In 1941, a young blonde named Maila Nurmi made her way to New York City with dreams of stardom. Born in Finland as Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi nineteen years prior, Maila landed small roles on and off Broadway until catching the eye of Hollywood director Howard Hawkes at the premier of a short-lived midnight show called Spook Scandals, a “revue of songs, dances, and showgirls” with a campy horror theme. Having worked previously with Lauren Bacall while directing To Have and Have Not, Hawkes believed Maila’s talents and her high-cheekboned beauty (bearing no small resemblance to Bacall) could be the start of a new silver screen It Girl. With her sights set on Hollywood, Maila headed west.
Big screen fame was elusive, however, and Maila’s first movie role (an uncredited part) did not come until 1947. In the meantime, she found other work in Los Angeles, supplementing a hat-check girl income with a variety of modeling jobs, her unique looks attracting the attention of photographers from avant gardist Man Ray to glamour photography pioneer Bruno Bernard.
It was not until six years later that Maila achieved her big break. At a Hollywood masquerade party in 1953, Maila appeared in pale makeup with a tight, black dress hugging her carefully constructed figure, drawing costume inspiration from the limpidly gothic character later known as Morticia Addams. Regularly appearing in The New Yorker since the 1930’s as the matriarch of Charles Addams’s gleefully macabre family, Morticia was slim and dressed in black, “low-voiced, incisive and subtle…even in disposition, muted, witty, sometimes deadly.” That night, Maila’s spot-on characterization won the interest of Hunt Stromberg, Jr., a local television producer, and an offer for Maila to introduce scary movies once a week on KABC Los Angeles. With some adjustment to character and costume, The Vampira Show was born on April 30, 1954, starting each performance with Maila’s signature Vampira intro.
Although the show only broadcast within the local Los Angeles area and ceased production after a year, The Vampira Show, bolstered by cheeky publicity stunts from KABC, was an instant hit, making Maila’s Vampira the first late night horror host in history. Vampira was the perfect sensation for Los Angeles in the mid-1950’s; dark and glamorously spooky in a city known for bright, beachy casualness, a perfectly elegant and alluring hostess who just happened to lounge on a skull couch and serve vampire cocktails from a poison bar. Since very few actual horror films were available for television broadcast at the time, dark suspense films were pushed into the mold, with charmingly corny, double-entendre filled introductions by Vampira, setting the format for later hosts to emulate.
Her unconventional conventionalism made Vampira a favorite of the counter-culture scene as well, with Hollywood iconoclasts like James Dean and Marlon Brando among her known associates. Fetish groups embraced her extreme appearance, black-clad and sporting a corset-trained 38-17-36 figure. Tragically, since local television at that time was shot live, mere minutes of footage from The Vampira Show are all that remain, and in a relatively short time, Maila Nurmi began to fade from the spotlight, leaving only afterimages on the public consciousness, pale mimicry created by characters inspired by or impersonating the original. While her star flares every now and again (The Misfits’ Vampira in 1982, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in 1994), Maila Nurmi spent much of the later part of her life in relative obscurity and minimal financial means before her death in 2008.
With the upcoming release of Disney’s Maleficent, however, Maila’s name may be on the rise again. Journalist and Vampira historian Ray Greene recently turned up evidence that Maila was engaged as a live action model at Disney studios for Sleeping Beauty in the 1950’s during her Los Angeles heyday. Live modeling was a common practice at Disney studios, as actors were costumed and posed to help animators prototype their designs for animated characters. Maila’s appointment book for that time indicates that Maleficent, that archetypal villain, an elegantly severe figure in black with razor-sharp cheekbones, was modeled by none other than Vampira-era Maila Nurmi. Greene also provided a fascinating in-depth look at Maila and the history of Vampira in his 2012 documentary, Vampira and Me, currently available for digital rental on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
While the clock can’t be turned back and there were many factors that culminated in the all-but-lost legacy of Vampira, now is as good a time as ever to add Maila Nurmi to your canon of horror icons. Take a look through the gallery below and check out the links for more inspiration from the premier glamour ghoul of the 20th century.