I didn’t know who she was until one night back in the mid-1980s, when I caught her show after Saturday Night Live. I don’t remember the flick she was showing, but I remember her — The Mistress of the Dark. Not only was this rock-and-roll chick showing some cool as hell horror films, many of which I was seeing for the first time, she was simultaneously funny and spooky, and seemed to genuinely dig the films she was hosting on her show.
Cassandra Peterson brought Elvira to the small-screen in the spring of 1981. She was acting before then; she had been in everything from DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER to CHEECH & CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE, but the character of Elvira, I think it’s safe to say, changed her life in ways she could have never imagined. Ms. Peterson jumped on the phone with us working a nasty cold and though she only had 15 minutes, she ended up talking to us for almost an hour. She is hands down one of the funniest people that I have had the chance to speak with. I hope we get the chance to speak again soon. Until then, we have this interview…
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: Thanks again for hanging out with us.
CASSANDRA PETERSON: Oh my pleasure, I am glad we could make it happen.
DG: So we like to start at the same place with all of our guests. Do you remember the first film that changed your life?
CP: I remember perfectly. I was probably in the second grade, I think, and my cousin took me to see THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, starring Vincent Price and wow, it was the first time I had seen anything like a horror movie. You know those life changing moments where you can remember every single detail about where you were? That’s what it was. We went to the cheap theater in Colorado Springs, and I had re-occurring nightmares after that movie for about a year. At the same time though, I was very excited by it and I wanted to see more. So I started on this path of trying to see every movie that came out and the next ones starring Vincent Price were all the Roger Corman films that were inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Films like: TOMB OF LIGEIA, HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, and I was obsessed with those. I just couldn’t wait for the next one to come out. That movie, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, to this day still, this is so dorky, it still is just so creepy. There is just something about it that… I don’t know. For me, I guess that when you’re a child and you see something like that, no matter how dorky it looks later, it just scares you.
DG: Really shows the power and creativity some of those older films. I had that same experience with THE HAUNTING. I saw that when I was like 5 or 6 and it just freaked me out.
CP: Oh yeah that’s such a scary movie. I love THE HAUNTING, that was another one I went to and yeah same thing. It scared the hell outta me.
DG: So what was it about the horror genre that kind of grabbed you? Was it the performances and story or was it just kind of the thrill of seeing something that freaked you out?
CP: Yeah I think in retrospect it was the excitement or the adrenaline rush. I am kind of like a feature addict or something because it really is a rush. It’s like riding a rollercoaster. I always say a good horror movie is just like a thrill ride at an amusement park because you have ups and downs and you get all relaxed just in time for the next big hill where you’re screaming and its totally an adrenaline rush and I think a good horror movie has those moments. It’s boring if it’s just straight across scary, scary, scary. I think a good example of that is AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. It really had a lot of very humorous moments and you relax, laugh, and then you really aren’t ready when something jumps out at you.
DG: That’s one of our favorite films — it’s just flawless. Are there any directors right now that you dig or do you mainly stick to the older titles?
CP: Well you know, I hate to be a fuddy-duddy, but I like the old stuff. I am into old and campy horror films and I can’t say…. I can’t say anything has really blown me away lately. That sounds sad but… I don’t know. Nothing I think that’s really brilliant, um… I don’t know. There are some out there that are scary, I am certainly not saying that but I haven’t seen anything that’s up my alley in a really, really long time. The movies I like most these days are the ones that really go way into humor like ZOMBIELAND and SHAUN OF THE DEAD, which I love, so the combination of humor and horror is what I love.
DG: When they are done well like those two films, it’s tough to beat a horror comedy. So let’s jump into your Vegas trip after high school. I read that after your graduation you jumped in your car and went to Vegas where you met Elvis, landed a role in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, and posed for a Tom Waits album cover all in a pretty short timeframe. That’s really a trifecta of cool. Most people end up with a hangover and an empty wallet so you did okay. Tell us about how you ended up in the Bond film.
CP: Oh my godm that was so weird. Literally the day I graduated I jumped in the car and headed out there. I already had this job lined up from when I went there before on a spring vacation with my mom and dad. We had gone to see a show at the Dunes Hotel and the Maître d said the Dance Captain wanted me to audition which I did, I was a dancer, and they hired me right there on the spot. My parents kind of said “no way, forget it” and drug me back home kicking and screaming and I made life a living hell for them the next three months until they finally said “okay, do whatever you want.” I wasn’t 18 yet so you know, I really wasn’t supposed to do what I wanted to do yet but I took off for Vegas and started doing Viva Le Girls that summer, I think in June, and opened the show that September. So I was working there as a showgirl and they were shooting the James Bond movie and Cubby Broccoli used our show in one of the scenes of the movie where this comedian gets knocked off and he’s standing there with two show girls. Then, strangely, I went to London and called the set decorator who I had come to know and they put me in another little part but it was really cool. I got to go to Pinewood Studios and see the set they had made which was craters on the moon made out of mashed potatoes and you couldn’t believe the smell in there. They had been sitting there for a couple of weeks. Oh my god, walking in there and seeing the moon made out of mashed potatoes (laughs), brown mashed potatoes and the smell, oh my god, the smell in the heat was really overpowering. The highlight of the trip though was having lunch with Cubby Broccoli, uh… what’s his name? (Laughs) you know what’s his name!?!
DG: That one guy?
CP: (Laughs) Yeah, that one guy who played 007; Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Tony Curtis at one table for lunch in the commissary. It was really a fun, fun experience. I don’t even know if I am actually in the movie, and if I am, it’s a “you blink and you miss it” kind of thing ,but, it was a real adventure, let me tell you.
DG: Jesus, were you able to even eat?
CP: No I was pretty nervous. I just kind of pushed my food around here and there. I felt like I was there to just listen to them talk and oh my god, so amazing. Did you know Cubby Broccoli’s family invented broccoli? I am not kidding.
DG: Are you being serious?
CP: I am serious! His family created broccoli.
DG: How do you invent broccoli?
CP: I know! It’s a hybrid, he told me this whole story, and I looked it up and it’s true. Its cauliflower and some other green vegetable. Isn’t that a trip? You just don’t think of broccoli as being invented.
DG: So he was the guy I was really mad at when my mom tried to make me eat that vegetable of the devil?
CP: Exactly, a little piece of trivia for you to check out on the internet.
DG: I’ll do that as soon as I am done reading about mayonnaise on Wikipedia.
DG: There really isn’t a good way to transition from that to the next question so I am just going to blurt that out. How did you end up with The Groundlings?
CP: Well I had gone to Hollywood to look for some work and I was taking some acting lessons and I had gone with a few friends to the see The Groundlings. It wasn’t where it is now down on Melrose, it was way out in the boonies somewhere. I saw that show and I just instantaneously said that’s what I want to do. I was just like floored by it and I made it my goal to get into that show and actually it was a couple of years after that that I was able to get into the show, and I was there for four and a half years with Paul Reubens, who’s Pee-Wee of course, Phil Hartman, and Loraine Newman who was the first one to go to Saturday Night Live, the first of many, many to go on that show. Will Ferrell came into the troupe later, Julia Sweeney, I don’t know if you remember her?
DG: Yeah, I know Julia, of course.
CP: Yeah, so a million people came out of that group so I was really thrilled to be a part of that. Even though I didn’t get my job directly from The Groundlings, I kind of indirectly got it, because the audition I did for Elvira was very improvisational, and if I hadn’t have had the background that I did, there is no way I could have come up with the character that I did.
DG: It sounds like you’re still pretty close with Paul [Reubens].
CP: Oh very close, I just talked to him the other day. We share a lot of info and stories, and things about licensing and what to do and what not to do. I love Paul, he feels like a relative to me. I think everybody in The Groundlings feels that way; you sort of never lose contact with them.
DG: His work is just amazing. To watch the way he controls the stage is nuts.
CP: He is just freaking amazing. He has so many characters, a dozen he could be doing if he wasn’t doing Pee-Wee. He is just really prolific and really funny. He is probably the funniest guy I have ever met in my life.
DG: So did you kind of already have the comedic instincts and timing when you went to The Groundlings or did you learn and master those skills from your work there?
CP: It was really funny, because when I was in Vegas as a showgirl, I was just kind of… I don’t know… dorky, I guess. The choreographer gave me a comedy number to do at the end of the show where I was dancing around and falling because I wore really, really thick glasses all my life. From like the time I was in 3rd grade, so I couldn’t see where I was going and I was always running into things and one night I fell onto a table of some very surprised people and not wearing very much clothes, and I was just crashing into everybody and all the other girls and things onstage and everybody thought I was Hi-larious, and so they gave me a number to do where I actually walked around and bumped into things. It became kind of a big hit, and I thought “wow, people think that’s really funny.” I was always kind of the class clown growing up. I was very, very shy. In order to not be made fun of, I had been burned and I had a lot of scars, so I did a lot of self-deprecating humor. I have been acting goofy my whole life and now I get paid to act goofy.
DG: I’ll say, not a bad paycheck.
DG: So speaking of that paycheck, let’s talk about your alter ego Elvira. When you were originally creating the character you had kind of based her on Sharon Tate in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS but it was rejected, which turned out to be a good thing. Was it rejected because of the Manson stuff or was it just not the right look?
CP: No I don’t think so at all. Yeah my best friend and I wanted to make it like this pink diaphanous gown, and dark circles under the eyes with pale lips and long flowing red hair just like Sharon Tate in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS. It was rejected for one reason and one reason only. You know the people running the station? They weren’t really creative and I think when they thought of horror they thought of black dresses along the lines of Morticia Adams. [using a deep voice] “You have to wear a black dress with black hair”. To us you know, that’s like tunnel vision but we did what they said because they were paying us, and I think it worked out okay.
DG: Yeah, yeah. Not too shabby.
CP: Yeah not bad, I do have to wear a wig instead of my own hair but that’s probably a blessing considering the way I treat my hair.
DG: What was the first film you ever hosted as Elvira?
CP: Oh my god… wow that’s amazing, nobody has ever asked me that. I am pretty sure it was SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT.
CP: Yeah, and that’s how I got to see how incredibly bad the stuff I was showing was going to be and we just couldn’t help taking a few jabs at it you know what I mean? We started off a little more serious, a little more sexy and spooky; at least I thought I was. The movies we were playing though were just, you know they were just a little wacky so I thought we have to bring this up or we have to mention something about that, and it seemed like each week it was more about making fun of the movies rather than showing a classic horror film.
DG: And are you watching these flicks first and writing the jokes and commentary? What is that process like?
CP: In the beginning it was the guy who was directing the shows that came up with the jokes: Larry Thomas. He was a funny guy and he wrote stuff, but as time went on he wouldn’t have the time to do it so I brought in a fellow Groundling: John Paragon [who was also Jambi in PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE] who later ended up playing The Breather on my show and he would write with Larry and as time went on Larry kind of dropped out of writing and John and I took over. We would sit in a little room like the size of a closet with a projector and these screened right above our head on a little projector screen, I sound so old oh my god, and we would watch these movies over and over again. It was a bummer because they were on film so you couldn’t stop and start them you know? We just watched them a thousand times and put whatever jokes we had in there and John would do the bulk of the writing. By that time I was getting so busy doing appearances cause the Elvira thing like really took off but, that’s how we did it. We would watch the movie a zillion times then come up with the script and you know we even did a 3D movie which was the first time 3D had been broadcasted on television.
DG: Oh wow, I didn’t know that.
CP: Yeah, I am still kind of angry about that, I have a little bitterness there. We shot it for 24 hours and took one break for one meal; I shot from 9am the first day to 9am the next day because the technology, the 3D cameras kept breaking down, it was a mess. We made the show, it aired only in Los Angeles, but we sold $3.5 million pairs of glasses through 7-11 for like $3 a pop. I didn’t even get a pair. I had to go buy mine. Anyway, I made $300 for that show, and they got all the revenue for the glasses. $3.5 million at $3 a pop. So yeah, just a little bit of bitterness.
DG: Oh man I bet.
CP: But yeah, other than that it was a big deal. It was the first time 3D had been broadcast at the time, it didn’t work too well cause it kind of came in and out, but it was a big deal.
DG: Yeah, 3D kind of had another run there in the ’80s. So when you are writing the commentary, does Paul ever give you lines to use in the show? It seems like your show and material is perfect for his kind of vintage act.
CP: Well, there were a few times he worked on my show when it was local. He and John Paragon played The Fat Boys, they were these two really fat boys with all of this padding and they were really funny characters. Here’s a little known fact though; I had this record out that I made called 3DTV. It was on vinyl and Paul and John stood in the shower in my bathroom with the shower curtain closed and sang back-up on it. They’re not credited on the record but you know we recorded in the bathroom because we had such great sound in there. I have kind of like a greatest hits album on iTunes, it’s all the songs I ever made. It’s called “Gravest Hits” and the quality is so bad they wouldn’t let it onto the album. Anyway, so no he never gave me lines but he was on the show a few times and he was Hi-larious.
DG: He [Paul Reubens] was going to be in MISTRESS OF THE DARK at one point, wasn’t he?
CP: Well what happened was we were both vying for the same director: Tim Burton, who had never done a feature film before. Paul’s movie was shooting right about the same time as I was making my movie. He was with Warner Brothers and I was with NBC, which is obviously a television network and it was their first foray into making a feature film. Warner Brothers apparently had a little more to spend and they got Tim Burton and I got… somebody else…James Signorelli… who didn’t turn out to be a big filmmaker, he worked with Saturday Night Live. So anyway, yeah that’s another thing I am bitter about (laughs) but what was the question? I just totally went off track.
DG: Oh no, you’re fine, we were just talking about how Paul was going to be in the film.
CP: Oh yeah we wanted to have a little part for him. We had some other Groundlings in it though. John Paragon is the gas station attendant who gets blown up because he’s smoking, and Lynn Stewart, who was Ms. Yvonne in PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE, plays the waitress who, when I order a Bloody Mary, she asks if I want a virgin, and I say, “well maybe, but I’ll have the drink first.” But yeah there’s like a dozen Groundlings walking around that movie. Luckily I did get a part in his movie though.
DG: Yeah you’re the biker chick in the bar who says something like “I get him first” or something right?
CP: Wow, that’s great! Yeah that’s me. A lot of people don’t know that’s me, but yeah, I got to live out every girl’s fantasy, to beat up Pee-Wee.
DG: So MISTRESS OF THE DARK is a really cool film. I think the writing is really smart, especially the way you still work in the little tributes to the films you highlight on your show. Did you have much control of the material?
CP: Yeah I wrote that with John Paragon again and Sam Egan. We just kind of locked ourselves in an office every day and came up with the script and jokes. I would say Sam was kind of the structure guy, it kind of kept John and I from going crazy. John was the joke guy, and I kind of went back and forth from structure to jokes. Kind of right in the middle. It was just a fantastic collaboration. I think it is really brilliant writing too. I know a lot would disagree, but it does have a kind of classic thing. I based the movie, believe it or not, on THE WIZARD OF OZ. There is a scene at the end that they cut that was really similar to Dorothy’s little speech about there’s no place like home. I say something like, “and in the end, you find that your backyard is right behind your house.” Kind of a dorky moment, but that was cut out because of time. There were a lot of things cut out though because of time, and a lot of things added that we didn’t have in the script. One of the things that still bugs me a lot is that there isn’t any character development in the film. The teenagers were an add-on — it was something that NBC wanted. They said that teenagers would only go see the movie if teenagers were in the movie. I guess they forgot about ALIENS, and you know, you could name a thousand movies that don’t have teenagers in them that teenagers go see. Anyway, the teenagers were worked in so everybody got less screen time to fit them in. I like the teenagers in there but they were an add-on.
DG: So was it originally kind of a darker film or a little raunchier?
CP: No not really, it was always at kind of the same level. We knew going in that it was a PG-13 so we knew where we could go with it. The part that we had a HUGE fight about was the part with the tassel twirling at the end. I remember going into Brandon Tartikoff’s office and just pleading, crying and sobbing to please let us do that scene because we had wrapped the movie, it was over. Done. I don’t know how but we were able to go back and shoot that. It cost another crap-load of money. I think when we did that scene I had a fever of 103 or 104. I had the flu but I was going to do that scene.
DG: Good thing they did, that’s kind of a classic scene now.
CP: It really is you know? It’s one of those few talents I have that I really like showing off. I’ve been able to do that since I was like 14. When kids were sneaking out, I was practicing twirling tassels.
DG: I can do the same thing, but nobody seems to care. How cool is it to have Movie Macabre back on the air? I just found it a few months ago. I was up late and I was watching a flick that had ended, it was like 1:30 and boom there you were.
CP: Oh that’s cool, best kept secret in Hollywood I call it.
DG: What’s it like to have that back?
CP: It’s fantastic. That’s what I have really wanted to do for the past twenty years when I have been working in between. I have been doing some television and some films, but I just really love these movies, they’re my first love. Unfortunately, we made 26 of these and 20 have shown, but September 17th , my birthday, is the last show that’s going to air on TV but I plan on making more of them one way or another. The good news is that they are out on DVD and they will be coming out every other month for the next few months and there will be 6 that never aired on TV so people need to go to www.elvira.com and find out where to get’em. It’s kind of cool cause there’s no censor and nobody telling me how to do it so I can make them a little edgier, definitely better than the ones I did a million years ago.
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DG: Do you have anything else coming out as either yourself or as Elvira?
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CP: Yeah we have a new version of HAUNTED HILLS that is coming out in October, and that’s going to be really cool because there’s a bunch of bonus material that I just filmed with some other actors from the film. I also have a social network game that I am working on, and Elvira wine coming out this October which is cool.
DG: Anything you want to tell the fans before we blow this joint?
CP: Yes, I want you to LIKE me on Facebook. My page disappeared so I am going from the 500,000 fans to back at the bottom, so please go to the official Elvira page and LIKE me. Also www.elvira.com has all kinds of cool junk: pictures, trivia, and all kinds of stuff. I will also be over in Lexington, KY in a couple weeks at Scarefest IV.
DG: Perfect. I think we got it, thanks again so much for hanging out with us.
Cool as hell, right!?! Thanks again to Cassandra for hanging out with us. While we wait for the next chance to talk to her, hit up the links she mentioned and show her how much the bastards dig her:
And be sure to check your local listings and set your DVRs for the last MOVIE MACABRE this Saturday!
This interview was originally published on Daily Grindhouse in September of last year.
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