In the early days of television, when horror movies were often campy by nature, actress Maila Nurmi created the character Vampira, a glamorous ghoul who as hostess of late-night fright films in the 1950s layered on her own brand of camp.
Vampira played with her pet tarantula, gave gruesome recipes for vampire cocktails and bathed in a boiling caldron. With a knack for the double- entendre and the requisite blood-chilling scream, Vampira was a hit.
The character won Nurmi short-lived fame and a dedicated cult following. Nurmi claimed that Vampira also was the uncredited inspiration for later ghoulish yet glamorous female characters in film and television, including Elvira.
Nurmi, who appeared in director Edward D. Wood Jr.'s 1959 film "Plan 9 From Outer Space," was found dead Jan. 10 in her Hollywood home. The cause of death was still being investigated, said Lt. Fred Corral of the Los Angeles County coroner's office.
Nurmi was believed to be 85, although sources offer conflicting dates of birth.
Born Maila Syrjaniemi in Finland, Nurmi immigrated to the United States when she was a toddler. By age 17, she had dropped her surname and taken on that of her famous uncle Paavo Nurmi, a world-class runner known as the "Flying Finn." In her teens, she moved to New York, and then to Los Angeles, to pursue a career in acting.
Little came of Nurmi's efforts to land conventional leading roles in theater or on screen. The unconventional came calling in 1953 after Nurmi attended a Hollywood masquerade ball dressed as the ghoul of Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoons.
"I bound my bosoms so that I was flat-chested," Nurmi said, "and I got a wig, and painted my body a kind of a mauve white pancake with a little lavender powder so that I looked as though I'd been entombed."
Nurmi's costume was judged the best at the ball, according to an article posted last week on her website, vampirasattic.com. Months later, a KABC-TV Channel 7 producer tracked her down and offered her work as hostess of a late-night horror show.
In creating Vampira, Nurmi said she went beyond the Addams cartoon, developing an alter ego influenced by beatnik culture and her experiences as a child of the Depression.
Vampira wore a low-cut, tattered black dress that showed off her impossibly small waist (courtesy of a waist cincher) and displayed more cleavage than was common for the day. With her long nails and dark, dramatically arched eyebrows, watching Vampira was "a release for people."
"The times . . . were so conservative and so constrained," Nurmi said in a video interview posted on her website. "There was so much repression, and people needed to identify with something explosive, something outlandish and truthful."
Shortly after her debut, Vampira appeared in Life magazine, and soon there were fan clubs around the world.
"I was high-rolling in Hollywood, and I was quite full of myself," Nurmi said in a 1994 interview with People magazine.
But KABC canceled her show in 1955, and the result was a stinging decline. When she met Wood at a party during the height of her career, she felt nothing but disdain, she told People magazine, but when he approached her in 1956 and offered her $200 to appear in his film, she accepted the offer.
"I was scraping by on $13 a week," she said in the People article. "I thought, 'Well, here I go. I'm going to commit professional suicide right now.' "
"Plan 9 From Outer Space," a zombie film, has been called the worst movie ever. Nurmi appeared in a few more films, but by the 1960s her career had taken a turn toward oblivion.
"I'm a lady linoleum-layer," she told a Times reporter in 1962. "And if things are slow in linoleum, I can also do carpentry, make drapes or refinish furniture." And for 99 cents an hour, she cleaned celebrity houses, she told Entertainment Weekly in 1994.
Nurmi opened a Vampira antique shop, but she continued to struggle to make ends meet.
In the late 1980s, Nurmi filed a lawsuit against another glamorous ghoul. She alleged that Cassandra Peterson had ripped off her character to play Elvira, copying features such as a "distinctive, low-cut, tattered black dress, emphasizing cleavage and a voluptuous figure." The courts disagreed.
Nurmi's influence can be seen in today's teen "goth" look, said Dana Gould, a longtime friend of Nurmi.
"She really sort of cast the mold for a look that is still around," the comedy writer and comedian said.
Director Tim Burton's film about Wood, starring Johnny Depp, introduced a new audience to Wood and Nurmi.
Later in life, Nurmi, who was divorced and had no children, began creating Vampira drawings and selling them on the Internet. She remained proud and protective of the character she created, Gould said.
"I don't have any babies or any social history that's remarkable, so I'm leaving something behind, you know, when the time comes to say goodbye, I'm leaving something," she said in an interview with KABC's Eyewitness News.
A memorial service was being planned. For information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.