Vampira: The Original Horror TV Hostess With the Mostess

Promotional portrait of Finnish-born American actress Maila Nurmi (born Maila Syrjaniemi, 1922 - 2008), in character as Vampiria, as she poses with her arms around the skull-topped back of a chair, 1950s. Nurmi developed the Vampira character when she was hired to host television braodcasts of horror movies on the Los Angeles station KABC-TV; she later played the character in the film Ed Wood-directed film, 'Plan Nine from Outer Space.'
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Known as TV’s first horror host and one of the original goth icons, Vampira’s impact on the medium and pop culture far exceeded her relatively limited onscreen career.

Born in 1922 as Maila Elizabeth Niemi, the stunning beauty became professionally known as Maila Nurmi and moved from Oregon to Los Angeles and then to New York in pursuit of a modeling and acting career in the 1940s. In 1953, Nurmi attended a masquerade ball wearing a tight black dress. She caught the eye of TV producer Hunt Stromberg Jr., who contacted her about hosting horror movies on KABC-TV in Los Angeles.

(Original Caption) 5/15/1954-Hollywood, CA- Picture shows actress, Maila Nurmi as, "Vampira", the most terrifying television queen in Hollywood with long purple fingernails, a stringy black wig and four bloody scratches just above her plunging neckline admits she is only a plain little knockout of a girl underneath the weird get-up. This lapland beauty hosts a nightime horror TV show. Note: Nurmi also starred in the 1958 Ed Wood Jr. film "Plan 9 From Outer Space".

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Nurmi developed her Vampira persona as a sexy, campy version of the Morticia character from the cartoons by Charles Addams, later of The Addams Family (1964) fame. Nurmi also took inspiration from the Dragon Lady from Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates comic strip and the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The Vampira Show premiered April 30, 1954, and was only seen locally in Los Angeles. In each episode, Vampira introduced the night’s flick, joined by her pet spider, Rollo, and made ghoulishly clever puns about the movie while drinking a cocktail from her poison bar. While the show was a hit its success was short-lived. In 1955, it was canceled after Nurmi refused to sell the rights to the Vampira character. Nurmi took Vampira to rival station KHJ-TV, where it had a brief revival. Meanwhile, Vampira’s horror-show host concept was being replicated by TV stations across the country.

PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, Vampira, (Maila Nurmi), 1959

Everett Collection

In the following years, Nurmi would make TV guest appearances as Vampira, and she would have a handful of screen roles outside of that character. Nurmi’s most famous film performance was in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, a cult classic widely regarded as the worst movie ever made. Nurmi was credited as Vampira, who played a character known only as Vampire Girl. Nurmi thought the movie’s dialogue was terrible, and she refused to have a speaking role. Nurmi’s participation in that movie was part of Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood, in which Lisa Marie played the part of Vampira.

In 1981, KHJ-TV was in talks with Nurmi to reboot The Vampira Show, but when she quit the project, the station went in another direction with Cassandra Peterson as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Nurmi sued Peterson for copyright infringement, but was unsuccessful.

ELVIRA'S MOVIE MACABRE, US poster art, Cassandrra Peterson, 2010-

Everett Collection

Nurmi died in Los Angeles in 2008, and is buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Her niece, Sandra Niemi, discovered pages of Nurmi’s unfinished autobiography, and Niemi published the book Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi in 2021.

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