MY SATURDAYS WITH VAMPIRA

Maila Nurmi and Tomi Hinkkanen

STORY: MAILA NURMI
REPORTER: TOMI HINKKANEN – LOS ANGELES

I had the pleasure of knowing the fascinating Finnish-born Maila Nurmi aka Vampira. She was perhaps the most unique Hollywood personality I have ever met.

Maila was a true character who loved animals and was in perfect tune with the 20-something crowd who idolized her. Even though she was living in poverty when I met her, there were flashes of elegance and glamour in her life. She was very comfortable in her role as a fixture in the cult circles of Hollywood where pop-culture icons are cherished and celebrated. In spite of the fact that her actual time in the limelight was short-lived, she remains a true Hollywood icon.

publicity photo for film 'Grave Robbers from Outer Space' (later called 'Plan 9 from Outer Space')

Our friendship began after Tim Burton’s biographical movie ‘Ed Wood’ starring Johnny Depp hit the screens in 1994. The film was about B-movie maker Edward D. Wood, Jr., who went down in history as the director of the worst movie ever made, ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’.

The release of ‘Ed Wood’ resurrected the career of one of the stars of ‘Plan 9’ who was portrayed in Burton’s movie: Vampira. The actress behind the original Vampira was Maila Nurmi. For years she had been leading a quiet life while living in a dilapidated apartment on Hudson Avenue (in a less than glamorous part of Hollywood). But now, because of the movie ‘Ed Wood’, Maila was back in vogue. She was interviewed for numerous documentaries and TV programs. Hollywood’s goth youth found a new idol in her. She was often picked up in a hearse to go to parties and premiers. It was then that I approached her to do a feature news story about her life for the Finnish television. That started a friendship that lasted for many years.

Maila Nurmi and her beloved pigeons

My first date with Maila Nurmi happened on a rainy and dreary January day in 1995. She had agreed to meet me at a diner close to her Hollywood apartment. I remember she wore her favorite color, black, and had a bow adorning her hair. On that first lunch she warned me about ordering French fries with my cheeseburger. “It makes your skin look bad”, she said. We negotiated a small 300 dollar fee for a one day shoot. I don’t usually pay for interviews, but in this case the fee was in order for she had no steady income. I later learned that she didn’t to go on social security because she feared that government would come after her for some back taxes.

We shot the TV story on various locations around LA that were meaningful to her: the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the exterior of her old apartment in the Hollywood Hills, a memorabilia shop in Hollywood where her pictures were sold, and the Griffith Observatory where sculptor Kenneth Kendall’s statue of James Dean stands. Maila knew both men.

We had an absolutely fabulous day during which she poured her heart out to me. After that day, I felt I knew her quite well already and we kept in touch. I normally visited her on Saturdays when we would go to Sizzler’s for lunch and talk. And boy, the stories she told!

Maila as a young girl with a little monkey

She was born in Petsamo, then a part of Finland, December 11th, 1922.

“My very first friend was a mouse who lived in the closet. I followed his movements, except when the closet door was closed and I didn’t see him.” That was her only memory from Petsamo. When Maila was two years old, the family moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts. In those days it was a small fishing village. Her father Onni Syrjäniemi was a journalist and an ardent demagogue for the temperance movement. Her mother Aina Sofia Nurmi was a newspaper editor and a translator.“My mother was an alcoholic, but a good mother”, she said.

Her first memory on the new continent was true to her nature which was both melancholy and macabre: “I was playing on the sand dunes by the beach when a local fisherman stopped by to chat with me. Later I heard that he had gone to the sea and drowned. I had been the last person to see him alive. I still remember that fine man.”

Maila was a born performer. At four, she sang hymns in a Finnish church. At nine she acted in radio plays. At 15 she won a scholarship to Oregon University to study drama. In 1941, at the tender age of 19, Maila traveled to New York to become an actress. She went to auditions and got small roles on Broadway as a choir girl. She supplemented her income by working as a hatcheck and cigarette girl in clubs. The high point of her New York years was a role in the comedy ‘Catherine was Great’ starring Mae West.

“Mae West was great. I was afraid of her, though, for she cursed a lot and I had never heard such language before.”

Maila left New York and headed west where, for a few years, she worked as a pin-up model.

Early pin-up photograph

“I was then married to my first husband and he wasn’t completely over his ex-girlfriend who was the most famous bikini model at the time. I was a little chubby back then but I lost weigh and decided to become one of the most popular pin-up girls of America. I never do anything half way. It took a lot of work since posing in front of a camera did not come naturally to me.”

While working as a model, Maila befriended Norma Jean Dougherty, who later became known as Marilyn Monroe. She was also close friends with James Dean. They would sit together in Googie’s coffee shop in Hollywood and talk for hours. When Dean died in a car accident at the age of 24, the tabloids fabricated stories that Maila had put a curse on him. She was distraught for years because of that.

In the 1950’s Maila Nurmi reached the peak of her career.

Early pin-up photograph

“I wanted to become a preacher and needed money. Television was new then. I thought I would do well on TV since I had been performing in front of people all my life.”

At that time cartoonist Charles Addams’ the Addams Family was not yet on TV, but appeared as a newspaper comic strip. Maila decided to parody one of the characters, Morticia Addams. Maila Nurmi’s alter ego Vampira was born. The local KABC-TV in Los Angeles hired Maila, or rather Vampira, as the presenter of Saturday night horror movies. They were shown at the midnight timeslot which was considered the worst possible. That didn’t bother Maila. She put all her energy into her character which she played to perfection.

“I was a romantic and a puritan. I wanted to create a character that was everything that I hate in a person: a personification of evil. I thought I would have to get people’s attention by giving them what they wanted: breasts, net stockings, and phallic symbols. Once I had gotten their attention, I could preach to them. But I never got to that point.”

Early pin-up photograph

The Vampira Show premiered May 1st, 1954. Despite the lousy time slot and poor movie selection (the TV station paid a hundred dollars for each movie), Maila’s program was a hit. She was rewarded by an earlier time slot. Maila grossed 60 dollars a week for her gig. To achieve the famous thin waistline, she didn’t eat a bite for two days preceding the show. And every week she would take a Turkish bath to further shed the pounds. Rigorous fasting later led to health problems, but nobody knew about the pain it took to bring Vampira on screen. She would appear at the beginning of the movie and during commercial breaks, always telling naughty jokes and making fun of the celebrities of the time. In the ‘50’s TV broadcasts were live so that, unfortunately, there are no videotapes of Vampira’s show, but some kinescopes remain and can be seen in a documentary called Vampire: The Movie. Her gig at KABC-TV lasted a little over a year. At that point the TV station wanted to acquire the rights to the Vampira character. She told me that when she fired when she refused. She went on to sat that she was blacklisted and could not get other TV or film work afterwards.

Publicity photo as Vampira

Desperate for money, Maila accepted an offer from Ed Wood to appear in his sci-fi thriller ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ on the condition that she did not have to utter a line in the film. It starred horror actor Bela Lugosi who died before the filming even began. That didn’t deter the entrepreneurial Wood. He had shot some footage of Lugosi while he was still alive and incorporated that into his movie. The rest of the time another actor played the Lugosi character while covering his face with a cape.

Maila Nurmi as Vampire in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) -Wikipedia

“Ed didn’t give me any other kind of direction except “walk there and when I say stop, stop.” He was a tender, caring, and friendly man who loved animals.”

It is ironic that Maila Nurmi became best known for ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’. The film earned the title ‘the worst movie ever made’ for a reason. The actors were given ridiculously pompous lines written by Wood himself. The sets look home-spun and there were flying saucers made out of car hubcaps. The script seems to have been written in the spur of the moment and is full of inconsistencies. After that, Maila appeared in a couple more horror movies and then retired from show business in the early 1960’s. She supported herself by working odd jobs (she once gave an interview where she called herself ‘a lady linoleum layer’). Then she opened an antique store in Hollywood called ‘Vampira’s Attic’ which lasted for 15 years. In the 1980’s, she unsuccessfully sued Cassandra Peterson for copying her Vampira character.

At home in Hollywood

After the Tim Burton’s Ed Wood movie craziness of the 90’s died down, Maila made a living by making and selling her own paintings. She also appeared at horror and sci-fi conventions where she sold autographs and pictures to fans. There was even a collectable doll, an action figure made of the Vampira character. In 1998 Maila appeared in her final movie role, Aris Iliopulos’ ‘I Woke Up Early the Day I Died’ along with a star-studded cast including Billy Zane, Tippi Hedren, Christina Ricci, Andrew McCarthy, and Ron Perlman. The script was written by none other than Ed Wood who had died in 1978 at the age of 54.

The captivating smile of a true Hollywood legend

“I am a half recluse – and by my own choice, but because of the circumstances: poverty, illness and old age. But then I have these new young fans who have come into to my life. And I still appear in videos and play cameo parts in movies, so I have a little bit of a career left. My existence as a senior citizen is a small, mouse-like way of living.” Mouse-like as that mouse that was her first friend.

Maila Nurmi with director Aris Iliopulos and actress Karen Black at the premiere of her last film 'I Woke Up Early the Day I Died'.

Many a Saturday Maila and I would sit on the pavement in front of her apartment, talked, and fed the pigeons. She had named them all and knew every single one by name. An all white one was called Lana Turner. She would tell me stories about James Dean, her husbands, and the career that never quite took off.

One day her landlord announced that her house was to be demolished and that she needed to find another place to live. I was happy to find out that some of Maila’s friends managed to find her a nice place to live. We didn’t keep much in contact after that for one reason or the other.

Maila Nurmi by Tomi Hinkkanen

About eight years later, I read in the paper that Maila had passed away. She died on January 10th, 2008 of natural causes at the age of 85. That made me reminisce of the rainy January day 13 years before when our paths first crossed. Her body laid for some time in the city morgue before friends were able to collect enough money to give her a proper burial. Later on, I visited her grave at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where we had once filmed a segment for our TV news story.

Maila Nurmi's grave at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Her tombstone is small but appropriate: it has her name, birth and death years and an engraving of the Vampira character that made her famous. The text on the bottom reads: ‘Hollywood Legend’. And that she most certainly was.


 

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