After the great autograph signing experience, I had with Cassandra Peterson, a.k.a. Elvira Mistress of the Dark, I was anxious to attend her special Days of the Dead Q&A panel later that same night. We walked through the hotel, past an indoor swimming pool, and outside to an enclosed tent set up for panels and events. This wasn’t the most ideal situation considering the snowstorm and frigid temps made the tent pretty cold despite additional space heaters. I felt particularly bad for a couple of attendees dressed as Frank n’ Furter and the half-naked “Rocky” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It wasn’t long after we took our seats that Cassandra made her way on stage. Below is taken from an audio recording that night…
Moderator: Tell us about getting some early career advice from Elvis Presley
Cassandra: I met Elvis when I was in Vegas which turned out to be a lucky break not to mention the fact that I was a gigantic Elvis fan. It was really pretty innocent; I was seventeen, the youngest gal working in Vegas at the time, and he’s not stupid, right? Anyway, he told me that I should get the hell out of Vegas which was good advice because, had I not taken it, I’d probably now be the oldest gal working there. He said (Imitates voice of Elvis) “Don’t stay here in Vegas, Baby. Go out and do other things.” We sang together on the piano; he played while I sang along. He said, “You’ve got a good singing voice,” and the next day I started taking lessons and eventually ended up singing in a show that got me involved with another show that took me to Europe.
Moderator: Tell us about your work with “The Groundlings” (an improvisational, sketch comedy troop in Los Angeles)
Cassandra: In my long, long, long road back to LA I really didn’t know what I wanted to do other than I knew that I wanted to be the center of attention and be in show business. First I was a dancer and then I was a singer and then I decided that I’d become an actor before seeing The Groundlings. There were only a few people in it at the time but I loved it so much that I became obsessed with it and eventually got into it. That was when they let anybody in and I was in the show with Paul Reubens…Pee-wee Herman, and the late Phil Hartman among others. Lorraine Newman had just left to do this “great new show called Saturday Night Live” and I remember we were all like, “God, I hope that works out for her!” (audience laughs) And when I was leaving Jon Lovitz was coming in..so a lot of people came out of this group and just about every great comedian you’ve heard of started there. Now it’s really hard to get into…oh my gosh, I think you have to take classes, on average, three to eight years before you are then voted in or not. Kathy Griffin never got voted in by the way…just sayin.’ (laughter)
Moderator: Tell us about becoming Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
Cassandra: Well, that turned out to be a lucky break though, at the time, I didn’t think it was that lucky. I was out looking for work in TV shows and commercials and then someone called me…I was on my honeymoon…and a girlfriend of mine called saying this station was looking for a horror host and you should check it out and I was like, “Well I’m not coming off my honeymoon for that.” Then, a couple of weeks later, she said they were still looking for someone. The director saw me in the Groundlings; liked some valley girl character I’d been doing and asked me to audition. They’d put an ad in the paper so everybody and their mother was auditioning which was kinda weird but finally, I got it. They told me they loved the valley girl character and asked me to come up with a spooky look to go with it. So my best friend at the time, artist Robert Redding, and I got together and collaborated. He came up with this hairdo that was based on his favorite singer, Ronnie Spector of the Ronnettes and I was thinking, “Her hair cannot be that high.” But, if you Google her, her freakin’ hair is twice as high! It was ridiculous! The make-up was like Kabuki and the dress designed to be sexy. I remember walking on stage and thinking, “This is never gonna last, it’s ridiculous!” And now here I am thirty-five years later. So I was paid like $300 a week before taxes which was a nightmare, but I ended up owning my character so that more than paid me back for all the money I wasn’t paid then.
Moderator. It seems like horror hosts aren’t as prevalent as they once were. Do you know why that is?
Cassandra: Oh, I know why that is and I’m not even prevalent as a horror host anymore. You can’t get the damn movies! All the movies have been bought up by big companies like Universal and if you want a movie for your show you just can’t afford them..I can’t afford them, nobody can. Last time I did a show was for Hulu (13 Nights of Halloween) and those were independents. My last Movie Macabre show was all Public Domain and PD films are hard to sell. You can have them but, unfortunately, people nowadays don’t like to watch Black & White. It’s a big bummer, but you can’t sell movies that are Black & White. Night of the Living Dead you can get away with but that’s about it. I wanted to do this show called “Elvira Hosts #2” (audience laughs and Cassandra admits she loved the name) which would have just had me presenting the sequels of bad films. But you can’t get the damn movies! One bad sequel will cost you more than what you could ever make on it as a host.
Moderator: How much creative control did you have with your 1988 movie “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark?”
Cassandra: I had total creative control. NBC financed it and it was the only venture in movies they ever did. I was a writer and a producer on it and it took two to three years for that to be produced with me going out trying to sell it. So I was so happy when that film finally got made and then it became a very sad, sad story. It was like my baby; it took years of my life to make happen and I thought that it came out so great. The company that was distributing it, New World Pictures, was going to put the movie out in 3200 theaters which would have been a normal release. Then, the day before the movie was supposed to be released, New World went bankrupt and the movie was released on only 300 screens. If you were STAR WARS, you would not be a blockbuster on 300 screens, there’s no way in hell. Anyway, that was the end of that and I’m so glad it later ended up becoming a cult classic because otherwise it made no money and everyone looked at it and said it was a failure. They didn’t take into account it only playing on 300 screens and, even then, it was the number one movie in New York, San Francisco, and LA where most of those theaters were. And it was up against Gorillas in the Mist which you guys don’t remember because you weren’t even born yet. (laughter)
Moderator: What are your thoughts on the current state of horror?
Cassandra: Hmmm…the current state of horror! Well, I just love the old classics and am pretty old school. Every once in a while a good movie comes along. Here’s my problem with a lot of horror movies – they have so many special effects that they leave nothing to your imagination. I think the scariest films were the ones that left a lot to your imagination. I tend to like the low budget films that don’t have all that. They’re scary because you have it all up in your head. One movie that I was in recently was All About Evil and, if you’ve ever seen it, it’s a super fun and funny horror/comedy movie made by a close friend, Peaches Christ. I play a totally straight-laced suburban mom if you can believe that.
Audience Question #1: Did you have any input on the Elvira pinball machine?
Cassandra: I had a lot of input on them which was really awesome. They showed me their basic art and I would tweak it…say “do this” “do that.” My first pinball machine was called “Party Monsters.” I put names of all kinds of people all over it. If you check out the back glass (illustration) I put the names of my old boyfriend, my other old boyfriend, my husband, my mom, and dad…all these people’s names on the tombstones, hot-dogs, etc. And then the new one I also had input on and put my cat, Hector, on there. I also put those jumpy monsters, you know the ones that pop up and down? Anyway, I love pinball and happen to be a pinball freak so, for me, getting one named after my character was like winning an Academy Award.
Audience Question #2: How did the Elvira television show (from the ’90s) proposal come about? Why didn’t the pilot make it on air since it was so hilarious?
Cassandra: Thank you…that was another bummer and freak thing that happened. I pitched and pitched and pitched that idea and finally got a deal with CBS which we were thrilled about so we filmed a cheap pilot. They loved it and for a while, I was the darling of the 20th Century FOX lot which was where we filmed it. So the President of CBS got sick the day that they were choosing all the new shows and this guy, who was the head of Sports from New York, came into town to pick the season line-ups in his place. He took one look at the pilot and said, “We can’t have those boobs on TV” and that was the end of that. Then, just a short few months later, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” debuted which was like the same show only younger. (Laughs) I’m just Miss Sour Grapes over here, right?
Final Audience Question: What were your experiences filming (Elvira’s Haunted Hills) in Transylvania?
Cassandra: Yeah, it was fantastic. We chose Romania for many reasons but one was because my brother-in-law was a film director who won an Academy Award for a short film and was from Transylvania. So my poor in-laws had a daughter who was Elvira, a son-in-law from Transylvania, oh…and a son named Damien (laughter). Anyway, he knew all the channels to go through in Romania and was a huge star over there. It was gorgeous there too. I don’t know if you saw it but there was a scene where townspeople were coming after me with pitchforks and everyone thought I used all these great costumes and had fantastic production value but that was actually real people and how they looked..like going back three centuries, traveling by oxen and everything. I tried to capture the old feel of the Hammer films. I was thrilled with it but I liked Mistress of the Dark best because it had a twelve million dollar budget and this one was one million but, anyway if you ever get a chance to go to Transylvania its a great place!
Thus ended the Elvira Q&A which, most of us agreed, went by way too fast! Before leaving I returned to the dealer’s room and picked myself up a Scarebear. What’s that? You say you’ve never heard of a Scarebear? Then tune in for my next Days of the Dead Chicago post and I’ll tell you all about them…
Coming Up…Jay Langley and those Bloody Awesome Scarebears!