Cassandra Peterson, best known for her character Elvira, went from local-television horror hostess to pop-culture phenomenon in a matter of months in 1981. Though her fame seemed to happen overnight, it was actually years in the making: Peterson started out in Las Vegas as a showgirl when she was just seventeen, spent a while touring as a singer, and trained in Los Angeles at the famed improv theater the Groundlings, which has produced stars like Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy, and Kristen Wiig. Most impressive is her ability to sustain the character over the decades through movies, pinball machines, calendars, and more. Cassandra took a popular character and turned it into a business, leading the way for an era obsessed with branding.
Roughly 35 years after making her debut as Elvira on the now-defunct Los Angeles station KHJ, Cassandra is still performing. She recently published a "coffin table" book, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, filled with photos that trace the evolution of the Elvira character (the beehive grows and shrinks throughout the years), original sketches of the character, and even a photo of a five-year-old Cassandra dressed as "The Queen of Halloween." And she spent the month of October doing two live shows a night at Knott's Scary Farm, singing and dancing for her devoted fans. Cassandra was kind enough to take time out of her incredibly busy schedule to speak to me over the phone.
Gillian Jacobs: When you were growing up, was that your dream to do live shows like the one you do at Knott's Scary Farm?
Elvira: Yeah. I think my goal was to be the center of attention. When I was about three years old, my parents would go to a restaurant and put me up on tables. When I say "restaurant," they were loosely restaurants — they were like picnic tables outside in Kansas in the cornfields. My parents would have me dance and sing "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window," and people would throw change at me, and I thought, This is an awesome way to earn money. Isn't that ridiculous?
GJ: No, it's great. I think all of us actors can relate to that desire to be the center of attention. But you're not just an actor, you seem to be incredibly business-savvy. I mean, the amount of licensing and marketing that you have done for the character is incredible. Can you tell me about how you attained and retained the rights to Elvira?
E: It was really a lucky accident. I was working at some local station hosting horror movies — that's how I started out after I was in the Groundlings. I heard about this local television station doing the horror-hosting gig. After I got the job, the station was so damn cheap — I think I was making like $300 a week. They wouldn't pay me more money, and I had a one-year contract. Every time we renegotiated the contract we'd ask for more money. They refused, so my management said, "Look, if you won't pay more money, will you give us the rights to have a fan club?" and they said yes. The next time we renegotiated, they said, "How about the rights for her to appear as Elvira on other shows?" and they said OK.
This kept going along until one day everyone realized we had all the rights to the character. I felt pretty good about getting the rights. I felt especially good because a few years later the station was defunct because they lost their license due to some kind of improper campaign funds given to Nixon. It was a big deal. So my character would have gone down the tubes with them, never to be seen again, so thank God we got it. I don't feel bad about that one at all.
GJ: I don't think you should either. Often performers or actors are part of projects that are hugely profitable, and they don't see one-one-hundredth of the profit, so I think you're an inspiration.
E: Thank you. People are always saying, "Hey, that's so great that Mistress of the Dark is still out there." I go, "Yeah, it is. I'm thrilled for people to see it." They go, "You must have money rolling in all these years from that." I am like, "No, I don't think so." I got paid to star in Mistress of the Dark and to write it and be a co-producer, but I've never seen one penny from it ever, ever, ever, ever again. That's it, even though it was one of the top rentals for a long time. It's crazy. You're in showbiz, you get it.
GJ: It's interesting in life the things that you think are going to be your big break and then it doesn't work out that way.
E: So true. I mean, I thought that was it for me. I thought, Wow, I'm entering the big time.We had all these fantastic plans, and this was going to be fabulous, and the next day, it was all over. I went into a yearlong depression. One year where I had a hard time getting out of bed or wanting to do the character again or wanting to do anything again.
GJ: How did you pull yourself out of it?
E: Gosh, I don't remember a specific thing that happened. It was, I guess, about necessity. I was the breadwinner of my family. We had bills to pay, and I had to keep going. I did do things through that year where I was depressed and the joy went out of it. I started working on new projects. I tried to get a television show out, and that didn't go well.
GJ: I watched it yesterday. I thought you guys totally beat Sabrina the Teenage Witch to the punch with the talking sarcastic cat. I loved seeing that.
E: Well, exactly. The funny thing with that TV show was it didn't go because the head of CBS was out sick the week they chose all of the pilots. So they brought out a guy from New York who was the head of sports, and he picked the lineup. People that were working on this show were in the screening, and they remember him saying, "We can't show tits like these on CBS," and that was the end of the show. Very soon after, Sabrina came out, which had the aunts and the daughter and a girl and the cat — the whole thing, but younger. Am I bitter? Yes. Well, I just keep going. Well, what the hell. What can you do?
GJ: It's an accomplishment in and of itself to have created a character that's part of the pop-culture firmament. That doesn't always equal wealth, but that's a pretty remarkable achievement.
E: I am very, very proud of it. I'm shocked, actually, when I have fans telling me how I changed their life when they were young. They felt like they were a misfit, a loser, and I gave them hope to go on and stand up to bullies and have pride in themselves. That just boggles my mind.
GJ: What I also loved about Mistress of the Dark, and your talk-show appearances, is you have all these perfect one-liner comebacks. Your humor has been such a great weapon throughout your career. Can you talk about developing the character's sense of humor?
E: It definitely started with the Groundlings. Oh, man, if I hadn't have been in the Groundlings for four and a half years, I would never be doing what I'm doing now, because improv teaches you to think on your feet. Look at how many people have come out of there who've gone on to successful careers. It's mind-boggling.
But even as a child I liked being funny. I used self-deprecating humor as a way to keep bullies off my back, because I was burned when I was a child, and I have really bad burn scars that were on my neck, my shoulders, and my back. As a child I was really teased about them. I figured out the way to get these people off my back (not literally) was to use humor, and so even though I was very much a loner, when people teased me, I made fun of myself along with them, and then they felt: Oh, she's great.
GJ: Well, it's also such a feeling of power to silence a bully with the perfect comeback. You made your way to Vegas at seventeen. Is that when you started working as a showgirl?
E: Yes, I was a showgirl in Vegas at seventeen, so bizarre. I wasn't allowed to drink, I wasn't allowed to go into the casino to gamble, but I could dance around in a G-string onstage. What is up with that?
I had wanted to be a showgirl from when I was about thirteen or fourteen, when I saw the movie Viva Las Vegas starring Elvis Presley and Ann Margaret. My dream had come true and I was finding out it wasn't exactly the glamorous life I had envisioned. It was more like working in a factory, I swear. Just going to work, putting on a costume, walking onstage, smiling, going through the same steps, coming off, doing it again two more times with three shows a night. You'd just be thinking of your grocery-shopping list and your laundry that has to be done while you're out there prancing around. It was really difficult, mindless work and not a lot of glamour.
But I did get the opportunity to meet Elvis, which was mind-boggling. He came to see my show and afterward invited us all back to his suite for a party. It sounds really slimy, but it was really good, on the up and up. There were probably 100 people there. I always say to everyone, if it weren't for Elvis, I would be the oldest showgirl in Las Vegas. We sat down at the piano that night, and we're singing together, and he said to me, "You have a really decent voice. Why don't you go out and get some singing lessons and start thinking about a different path in show business?"
I had never thought about it before. Coming from Elvis, damn, if he thinks I can do it, then maybe I can. I did go out the very next day and start singing lessons. And within a month, I got a part singing "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in my Vegas show. I started getting more money for the show, and the next thing I decided I was going to leave Vegas and I was going to go on the road.
GJ: I was so fascinated reading about your time in a band in Italy, and then back in the United States touring around the country. Did you feel like you hit a wall in your singing career and that's what made you move to LA and start taking classes at the Groundlings?
E: I was never a great singer. That's for damn sure. But I got by, and I was making a living at it, so I came to LA thinking that I didn't know what I wanted to do. But I did know I wanted to be in show business. I was getting a little old to be a dancer because when you do get in your mid-20s, that's old for a dancer. A couple of friends took me to see the Groundlings. I never heard of them, and I never even heard of improv, it was not in my vocabulary. But when I saw the Groundlings, I thought, Holy crap, that is what I want to do.It just hit me like a lightning bolt.
GJ: Can you talk to me about working with Robert Allen Redding in developing the look and the character of Elvira?
E: Robert was my best friend in Hollywood. He was a singer, dancer, artist, just a total renaissance man. He was brilliant. As soon as I heard about getting this part with the horror hostess, they told me I had to come up with a look, and I went straight to Robert and we just threw all kinds of ideas around. He came up with all these sketches that we presented to the management at KHJ. I initially wanted to go a very different way, like a Sharon Tate in the Fearless Vampire Killers look, but KHJ wanted to go with the all-black thing. We went that way, but Robert, who was so creative, gave it a super-'80s twist. A little bit of an early-'60s twist, too, because you've got the hair based on Ronnie Spector from the Ronettes, his very favorite singer. He called it a "knowledge bump," because that's what she called it.
GJ: The makeup is so transformative of your face. It's not just that you naturally have red hair and you're wearing a darker wig, but your whole face looks so different when you're in character. Has that been nice to have such a clear separation between you as Cassandra and Elvira?
E: That has been the biggest blessing of all. I mean, you wouldn't think so. When you want to be famous, you want everybody to notice you, but once you do get famous everybody notices you. Really, I'm kind of a private person, and I really like to be in my own little world and have no people pointing at me and looking at me. It's strange because I wanted to be the center of attention and then I don't want to be.
GJ: You don't have to explain it to me. My line about actors is "Look at me! Don't look at me. Look at me! Don't look at me."
E: Exactly. People go, "You wanted it," but I have a lot of celebrity friends and they are so jealous of me.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Gillian Jacobs is an actor (upcoming film Dean, Netflix show Love) and director (The Queen of Code for fivethirtyeight.com).