Saturday, June 18, 2011
Back in the 1980s when I was a radio talk show host over WREB, I interviewed a fair number of celebs including Elvira Mistress of the Dark. That was the problem. I was interviewing Elvira, the fictional character rather than Cassandra Peterson the talented actress who created the role.
The result was a very awkward exchange in which I was attempting to do improv comedy with someone who had been trained at The Groundlings along side with Phil Hartman and Paul Ruebens.
At least I got a great station i.d. from her.
The interview didn't stop me, though, from enjoying her show and her two feature films.
A couple of weeks ago I received the opportunity to interview her once more and she was great. At the end of the talk, I told her about our previous conversation and she explained that at the time she wanted to do what Ruebens had been doing – stay in character (he was constantly Pee Wee Herman) during interviews and public appearances.
She has since decided to discontinue that practice and for me that's great as I'd much rather speak to Peterson.
Before "Mystery Science Theater 3000," before "Riff Tax," before "Cinema Titanic," Cassandra Peterson was making fun of movies as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
She told Reminder Publications in contrast to the members of those other comic groups she had "two big things working for me [dramatic pause] — my personality and my talent."
"I'm the queen of subtlety," she said with a laugh.
Peterson has brought her show "Movie Macabre" back to television in syndication — WTIC runs it at 2 a.m. Friday and Sundays at 1 a.m. — and two of the new shows are now on DVD.
Each DVD has a double feature. The first is "Night of the Living Dead" with "I Eat Your Skin" — which Peterson quickly noted has nothing to do with eating someone's skin — while the second has Sir Christopher Lee's last appearance as Dracula in "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" paired with "The Werewolf of Washington."
The new shows are funny and clever with Elvira not only poking fun at the movies — of the four only "Night of the Living Dead" is really any good — but also setting up comic bits.
Peterson, an actress who was a member of the famed Los Angeles-based improvisational troupe, The Groundlings, auditioned to be a local horror film host on a TV station in 1981. Her success in the regional market led to a syndication deal where "Movie Macabre" was seen all over the country.
Her character took on a life of its own and became a cottage industry inspiring two movies, many guest appearances on television shows and a lot of merchandise. Although she has done other roles than Elvira, Peterson is at peace with the character that took over her career.
"I was very angry," she said with a laugh. "I wanted to do Shakespeare in the Park."
She said she did have some reservations in the beginning, but realized as she landed roles on pilots for television shows she had a decision to make: work all season long in a show being paid the minimum union scale or work in October and make a year's worth of money.
Peterson owns the rights to the character and controls what she does with it.
"It's like running a company and I'm the CEO," she explained.
The down side is that because a show business corporation doesn't own her character, Elvira doesn't have the support that other characters receive.
Peterson said she "wades" through horror films in the public domain to select ones she thinks have potential for the show. Then she and her writing partner Ted Biaselli watch the film over and over — as many as four or five times — to come up with a theme for the Elvira segments and the "pop-ins" in which Elvira appears at the corner of the screen with a quip as the film is running.
She said her training in improvisational humor helps her with the writing.
She has made 20 shows for syndication and six more that will be DVD exclusives.
Peterson continues to make public appearances at various pop culture conventions and is impressed with the stories her fans tell her.
She recalled that people have come up to her teary-eyed because they watched her show as a child with a now departed parent. Many young women have told her they saw Elvira as a strong powerful woman and she was a role model.
Other fans have recalled how they had one of her posters up in their room.
"I think I helped them through puberty," she laughed.
Considering this has become a career for her, it is lucky for her own sanity that she is actually a horror movie fan.
"Totally, totally," she said. "I wouldn't have gone to the audition if I hadn't."
She quickly noted she likes "the old bad ones that are unintentionally funny," and isn't a fan of the new breed of slasher movies.
Peterson said that as a child her favorite film was the Vincent Price classic "House on Haunted Hill" and she loved the movies Price made with director Roger Corman based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
She said that while other girls were interested in playing with Barbie, she was assembling plastic monster models.
"I was a pretty odd girl, but it paid off," she said.
To learn more about her show and the DVDs, log onto elvira.com or become her friend on her Facebook page at Elvira Mistress of the Dark (Official).
© 2011 by Gordon Michael Dobbs