Maila Nurmi is a name many of you may not know, but I'm damn sure you know her other name. Her other self. A woman who goes with horror as gore~geously as a full moon. The beautiful, the sensational, the trail blazer.
"I love glamour and physical beauty. I've always been fascinated by beautiful men on the screen: Tyrone Power, Robert Walker, with soft-focus filters and velvet voices. That's what Ed Wood was like. Beautiful dreamy eyes and long, sweeping lashes just beautiful. He didn't make a very pretty lady, but he made an awfully pretty man."
Known as the original glamour ghoul herself, Vampira, of late night 50s TV fame, was actually born Maila Syrjäniemi. She later changed to the easier surname Nurmi on December 11, 1921, in Petsamo, Finland. Her uncle was the multiple Olympic medal runner Paavo Nurmi. Maila arrived in the United States with her family as a baby, her father was a writer who lectured on temperance.
It was director Howard Hawks who first discovered Maila while she was performing in Michael Todd's Grand Guignol midnight show "Spook Scandals." He escorted the lovely blonde beauty to Hollywood with the hopes of grooming her into the next Lauren Bacall. He cast her in the film version of the Russian novel DREADFUL HALLOW, but the project was put on hold so many times that Maila walked out of her contract in frustration. She became a cheesecake model and an Earl Carroll dancer for several years in his revues. Maila even shared a chorus line with Lili St. Cyr, the future burlesque stripper extraordinaire.
Maila came up with the idea of "Vampira" at a masquerade contest. She had based her costume on Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoons, Morticia Addams. She appeared in heavy glamorous make up with long fingernails, arched eye brows, a mane of jet black locks, and slim-waisted black attire. That night she won the best costume award. She also caught the attention of local TV. Immediately following, Maila was placed under contract to Channel 7 in Hollywood to see if she could encourage late night viewers to stay up and watch its regular programming of cheapjack horror schlock.
The "macabre madam" became a genuine hit (1954-1955), adding a sexy double entendres and quippy remarks to her campy horror set. She earned an Emmy nomination in 1954 for "Most Outstanding Female Personality." Fan clubs began to appear all over the world. She appeared in "Life," "TV Guide" and "Newsweek" magazine articles, and could be seen around and about town and in Las Vegas judging contests and making variety special appearances. Songs were written about the "Queen of Horror."
She even appeared with arms outstretched and ghoulishly attired in Edward D. Wood Jr.'s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959), as Bela Lugosi's zombie-like mate, for which she is infamously associated. Bela actually was a fan of hers and had always wanted to work with her. Ed Wood shot some footage of her years later as a tribute to Lugosi (he died in 1956 during filming) and added it before the film's release. The film was cited as potentially the worst film ever made (though I must say it is chalk full of charm), but it made her even more famous.
By the late 50s, Maila began to struggle as people lost their love for her and Vampira. She continued to work as much as she could making appearances in movies that didn't give her career the push she had hoped for. After a few less than wonderful films, Maila decided to retire Vampira. In later years, Maila became passionately involved in animal protection rights. A talented painter in her own right, she created some "Vampira" portraits that became a collector's item. Living very modestly in Southern California, she did appear in a tiny gag cameo in the film I WOKE UP EARLY THE DAY I DIED. The film was a tribute to the late Ed Wood made in his honor nearly two decades after his death.
"I just thought he was a low-born idiot. With no talent at all. Just a brazen, foolish idiot... You know, I thought he was just a goon. Ah, I wasn't looking squarely... I just cast a glance, and just dismissed him with a thought. Kind of snobbish and foolish of me. But then over the years as I've mellowed and grown a little more sensible, and I began to look at this man after, after the fact. And I thought, "Incredible what he managed to achieve!" Without any help! And the obstacles that he managed to overcome! Somehow, it's... miraculous. It's more than just persistence. Yes, he had a lot of persistence -- that's for sure. But he also had a gilded karma that this was all intended to be." ~ Maila Nurmi on Ed Wood
Maila has said that Vampira was everything she was not. Maila was an extremely shy, lonely girl growing up. She hadn't any friends growing up and wore hand me downs. Vampira was strong, and confident, and beautiful, and loved. Though I must say that Maila herself was so much more than she knew. Especially to little horror chicks like me growing up. Here she beautifully explains it.
Here is the rare opening to her show...
She has inspired millions and is truly the definition of a Hollywood legend.
Sadly, we lost this iconic woman in horror on January 10th, 2008. She may be gone but her legacy and inspiration will live on forever.
We love you, Maila.