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American actress Cassandra Peterson became famous in the 1980s for her television role as the vampy Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
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If you can get up in front of an audience full of people and not know what you're going to do beforehand and then have to come up with it to try to entertain people, then you can honestly do anything in life."
In the spring of 1981, Cassandra Peterson was hired by KHJ-TV to host the Movie Macabre series for $350 a week. For the hostess role, they wanted a character who was vampy and dressed all in black, a take-off of Morticia Addams of The Addams Family. "Robert [Redding, Peterson's friend and make-up artist] came up with a brilliant take on a spooky female. Not quite witch, not quite vampire, just kind of a cross." With a tight, black dress that revealed both leg and cleavage, and with a black beehive wig covering her natural strawberry-blonde hair, the character of Elvira was born.
As Elvira, Peterson offered up wry and sarcastic commentary on the B-movies being shown on her program without being too cruel or mean-spirited. These qualities, coupled with her instantly recognizable costuming, drew much attention. She made a number of guest appearances on different TV shows and movies as Elvira and became the first female to host a national beer ad campaign. In 1988, she co-wrote, produced and starred in a feature-length film called Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. She also co-wrote, produced and starred in its sequel, Elvira's Haunted Hills, in 2001. She also appeared as non-Elvira characters in both TV and film.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Elvira remained a popular character and Cassandra Peterson continued to appear frequently in the role. She created and endorsed a number of tie-in products, including Halloween costumes, theme park rides, action figures, model kits, perfume and even her own micro-brew beer. She also makes appearances at a number of events each year, raising money and awareness for a number of causes, especially animal welfare and AIDS charities.
In 2007, Peterson hosted her own reality TV show, The Search for the New Elvira, to find a younger actress to take over the role of Elvira. She has also endorsed various female impersonators who appear as Elvira. Over the past decade, Peterson has been working to franchise the character: "Not quit Elvira right now—as someday I'm going to have to—but, sort of doing what Bozo the Clown did. I love basing my entire career on a clown. Bozo—for anyone old enough to remember him—was wearing tons of make-up too so that he could go out and get a lot of other actors to play Bozo to make various appearances and do TV shows across the country. I started thinking, 'Hmmmmm. Bozo. That sounds like a good gig. Maybe I could do that too.'" In 2010, Elvira's Movie Macabre was revived by NBC, still featuring Peterson, rather than one of her many imitators, in the title role.
At nearly 60, Peterson is still going strong as Elvira. "I like being two people. I like having a normal side and a weird side. I feel like I have two, two, two lives in one. And I just get do so much cool stuff."
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