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.