Maila Elizabeth Niemi (December 11, 1922 – January 10, 2008), known professionally as Maila Nurmi, was an American actress who created the campy 1950s’ character Vampira.
The daughter of a Finnish immigrant, Nurmi was raised in Astoria, Oregon (where she also worked in tuna and salmon canneries) and relocated to Los Angeles in 1940 with hopes of being an actress. After several minor film roles, she found success in the Vampira character, television’s first horror host. Nurmi hosted her own series, The Vampira Show, from 1954 to 1955 on KABC-TV.
After the show’s cancellation, she appeared in the 1959 cult film Plan 9 from Outer Space, directed by Ed Wood. She is also billed as Vampira in the 1959 film The Beat Generation, where she appears out of character and instead plays a beatnik poet. Nurmi also appeared in the 1959 crime film The Big Operator. She was portrayed by Lisa Marie in Tim Burton‘s 1994 biopic Ed Wood.
The idea for the Vampira character was born in 1953 when Nurmi attended choreographer Lester Horton‘s annual Bal Caribe Masquerade in a costume inspired by Morticia Addams in The New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams. Her appearance with pale white skin and tight black dress caught the attention of television producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr., who wanted to hire her to host horror movies on the Los Angeles television station KABC-TV, but Stromberg had no idea how to contact her. He finally got her phone number from Rudi Gernreich, later the designer of the topless swimsuit. The name Vampira was the invention of Nurmi’s husband, Dean Riesner. Nurmi’s characterization was influenced by the Dragon Lady from the comic strip Terry and the Pirates and the evil queen from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
On April 30, 1954, KABC-TV aired a preview, Dig Me Later, Vampira, at 11:00 p.m. The Vampira Show premiered on the following night, May 1, 1954. For the first four weeks, the show aired at midnight, moving to 11:00 p.m. on May 29. Ten months later, the series aired at 10:30 p.m., beginning March 5, 1955. Each show opened with Vampira gliding down a dark corridor flooded with dry-ice fog. At the end of her trance-like walk, the camera zoomed in on her face as she let out a piercing scream. She would then introduce (and mock) that evening’s film while reclining barefoot on a skull-encrusted Victorian couch. Her horror-related comedy antics included ghoulish puns such as encouraging viewers to write for epitaphs instead of autographs and talking to her pet spider Rollo.
She also ran as a candidate for Night Mayor of Hollywood with a platform of “dead issues”. In another publicity stunt, KABC had her cruise around Hollywood in the back of a chauffeur-driven 1932 Packard touring car with the top down, where she sat, as Vampira, holding a black parasol. The show was an immediate hit, and in June 1954 she appeared as Vampira in a horror-themed comedy skit on The Red Skelton Show along with Béla Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. That same week Life magazine ran an article on her, including a photo-spread of her show-opening entrance and scream.
When her KABC series was cancelled in 1955, Nurmi retained rights to the character of Vampira and took the show to a competing Los Angeles television station, KHJ-TV. Several episode scripts and a single promotional kinescope of Nurmi re-creating some of her macabre comedy segments are held by private collectors.
Examination of Nurmi’s diaries in 2014 by filmmaker and journalist R. H. Greene verified longtime rumors that in 1956 she was the model for Maleficent, the evil witch in the Disney conception of the classic fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty.” A Disney archivist subsequently confirmed these findings.
Nurmi made television history as the first horror movie hostess. In 1957, Screen Gems released a syndicated package of 52 horror movies, mostly from Universal Pictures, under the program title Shock Theater. Independent stations in major cities all over the U.S. began showing these films, adding their own ghoulish host or hostess (including Vampira II and other lookalikes) to attract more viewers.
Nominated for a Los Angeles area Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Female Personality in 1954, she returned to films with Too Much, Too Soon in 1958, followed by The Big Operator and The Beat Generation. Her best known film appearance was in Ed Wood‘s camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space, as a Vampira-like zombie (filmed in 1956, but released in 1959). In 1960 she appeared in I Passed for White and Sex Kittens Go to College, followed by 1962’s The Magic Sword. The classic clip from Plan 9 from Outer Space featuring Vampira walking out of the woods with her hands pointing straight out was used to start the original opening sequence of WPIX Channel 11 New York‘s Chiller Theatre in the 1960s.
two ultra-rare TV shows from the 50’s, featuring Maila Nurmi as VAMPIRA on THE RED SKELTON SHOW 1954 (also guest starring BELA LUGOSI and LON CHANEY JR) and THE GEORGE GOBEL SHOW from 1955. black & white, fullscreen, mono, 1 hour. DVD-R comes packaged as shown in color DVD case, wrapped in plastic!