Meet Maila Nurmi: artist, innovator and fierce female of the 20th century
Maila's high school graduation photo, 1940
Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira) was born Maila Elizabeth Syräjniemi on December 11th, 1922. The daughter of a Finnish temperance lecturer and an American translator/journalist, she spent much of her childhood in Astoria, Oregon where she graduated from high school in 1940. With money saved from a detested fish cannery job, she was off almost immediately to pursue her dream of performing. The next decade saw her in New York as a chorus girl at the Earl Carroll Theatre and backing up Lily St. Cyr at the Florentine Gardens, as well as on Broadway in Mae West’s Catherine was Great, and Spook Scandals. After migrating to Los Angeles in the mid-40s she worked as a “cheesecake” (pinup) model, posing for Alberto Vargas, Man Ray and Bernard of Hollywood.
Maila in a "cheesecake" centerfold
The "Dragon Lady", one of Maila's inspirations
The 50s ushered in the new medium of television with its saccharine portrayals of housewives and - for Maila - stifling social mores. Inspired by the cartoons of Charles Addams and early bondage magazines, Maila dusted her skin with mauve powder and attended Lester Horton’s annual Ball Caribe in 1953 in a tight black gown, black wig and long red fingernails. In this striking getup she won the Ball’s celebrated costume contest. She also caught the attention of TV producer Hunt Stromberg Jr., who knew he’d found exactly the right character to introduce the horror movies scheduled to run in the late-night slot on KABC-TV, Los Angeles.
Maila refined her costume and character, drawing additional inspiration from childhood heroes the Dragon Lady (of Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates comic strip) and the Evil Queen in Disney’s Snow White. Her head-turning persona was christened “Vampira” by then-husband Dean Riesner – and off she went to make history as TV’s first horror hostess.
Although The Vampira Show was only broadcast locally in Los Angeles, it was an instant hit and received international press coverage. A multi-page spread in LIFE magazine followed less than two months after the show's debut. Appearances on The George Gobel Show and The Red Skelton Show (alongside Lon Chaney Jr. and Béla Lugosi) introduced Vampira's on-screen antics to a national audience. People everywhere knew Vampira’s name and face. A bona fide celebrity with a growing legion of devoted fans, Maila attended the 7th Annual Primetime Emmys in the spring of 1955.
Part of Vampira's LIFE Magazine spread (June, 1954)
The Vampira Show was already in its death throes when Maila attended the 7th Primetime Emmy Awards on March 7th, 1955
At the same time, trouble was brewing at KABC-TV. When the network sought majority rights to the Vampira character so they could franchise the show at affiliate networks, Maila refused to grant them. She maintained that KABC-TV cancelled The Vampira Show in retaliation and that Hunt Stromberg blacklisted her in Hollywood. Rights to her character notwithstanding, Vampira still spawned copycats at stations across the country. The Vampira Show (with Maila at the helm) reappeared briefly on KHJ-TV LA in 1956, but the revival was not a success. While she struggled for TV work, Maila made appearances as Vampira in Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space, and alongside Liberace in his Las Vegas review at the Riviera (at which time Maila dated 21-year-old Elvis Presley, whose own show was playing at the New Frontier).
Władziu Valentino Liberace and Maila Elizabeth Syräjniemi, a match made in Vegas
The King strangles TV's Dark Queen during his 2-week residency at the New Frontier (April or May, 1956)
Disney's Maleficent, deadringer for Vampira
Although “Vampira” was known the world-over, Maila continued to suffer personal and professional losses. Her marriage with Riesner ended with a bang before the Vampira show did. And she never got over the death of close friend James Dean. When tabloid magazine Whisper insinuated an affair between them and a “black magic curse” that resulted in Dean’s death, Maila was appalled. And broke. By 1962 she was installing linoleum flooring for a living. Although the late 50s – 80s proved especially lean, Maila soldiered on. According to Disney archives Maila served as a model for Maleficent for the animated classic Sleeping Beauty in 1956. In the 60s Maila opened and ran an antiques store on Melrose Boulevard in Los Angeles called Vampira’s Attic. She made items for celebrities including Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Frank Zappa’s family, and spent many happy days at the nearby flea market where she was a well-known and beloved personality. In 1981 Maila entered talks with KHJ-TV Los Angeles to revive The Vampira Show. She worked extensively on the reboot, allegedly handing over all her old scripts from the show’s original run, and consulting on casting and design choices. When the station hired Cassandra Peterson to play Vampira against Maila’s wishes, a battle of creative differences exploded. Maila walked. Unable to use the name “Vampira”, KHJ-TV forged ahead with Peterson’s "Elvira" and, according to Maila, stole the format and most of the content from the original Vampira Show.
Vampira's response to inept imitators
Although Maila was always frustrated by the unauthorized use of her creation, she enjoyed a resurgence of celebrity and a bevy of supporters later in life. She performed monologues at various clubs in Hollywood in the 80s, and collaborated with punk rock groups The Screamers and Satan’s Cheerleaders. The Misfits were fans and friends, recording their tribute “Vampira” in 1982. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood brought Vampira renewed attention in 1994. Finally, the early 2000s saw Maila successfully selling original paintings on eBay and garnering the attention of local TV stations for her life’s accomplishments, as seen in this ABC clip from the year 2000:
Maila Nurmi died of natural causes at her home in Los Angeles on January 10th, 2008. She was 85.