Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark (and merchandising)
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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 a public-access station into a formidable media empire that’s lasted 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—she’s buoyed by a shrewd eye for self-promotion that’s seen her likeness plastered across everything from dolls to pinball machines to theme-park attractions. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Peterson about the many ways Elvira has been marketed over the years, for better and for worse.
As a Halloween costume:
Cassandra Peterson: I’ve been selling the costume for about 28 years. I think I’ve been with every costume company in the world, and I’m now with the biggest costume company, Rubie’s. I’ve got a whole line of costumes—for kids, for adults, for men, for the plus-sized gal. They’re kind of a Halloween staple. They’re even going to make a “sexy Elvira” costume.
The A.V. Club: What’s the difference?
CP: That’s what I said! This isn’t sexy enough? I guess it’s gonna be shorter, so your butt hangs out. It may even be more open at the chest, if you can believe that. Good luck!
AVC: When you were a girl, your mom ran a costume shop. Did you ever imagine having a costume of your own?
CP: I didn’t, but I really would have liked to. My mom used me as a model, and I would pick out whatever was the hot costume that year—Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, I Dream Of Jeanie, [Miss] Kitty from Gunsmoke—and my mom would make one in my size, so I would wear costumes to school all the time. Everyone thought I was a total freak. But I knew I would grow up and wear a costume one day, and that’s exactly what happened.
AVC: And now you have arguably the best-selling female costume in Halloween history. Can you think of any major competition you might have?
CP: Every year there’s the hot movie, but mine never really has competition—it’s not the hottest, but it’s never not there. It just sells steadily across the board. A lot of people just do the generic “sexy witch” or “sexy vampire,” and maybe that’s my competition. Maybe Morticia Addams. But people—especially women, but some men too—are getting into the really super-sexy costumes lately. And Morticia Addams doesn’t work as well for that.
AVC: Do you ever get tired of Halloween?
CP: I don’t get tired of Halloween, but I get tired at Halloween. [Laughs.] I sort of dread Halloween coming. It’s my favorite holiday—it has been since I was a kid, way before Elvira—but it’s a lot of work. During the months of September through October, I hardly do anything but eat or sleep and work. I have fun, you know. I get to go to places all over the world and attend fantastic parties, and hang with celebs. It’s great, but it’s exhausting being fabulous.
As an adult-magazine model:
AVC: There are nude photos of you as Cassandra Peterson, but never as Elvira. Supposedly Hugh Hefner pursued you to do an Elvira spread for Playboy. Is that true?
CP: He did. It went on and on forever. Whenever he runs into me, he calls me “the girl who got away.” They offered me a lot of money; it was scary how much they offered me. They offered me the same as Farrah Fawcett. I was all set to do it—working out and getting in really good shape, because I’d just had a baby—but I was a little bit on the fence about using the Elvira image, believe it or not. I know she seems pretty slutty, but I actually have a lot of children and preteens that are really into the character. I went to this horror convention, and I had a lot of my hardcore fans there, and I asked them if they thought I should do Playboy as Elvira, and they all—with the exception of two perverts—said I shouldn’t. They thought it would kill the mystery. So I took their advice. I’m certainly not shy, and I don’t have a problem with nudity. My God, I’d been working for Playboy models for years before I was Elvira, and I was a showgirl in Las Vegas. It wasn’t like I was a prude. I just didn’t want to screw up the image.
AVC: Even though Elvira never got nude, you have a considerable “perv” contingent in your fan base.
CP: I do. [Laughs.] People always say, “Who is your audience?” and I could never put a finger on it—and I wouldn’t want to put a finger on it. There are certainly the old horny guys, and then there are the teenage horny guys—and horny guys who are so young, I don’t even want to tell you. I get so many weird requests every day from guys between 14 and 20. It’s like, “Whoa.” Then there are the women—and really, most of the fan mail I get is from women. Young women love the character, because she’s sort of strong and kick-ass. She doesn’t take any crap from guys. I totally get why women like her—it’s the strength and power and all that. But then, yeah, I get a lot of people who write me from prison, the Army, and biker groups.
AVC: You once said that guys are constantly telling you that you helped them through puberty. Does that happen a lot still?
CP: All the time. I was having minor surgery the other day, and the anesthesiologist was putting me under, and he said, “You’re an actor? Have I seen you in anything?” And I told him I was Elvira, and he started screaming like a little girl. He was going, “Oh my God, I had posters of you all over my room when I was 14.” He was definitely one of those guys I helped through puberty. That happens more often than I’d like to think about.
AVC: That’s probably not something that happens to a lot of other celebrities.
CP: Probably not. [Laughs.] You wouldn’t want to go up to Gene Simmons and say, “You helped me through puberty!” Ewww.
As the cover model for Tom Waits’ Small Change:
CP: That is a giant mystery to me. [Laughs.] I don’t remember having done it. But of course, I don’t remember a lot of stuff I did in the ’70s. I went straight from the ’60s to the ’80s; I don’t know what happened to that decade. But it looks like me! I’ve stared at it really, really hard, and I’m pretty sure it’s me. I modeled for a lot of album covers, book covers, romance novels with Fabio kind of guys—I did all that stuff in the ’70s. But I don’t remember that one. It’s how I met Jack White from The White Stripes. He brought that album for me to sign, and I said, “I’m gonna tell you something really depressing—I don’t think it’s me.” Could be, though.
AVC: You’ve never reached out to Tom Waits to confirm it?
CP: Nope. I mean, who knows if he would remember that year either?
As a comic-book character:
CP: The comic-book industry, in general, is kind of in trouble. It’s going the way the music industry is. I had a meeting with Stan Lee about a year ago to talk about doing another comic book—he’s always been a big fan of Elvira—and he said—and this is coming from Mr. Comic Book himself—“Get out of comic books! Forget it! It’s over! It’s done! All people want to do is get on the Internet!” I’m happy that I did all those comic books; I have them all, and it was a really cool thing to do. I still, of course, go to Comic-Con every year. But even Comic-Con is less about comic books now and more about Hollywood. It’s a freaking nightmare.
As a paperback writer on the Elvira By Elvira series:
CP: That was me and my writing partner of 21 years, John Paragon, who also wrote and directed Pee Wee’s Playhouse—and he played Jambi The Genie. He and I wrote everything together. We think so much like one person; we’re both Elvira in our brain. He wrote one chapter, I wrote the next chapter, and back and forth like that through all the books. But man, books—it’s just like comic books. Nobody’s reading them anymore. And the work that goes into them. If I got paid by the hour, I would have been way below minimum wage. It’s a lot of work for not much money. But they were funny and cute and right up Elvira’s alley.
AVC: Have you ever considered writing a straight autobiography?
CP: I’ve been considering that for like 20 years. [Laughs.] I always think I’m going to have time to do it, and I really want to do it, because my life was really interesting even before I became Elvira. I’ve done a lot of stuff and met a lot of people; it’s been a trip. But I just have too much stuff going on still with Elvira to really sit down and take the time. I’m gonna do it one of these days. I hope I don’t forget everything before then. People think being Elvira is a lot of fun—and it is—but I was doing a lot more bizarre stuff before then, just being a dancer and a showgirl and traveling around Italy in a band and working for Playboy Club, and later being a model and meeting a million and one people and being kind of a groupie… It’s all been really interesting.
AVC: Having read a lot of celebrity memoirs, that does sound more interesting than half of what’s out there.
CP: I know! I read a lot of them too, and it’s like, “Snore, snore.” I just read Eric Clapton’s, though, and that was great—and he wrote it himself, and I really want to do mine myself. I keep getting offers from ghostwriters, but I don’t want to go that way.
AVC: Elvira doesn’t want a ghoooost writer?
CP: There you go! [Laughs.] Oh, man. That was worse than me!
As a movie character:
AVC: It’s been 20 years since Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark. Has your opinion of it changed any?
CP: I had not seen it on the big screen for almost 20 years, until about two months ago. I was able to buy a hard copy of the 35mm film—evidently the only one that exists in the world. I’ve had people searching for a copy for 15 years and no one could find one, and finally this guy got in contact with me. So I bought it from him, and it was pretty expensive. I took it to this little independent theater in Hollywood, and we had a 20th-anniversary screening—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 I gotta tell you, this was still really damn funny, and the audience were laughing their butts off. Obviously there are references to old things like Flashdance, but even those are so iconic that people who haven’t seen that movie still get it.
AVC: Considering what happened with New World [the film’s distributor] going bankrupt right before it debuted and tanking the release, do you feel vindicated now that it’s become sort of 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 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.
As a sitcom star, with the failed pilot The Elvira Show:
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. Again, John Paragon and I wrote it, and it was funny as hell. It was a pilot for CBS, and it was the happening pilot at CBS—like, No. 1 with a bullet. And then the president of CBS at the time, Jeff Saganski, 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 who was head of sports for CBS, 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 just did sports. 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 premise of this 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 as my show. 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! [Laughs.]
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. I was at a convention with “Captain Kirk”—you know, what’s his name—and all he wanted to do was get away from that character. And it’s because he can’t make any money at it.
As a perfume, Evil:
AVC: What did Evil smell like?
CP: It actually smelled really good. The guys that did it for me worked on the really high-end perfume at the time, which I think was Black Diamond by Elizabeth Taylor? [White Diamonds.—ed.] Initially they wanted us to release it in high-end department stores, but I said, “No way. My audience is trailer-park trash. We need to put this in drugstores for five bucks a bottle.” It’s like, I got approached to do a wine one time. And I was like, “Mm-mm. Elvira’s not a wine-drinking gal. She drinks beer.” I know my audience, and it’s not that high-class. [Laughs.] If you like me, you’re either white trash or gay. Just kidding! Nope, not kidding.
As a beer promoter—and a beer:
AVC: You were the first female celebrity to have a major national beer campaign, and you’re arguably still the only famous one. Why do you think that is?
CP: I think I am the only famous female spokesperson for beer, unless you count the Swedish volleyball team or whatever. I think part of it is because Elvira makes a good pitchman, because she’s strong and emphatic about everything she does. She’s not wimpy, so that may be why. I think a female pitching beer doesn’t go over, because it doesn’t hit the right audience. But Elvira is definitely aiming at a beer-drinking audience.
AVC: You’ve talked with us before about how the Coors deal fell through, what with them suddenly deciding you were too sexy and even “demonic.” Why do you think that sort of puritan edge began creeping in during the ’90s?
CP: Well, the Coors family has always had a reputation for being sort of right-wing and religious. It was the most successful campaign they’d ever had—and you can even look that up in their book [Citizen Coors: A Grand Family Saga Of Business, Politics, And Beer] that was published a few years back. But all of a sudden, Adolph—of course he was named “Adolph”!—decided that Elvira was devilish or something, and that it wasn’t a good way to promote their wholesome product, booze. [Laughs.] The people who worked in the advertising segment of Coors believed in the character so much that they actually left with me, and we started our own beer—because that was around the time that everyone and their mother was starting their own microbrew. And so we did Elvira’s Night Brew, which actually turned out great. But then it became one of the victims of the country overdosing on microbrews.
AVC: Now celebrity booze has become a brisk business. Do you feel like you helped trigger that trend?
CP: Yeah, possibly. I’ve been around for so damn long, I’ve helped trigger everything. [Laughs.] Right now, I’m in the process of branding the character even more—because a rather large agency is taking it on—and I have a lot of new stuff coming out in the next year or two that will far surpass the stuff I’ve done. It’s going more in the tech-y direction—GPS, mobile, videogame, computer stuff.
AVC: An Elvira GPS? Like, if you’re lost, Elvira gives you directions?
CP: Mm-hmm. [Laughs.] I might. They’re doing all sorts of weird stuff. Oh, and I have a new slot machine coming out, which is cool. But my favorite thing is a talking keychain—you know, they have one with Mr. T and Mister Rogers, and now they have one with Elvira, and it’s actually damn funny. They recorded all my famous lines from the vaults. The crypts.
As a musician:
AVC: You’ve toured in an Italian rock band, palled around with hair-metal bands, sung on Elvira Halloween compilations, and even recently teamed up with Leslie And The Lys. Did you ever have serious musical aspirations?
CP: Besides sleeping with musicians? [Laughs.] I love, love, love music—have since I was a kid, and I’m still really into music—and I became a singer because I was too stupid to learn how to play an instrument, I guess. I really did want to be in a band, and the one in Italy was not really up my alley, because it was kind of pop music. Still, it was great to be in the band instead of just sleep with the band. I was in a few bands in Vegas, and then I had a group—not really a band—that toured around called Mama’s Boys, which was myself and seven gay men. It was during the whole gay disco craze. That’s kind of how I ended up in showbiz.
But I did want to be a singer in rock ’n’ roll. I was always forming this or that band, and I really wanted to do rock, but I kept ending up doing these “revue” things. Then I took off more in the direction of comedy and acting, so I never really reached those aspirations. And I was a DJ for a while on KROQ in L.A., which was one of the most fun things I did, plus I worked for Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in the ’70s, and I got to go photograph and interview bands. Then I worked with Rodney Bingenheimer, scouting bands in L.A. My show was on KROQ, and his was right after. I was really lucky to be able to do the same thing he did, which was play anybody you wanted. Anyone you found that you wanted to put on, you could play—which is impossible these days. We would go check out bands at the Whisky or Roxy or Starwood when the whole new-wave scene was happening, so I’d play stuff like Oingo Boingo and The Go Gos. Rodney’s a trip, man. He’s like the Andy Warhol of music.
As a drag icon:
AVC: You’re so loved by drag queens, you’ve even hired two female impersonators to portray you at events. What do you think makes you so popular with boys who pretend to be girls?
CP: I used to work with drag queens all the time—and at one time, I was a drag queen. Nobody will believe this, but I worked at a gay bar on an Army base—called “The Purple Cow”—as one of three drag queens. There was Tawny Tan, a black guy, Mr. Bobby, a white guy, and then me, and we would all dress up as The Supremes. Mr. Bobby and I had to be in blackface. And nobody could believe that I was really a man—which I wasn’t. So I learned everything from drag queens. I was always around gay boys, even when I was a kid—which I guess comes with working in a costume shop. They taught me how to walk, how to put on makeup, how to do my hair, what clothes to wear, everything. And now it’s come full circle, and I’m the one that drag queens are emulating. [Laughing.] And they like me because they see that I am a drag queen.
As the next Bozo The Clown:
AVC: You told us 10 years ago that you were looking for people to portray you like Bozo The Clown, yet you don’t seem to have passed that torch yet. Why is that?
CP: Yeah, I still have that idea, and I’m still pursuing it in a different way. We even set up a television show for it—The Search For The Next Elvira, on Fox Reality—and over 3,000 people auditioned, and we picked out the one we liked the best. And then we never really did anything with her, mostly because I’m still doing stuff. She was great, but she kind of languished. I’m still going in that direction, though. I’m working on a thing right now where there will be an Elvira in every shopping mall at Halloween time, just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. If that works out, we’ll have to hire lots of Elviras. But everyone was kind of confused: No one is taking over doing me as a character; they would basically just do what Santa Claus is. You know, there’s actually not a real Santa Claus. They would just be showing up at these venues—not acting like me particularly, but portraying the image of Elvira. So it’s not like anyone’s really going to replace me. It’s like when you see Batman and Marilyn Monroe at Universal Studios.
AVC: And it’s not really Marilyn Monroe?
CP: It’s not! [Laughs.] I hate to break the news to you.
AVC: Do you ever get tired of not just being Cassandra?
CP: No, I like being two people. I like having a normal side and a weird side. I feel like I have two, two, two lives in one. And I just get do so much cool stuff. Like, I just went to London for the Sultan of Brunei’s son, Prince Azim, who threw a birthday party when he turned 26. I hosted a show there, and Chaka Khan was performing, and in the audience was Sophia Loren, Faye Dunaway, Joan Collins, Jerry Hall, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson. Michael was supposed to be there—they said he was sick, and three weeks later he died, so I guess they weren’t kidding. It was an absolute trip.