Anyone seeking to learn how to create a lasting brand could take a lesson from Cassandra Peterson: As the beehived, bosomy Elvira, the former Las Vegas showgirl turned making fun of schlocky horror movies for an L.A. public-access station into a formidable media empire that’s lasted for nearly 30 years. While it’s been some time since Elvira was making iconic cameos on TV shows like CHiPs or exhausting Johnny Carson’s store of double entendres on The Tonight Show, she’s never lost her pop-culture cachet, buoyed primarily by a shrewd eye for self-promotion that’s seen her likeness plastered across everything from dolls to pinball machines to theme-park attractions. Before tonight’s Elvira-hosted Hey Homo! presentation of her 2001 film, Elvira’s Haunted Hills—followed by a midnight screening (with sarcastic introduction) of the classic slasher The House On Sorority Row and tomorrow’s rare out-of-character appearance before the cultishly adored Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark—The A.V. Club spoke with Peterson about the many ways she’s marketed herself over the years, for better and for worse. In this excerpt, she talks about two of the most famous: as a movie character, and as the star of her own sitcom, which has a surprising connection to Sabrina, The Teenage Witch.
The A.V. Club: It’s been 20 years since Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark. Has your opinion of it changed any?
Cassandra Peterson: We had a 20th-anniversary screening recently—some of the actors came, like Morgan Sheppard, Edie McClurg—and it was totally sold out. I wish it could have run for three or four days, because it would have sold out every night. And I gotta tell ya, it was funny as hell. I shocked myself. [Laughs.] I was a little afraid to see it, because a lot of movies don’t hold up. I’ve been seeing a lot of those lately, that were great at the time but totally suck now, and this was still really damn funny and the audience were laughing their butts off.
AVC: Considering what happened with New World, the film’s distributor, going bankrupt and tanking the release, do you feel vindicated now that it’s become a cult favorite?
CP: Absolutely. I’m glad to see that finally, 20 years later, it has an audience. Here I go into “bitter world,” but having the distribution company go bankrupt the week that you’re being released is the worst thing that could ever happen. I worked on that film for a solid three years—writing it, selling it, doing all the stuff you have to do to get a film made. And then, instead of going to 2,500 or 3,000 theaters, it goes to 150 theaters. The end. I mean, it beat out the biggest-selling movies that week in New York, L.A., and San Francisco, but that was about it. I still have quite a bit of resentment and bitterness toward New World. I took a whole year off—I had, like, post-partum depression. I had a year where I could hardly get out of bed, because I was so overcome with grief. It’s like having a baby, and then it hatches and it’s stillborn. [Laughs.]
AVC: And then you undertook an even greater labor of love with Elvira’s Haunted Hills. Knowing all that you sacrificed for that movie, do you think that was worth it?
CP: Not really. [Laughs.] We went the studio route [on Mistress Of The Dark] and got totally screwed, so we decided we’d do an independent film. And I gotta tell ya, that’s really, really difficult. It’s blood, sweat, and tears, man, and it happened to be my own money that I was using. Christ on a crutch. We shot in Romania for a million bucks total—Mistress Of The Dark was more like $12 million, back when $12 million really bought you something. I’m happy with how it came out, though. It did cost me my marriage. [Laughs.] Which wasn’t really worth that much at the time. But it was brutal, brutal, brutal. For what it was, it came out pretty damn good—but it doesn’t compete with Mistress Of The Dark, unfortunately.
AVC: Has it soured you on making more movies?
CP: Mm-hmm! [Laughs.] But I’m actually pitching an animated film now. And even that takes longer and is harder and costs more money. But it’s something I can take my time doing it. I just have to do it before I get too old to see it.
AVC: What exactly happened with The Elvira Show? It seems like a sitcom would have been an easy transition for the character.
CP: You just hit another very bitter chord. [Laughs.] I’m gonna sound like this angry old bitch. Yeah, that was a bummer, man. That was a really good show, and I was very proud of it—as proud as I am of Mistress Of The Dark. It was the happening pilot at CBS—like, No. 1 with a bullet. And then the president of CBS at the time, Jeff Sagansky, on the day that they screen all the pilots and pick the ones that are going to go on, he got ill—I think with pneumonia—and had to be put in the hospital. So this guy flew out, this VP from New York named Howard Stringer... and when he saw my show, he said, “Uh… We can’t show those kinds of tits on TV.” [Laughs.] Just like that. And one of the executive producers just stood up and quit CBS right then and there. It was kind of a nightmare.
AVC: Stringer didn’t know what Elvira looked like?
CP: He’d never seen me before! He was like, “We can’t have that kind of cleavage on our channel!” That was it. We had a live audience—I’m gonna brag here—and the guy who does the “sweetening,” you know, with the added laugh track, he said it was the first time in his entire career that he didn’t have to sweeten a TV pilot. That means all the laughs in there were genuine! So that was disappointing. But unlike film, it didn’t take three years to make. Only a year!
AVC: How do you think the show would have played out had it been allowed to continue?
CP: Well, it was allowed to continue: CBS did Sabrina The Teenage Witch with the exact identical plotline. [Sabrina, The Teenage Witch aired on ABC, not CBS.—ed.] The talking black cat, the two old aunts, the teenage girl—the whole damn thing—and they released it the following year. It just focused on the teenage lead instead of me—because in my show, I was the aunt of a teenage girl, along with Katherine Helmond. Teenage girl, aunts who are witches, young girl who didn’t want to be a witch because she wanted to fit in, talking black cat, blah blah blah... It did get made!
AVC: Did you ever consider taking legal action?
CP: No, because who wants to start a lawsuit with someone like CBS? I didn’t have billions of dollars and tons of years to prove that that’s what happened. But everyone who was involved with the show agrees that that’s what happened. Even though Sabrina was a character that existed before, they just put her in the show that I had. More sour grapes.
But it probably would have changed the whole world for me. My whole thing is I’m really independent. My character’s not owned by anyone, which has a great side and a bad side. The great side is I can do anything I want. The bad side is I don’t have the money from a big studio behind me, so I get much less exposure. But it pays off when I go to horror conventions or Comic-Con, where you see people from Star Wars or Star Trek or whatever. When people wonder why they get tired of their characters and I don’t, it’s because I make 100 percent of everything I get, and they only make a small percentage. The studio gets all the money, and they’re just “allowed” to appear and get paid a fee. When I sell something, I get all the money. So I don’t ever get tired of my character, because I get all the money. [Laughs.]