and cheesecake modeling for Bernard of Hollywood (his models included Irish McCalla, Marilyn Monroe, and Mamie Van Doren) kept the hunger pains away.
Her big break came in the form of Mike Todd. She had moved to New York and was first cast as a handmaiden in “Catherine the Great”. Another Todd production cast her as a dancing, screaming, sexy and seductive vampire in “Spook Scandals”, a midnight horror stage show that had Maila lurking around in a mock cemetery. It closed after one performance but that was all it took for her to capture and enrapture a one Mr. Howard Hawks.
Hawks brought Maila back to Los Angeles and gave her the full starlet treatment. She was touted as his new “Lauren Becall” and the casting offers rolled in. Hawks slated Maila for his new film “Dreadful Hollow” (screenplay by William Faulkner) but the film never passed the development stage and Maila eventually decided to take a walk. She was back to odd jobs again, dancing for Earl Carroll and Florentine Gardens (where you could also catch Lili St. Cyr).
Our favorite girl ghoul’s fate did change when in 1954 she attended a masquerade ball called “The Bal Caribe”. She appeared with her husband (writer and TV producer Dean Reisner) as the female character from Charles Addam’s New Yorker magazine cartoons (later to be “The Addams Family”. With a long black wig, a torn, tight black dress complete with bloody scratches just above her plunging neckline, she was quite a bewitching sight. In the months that followed, new program director for channel 7, Hunt Stromberg Jr. needing someone to perk up those late night ratings would remember the “Bal Caribe” and Maila, who was such a sensation that night.
After hunting her down, he would sign her to be the hostess for channel 7 KABC’s late night horror movie show. Maila’s Husband contributed her name for the show and Vampira was born.
Back in 1954, if you were even the slightest bit happenin’, you would have stayed home on Saturday nights with your eyes peeled and glued to the screen of your TV set, because at 11:00 p.m. Vampira would be introducing her weekend horror movie to Los Angeles First called LADY OF HORRORS. Attracting viewers from all walks of life, she even had Mae West sitting up to watch the show and she would later send her chauffered offerings of Swedish meatballs, She had every “Red-blooded” male dropping their gals for the “ghoul next door”. The show was such an early fore-runner that for the most part Vampira would host four horror movies to every six detective films in her show. She predated the Universal Horror package that was to spur a legion of Horror Host imitators
The organ music of Uranus from Holst’s “The Planets” would open the show where she would slowly emerge, just a wasp wisp (and waist) from the mist and fog. She would let out a blood-curdling scream and say, ” I Am . . . Vampira. I hope you all had the good fortune to have had a terrible week”. In between commercials, Vampira would drink “poison” from the antique bar and introduce the world to the “Vampira Cocktail” (one jigger formaldehyde, two jigger’s vulture blood and one glass eye.) From her skull-encrusted couch she would make double entendre’ necrophilliac jokes, recite bizarre poems, sing strange jingles and hunt for her pet spider Rollo around her tombstone coffee table.
For that “late night look”, she would wear her long black hair, mesh hose, black dress high heels and a black belt around her 17 inch waist, (her “eye-deal” measurements were 38-17-36) her long, sharp 3 inch nails were painted “Hemorrhage Red” as she held her foot long cigarette holder. To close her show she would tell her viewers “Bad Dreams, dahlings…” as she walked back into her den of mist.
Vampira couldn’t stay a local legend for long. Life magazine did a four-page spread and she was featured in Newsweek. The media all over wanted to cover the “girl who put the HEX in SEX appeal”. She was nominated by the Television Arts and Sciences as “Most Outstanding Female Personality” for 1954.
Who else could you find drive around Hollywood in a rented Packard convertible, shrieking at traffic lights from beneath a black parasol? Or when asked for her autograph, would reply, “I give epitaphs, not autographs.”
Vampira’s list of admirers grew, a few notables including Marlon Brando and James Dean. Dean would form a relationship with Maila, each seeing the wild child in the other. It was this relationship that scandal sheets such as Confidential would play up. Maila herself has stated that the pair had first met at Googies Coffee Shop (a hip hang out of 1950’s modern architecture) and formed a friendship that would last (with ups and downs) till Dean’s death.
Hard times were about to return to Maila, as in the years to follow she would suffer both personal and professional losses with the death of James Dean and blacklisting by the ABC network. By 1954 her popular show was off the air. The network would attempt to get Maila to relinquish the rights to her Vampira persona by turning down all offers for outside work. Maila couldn’t get work and had to support herself outside the industry for a time.
Her fan following would turn an eye to the truly morbid (egged on by Dean’s death). “Fans” would send bizarre love offerings and death threats. 1950’s pulp and scandal magazines would still link Dean’s name and hers with lines like “Vampira and the ghost of James Dean”. Maila may have wanted nothing better than to be out of the public eye at the time.
Hard years would follow where she would find herself attacked not only by the press but physically by a gruesome attacker that went by the name “The Vamp”, a beauty shop accident would burn her hair so badly that she was forced to shave her head (she pulled it off with her natural glamour–she looked very much like a modern day Goth), a house fire followed that event, severally burned her hands and arms as she tried to rescue her kitten, unfortunately did not live. Life after her TV show was a series of events that proves that Maila herself is a survivor.
Over the years one could see Maila in several movies. Most notable being Ed Wood Jr.’s low budget classic “Plan Nine from Outer Space”. The part paid two hundred dollars for all of one day’s work. Maila, broke at the time took an R.T.D. bus in full Vampira costume to the location. In 1959, Maila had a small part as a beat poetess in “The Beat Generation” (also known as “This Rebel Age”). In 1962 she portrayed a hag for the U.A. feature “The Magic Sword”, a “Sinbad”-like fantasy adventure. Some other movies you may want to catch her in: “Sex Kitten’s Go To College” (billed as Etta Toodie), “The Big Operator”, “Too Much Too Soon” and “Bungalow Invader” (a 1981 short film)
Years would pass before Maila would come back to the public’s eye. But Maila in the meantime kept busy doing her thing, running her own “Vampira’s Attic” antique store and doing clothing and jewelry creations with the Vampira label.
But by the late 1970’s, “Plan Nine From Outer Space” would grow to be a constant late night, cult classic, movie staple. Vampira’s star would again rise in the night as revival houses began showing it regularly. Some of those many fans would be The Damned, a Brit punk/goth band with their song from 1980 “Plan 9, Channel 1” and New York Band The Misfits. Their 1982 album “Walk Among Us” would be a homage to the wicked woman and her late night appeal. The song “Vampira” evokes a pretty steamy scene of a love fantasy right out of Plan Nine.
On the Misfits first tour they stopped in at local Los Angeles record shop, Vinyl Fetish, for a record signing with our glamour ghoul (your intrepid reporter and Partigirl was right there with them…) hanging with their favorite “Graverobber from Outer Space”, they were a happy group. The next few years, you could find Maila fronting a punk band called “Vampira and Satan’s Cheerleader’s” (releasing a few singles in the mid to late 1980’s) and in a Lawsuit with Elvira over character copyrights.
(On Halloween 1987, she appeared on Fox-TV network’s Late Show, sporting a fashionable and dramatic look, she referred to the then current horror hostess Elvira as “Judy Canova with cobwebs.” She also mentioned that she was contacted back in 1981 by KHJ to revive her show and spent three and a half months with them on costume and set design. She later filed a 10 million dollar lawsuit against Elvira.) There is however three hours of Vampira’s TV show in the KABC archives. A film library also has her in an appearance on the Ben Blue show.
In correspondence with me, Maila wanted her fans to know that she is “deeply appalled by any and all Vampira impersonators. Besides his God, a man’s identity is the only thing he truly has in this life.”
There are many sites on the web devoted to Ms. Nurmi, particularly on the Finnish movie about her called “Death, Sex and Taxes”, a 1995 feature. She has no plans for an official site on the web at the moment but we keep in contact with her and will keep you updated.
Maila/Vampira may have had some ups and downs in her life but one thing is for sure; she was and is the coolest girl ghoul to walk the planet earth!