Born in Kansas in 1951, Cassandra Peterson worked as a dancer in Las Vegas and a pop singer in Italy before she landed her most famous acting role. In the 1980s she began hosting a television series as the vampy character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and has been known for the character ever since.
Cassandra Peterson was born in Manhattan, Kansas on September 17, 1951. As a toddler, she pulled a tub of boiling Easter eggs off of the stove, burning over a third of her body and leaving her visibly scarred. At age seven, her family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she was initially very shy and teased for her scarring. However, she later used her experiences as a child and teenager in Colorado Springs—a place she later claimed "all the freaks come from"—as inspiration for her most famous role as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Cassandra Peterson's mother ran a costume shop and frequently used the youngster as a model. "I would pick out whatever was the hot costume that year—Ginger from Gilligan's Island, I Dream Of Jeanie, Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke—and my mom would make one in my size, so I would wear costumes to school all the time. Everyone thought I was a total freak. But I knew I would grow up and wear a costume one day, and that's exactly what happened."
While she had performed in local clubs as a dancer while still in high school, a trip to Las Vegas gave Peterson her first big break. After successfully auditioning for a show called Vive Les Girls at the Dunes Hotel during spring break 1969, she graduated from Palmer High School a few months later and moved to Las Vegas on the same day. Before she was even a legal adult, she became one of Las Vegas' youngest showgirls: "I was 17 and had to get a signed thing from my parents—it was pretty unbelievable that they did it. But that was under severe threats from me." While in Las Vegas, she briefly dated Elvis Presley, who encouraged her to become a singer.
Following Presley's advice, Peterson moved to Italy, where she sang in an Italian pop-rock band and had a small part in Federico Fellini's 1972 movie Roma. After she returned to the United States, she toured with seven gay men in a nightclub revue called "Mama's Boys": "I was Mama," she said. She also posed in nude photo shoots for Playboy magazine and may have posed for the cover of Tom Waits' 1976 album Small Change, although she's now uncertain: "I don't remember having done it. But of course, I don't remember a lot of stuff I did in the 70s. But it looks like me!"
Wanting to develop her acting and comedic skills, Peterson joined the Groundlings improv troupe in 1979, where she developed characters alongside soon-to-be-famous comedians like Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman. "The Groundlings were definitely responsible for me being Elvira because I learned to be fearless, basically. 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."
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
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.
Now in her 60s, 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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