1951-09-17

CASSANDRA PETERSON is an American actress, writer and singer born on this date. She is best known for her portrayal of the horror hostess character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Peterson gained fame on Los Angeles television station KHJ-TV in her stage persona as Elvira, hosting Elvira’s Movie Macabre, a weekly B movie presentation.

Inspired by Ann-Margret in the film Viva Las Vegas, while on a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, during high school, she convinced her parents to let her see a live show where she was noticed by the production staff; despite being only 17 years old, she convinced her parents to let her sign a contract. Immediately after graduating high school, she drove back to Las Vegas, where she became a showgirl in Frederic Apcar’s pioneering “Vive Les Girls!” at The Dunes; there, she met Elvis Presley, with whom she went on a date. She had a small role as a showgirl in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever and played a topless dancer in the film The Working Girls. She is also claimed to have posed for the cover of Tom Waits’ album Small Change; Peterson has since described it as “a giant mystery” claiming that while she has no memory of the event, the picture looks enough like her that she feels “pretty sure” it is her.

In the early 1970s, Peterson moved to Italy and became lead singer of the Italian rock bands Latins 80 and The Snails. After being introduced to film director Federico Fellini by the producer of a documentary on Las Vegas showgirls in which she had appeared, she landed a small part in the film Roma. When she returned to the United States, she toured nightclubs and discos around the country with a musical/comedy act, Mammas Boys. In 1979, she joined the Los Angeles-based improvisational troupe The Groundlings, where she created a Valley girl-type character upon whom the Elvira persona is largely based.

Peterson auditioned for the role of Ginger Grant for the third Gilligan’s Island television movie in 1981, shortly before KHJ-TV offered her the horror host position. Peterson also was a personality on Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM 106.7 from 1982 to 1983.

In the late spring of 1981, six years after the death of Larry Vincent, who starred as host Sinister Seymour of a Los Angeles weekend horror show called Fright Night, show producers began to bring the show back.

The producers decided to use a female host. They asked 1950s’ horror hostess Maila Nurmi to revive The Vampira Show. Nurmi worked on the project for a short time, but quit when the producers would not hire Lola Falana to play Vampira. The station sent out a casting call, and Peterson auditioned and won the role. Producers left it up to her to create the role’s image. She and her best friend, Robert Redding, came up with the sexy punk/vampire look after producers rejected her original idea to look like Sharon Tate‘s character in The Fearless Vampire Killers.

Shortly before the first taping, producers received a cease and desist letter from Nurmi. Besides the similarities in the format and costumes, Elvira’s closing line for each show, wishing her audience “Unpleasant dreams”, was notably similar to Vampira’s closer: “Bad dreams, darlings…” uttered as she walked off down a misty corridor. The court ruled in favor of Peterson, holding that “‘likeness’ means actual representation of another person’s appearance, and not simply close resemblance.” Peterson claimed that Elvira was nothing like Vampira aside from the basic design of the black dress and black hair. Nurmi claimed that Vampira’s image was based on Morticia Addams, a character in Charles Addams’s cartoons that appeared in The New Yorker magazine.

Peterson’s Elvira character rapidly gained notice with her tight-fitting, low-cut, cleavage-displaying black gown. Adopting the flippant tone of a California “Valley girl”, she brought a satirical, sarcastic edge to her commentary. She reveled in dropping risqué double entendres and making frequent jokes about her cleavage. 

The Elvira character soon evolved from an obscure cult figure to a lucrative brand. She was associated with many products through the 1980s and 1990s, including Halloween costumes, comic books, action figures, trading cards, pinball machines, Halloween decor, model kits, calendars, perfume and dolls. She has appeared on the cover of Femme Fatales magazine five times. Her popularity reached its zenith with the release of the 1988 feature film Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, on whose script, written directly for the screen, Peterson collaborated with John Paragon and Sam Egan.

Peterson married musician Mark Pierson in 1981, and he soon became her personal manager. They had one daughter, Sadie Pierson, and were divorced in 2003.

In her 2021 memoir, Peterson revealed that she has been in a relationship with a woman, Teresa “T” Wierson, for 19 years. They began their romantic relationship following Peterson’s separation from her husband.