When writer and filmmaker R.H. Greene began working on his documentary devotional to the late Maila Nurmi, there was not a lot of footage of Nurmi in character as iconic goth cutup Vampira. Because of the nature of 1950s live TV, KABC’s legendary The Vampira Show—a Saturday-night subversion hosted by a cheeky freak—is mostly lost to history, and with it the performances of an extraordinary figure who invented the horror-host genre and offered her viewers a new position from which to mock the American mainstream. Nurmi and Vampira, though appearing only in L.A. and only from 1954 to 1955, became national sensations. Then, like many of our greatest oddballs, they were nudged out of history and replaced by imitators. Greene, who grew close to Nurmi after first interviewing her in 1994, set out to locate additional material and tell Nurmi’s story in full, restoring a kinescope recording of Vampira in action as well as a seemingly unsalvageable reel-to-reel interview with the inventive, unorthodox Nurmi, an outsider so ahead of her time that she was amused by the awfulness of Plan 9 From Outer Space before it was even in the can—before she’d even left the set. Greene talks about Nurmi’s beatnik past, her punk recordings, her insurrectionist spirit, her close friendship with James Dean, and her use of ingredients found in meat tenderizer to whittle Vampira’s waist down to a ghoulish nothing and truly freak out the squares. Vampira and Me will have its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. This interview by Rin Kelly.
That great shriek at the beginning of every Vampira show, and then her haughty post-coital looseness afterward—was Maila Nurmi acting out a weekly TV orgasm during America’s squarest decade?
Not only was she doing that, but if you were to watch the documentary that I made that I used a piece of the interview in—which is called Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies—you can get her saying that directly. It’s a very funny quote—it’s one thing that I loved that I did not put in this movie because I felt like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna leave that as a little nugget in Schlock! for people to find because it belongs there.’ There’s plenty of great stuff—it’s a Mailafest in the new film. Not only does she say it and enact an orgasm as she says it but she says that she was trying to imply it in a ladylike manner.
She really was an inversion of the passive sex kitten. Very cool and imperious, and easily the first undead orgasm on live television.
She was very much a woman, emotionally as well as creatively, at odds with the limits that were placed on the women in that era. I think that’s very much an important aspect of what the film is trying to show.
What was her L.A. like back in those days? Were other people that she was around as knowing as she was about the constraints of the culture she lived in?
In Maila’s case I think what basically happened is that her tribe always recognized her when they met her. And fell in love at first sight. So no, there weren’t a lot of people who saw the world the way that Maila did. That’s why she’s an important pioneer. At the same time, there were a handful. They were fellow travelers. You’re talking about a woman who was close friends with James Dean, who was probably Marlon Brando’s lover, who had a date with Elvis, as you’ll see in the movie. You don’t collect that particular agglomeration of people unless you yourself are one of that tribe. It’s easy to think now, ‘Wow, she was with all those guys. Great.’ Every single one of those people was considered a dangerous, radical turning point in American culture. And Maila was present in the creation and part of the creation. So there was a select number that increased astronomically. There’s a point that you’ll see in the interview with Maila where she talks about how she and James Dean were lonely soldiers, and they recognized each other. And I’d say within a very short time there would be a million soldiers in that army—there’d be millions and millions of soldiers in that army. And she says, ‘Yeah,’ and then she qualifies it about the selectness of the relationship she had with Dean. I think in the moment that she was in with Dean, that’s the way that the whole world felt. ‘There’s so few of us, over here, and then this big smiley face on American culture. This big rah-rah go get success thing. This thing that tells us what we have to be.’ This sort of grim normalcy inflicted on the whole world, which is how it actually felt to Maila. ‘We stand against that. And we need to find each other.’
Did Nurmi really think she and James Dean were from planets other than Earth, or was that her metaphorical way of addressing their shared alienation on this particular planet?
You put your finger on the part of the movie that until well into the process made me cry every time I watched it. Because Maila says something so profound about herself there: ‘Hi stranger, I know how you feel—this isn’t your planet.’ I think the metaphor comes from the fact that Dean’s favorite book was The Little Prince, which is something that someone who was close to him like Maila would have known. But it’s the secret of their attraction to each other—which was not sexual—it’s the secret of the way that they bonded and it may be the secret of why they came apart, too. They really were alienated. How can you say it any better than she said it there? They were alienated from the place and the time they were in, and unaware of the fact that the place and the time they were from was something that they were bringing into being.
You’ve said that Nurmi wasn’t just in on the joke, she invented the joke. What exactly did she invent?
What I meant by that is that the audience that found Plan 9 From Outer Space, a great deal of the energy behind that film’s cult status is based on the idea that it’s terrible. In other words, the audience is standing at an ironic distance to this exploitative piece of popular culture. And the interesting thing is that Maila, prior to that, with her television show, was already carving out the space that that audience is standing in when they feel that way about Plan 9. Maila, by coming on the air and making postmodern jokes about the films she was showing, and about the allegedly domestic situation that Vampira inhabited and so forth, she was anticipating hipster irony—which is exactly what fuels the boom for Plan 9. Maila’s in on the joke. Bela Lugosi’s not in on the joke. Bela Lugosi’s working with his friend Eddie. Tor Johnson is not in on the joke. Tor Johnson is working with his friend Eddie. This is why when you hear Maila talk about Plan 9 From Outer Space, she knows it’s a bad movie. She knew going in it’s a bad movie. It was just work in a point in her life when she needed it. So I think we now live in a time where everybody’s cool, everybody’s ironic, everybody’s, you know, standing at a distance. You can go on YouTube and watch a million erotic videos to demonstrate this—people are deconstructing popular culture. And certainly to watch a film like Plan 9, which was made quite sincerely by Ed Wood, and to say ‘It’s great because it’s terrible’ is to not embrace the filmmaker’s perspective—it’s to stand in a different place. I would argue that Maila may be the person who literally carved out that space. She’s certainly one of the earliest people who recognized that it existed and started to map the terrain.
Why does America always abandon its path-forging, self-declared freaks? Nurmi isn’t the only visionary to end up penniless in a culture dead set on forgetting her.
But did it forget her? That would be my question. It didn’t forget her. It’s pretty interesting to think that someone like Maila—if you go online, I encourage you to try an experiment. Go online and google, say, Jack Benny and see how many hits you get, how many references you get. And then google Vampira. Jack Benny was one of the biggest figures in show business in her time. He is mentioned, in our time, far less frequently than Maila Nurmi. She’s buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, surrounded by A-list personalities. When I went over to Hollywood Forever Cemetery to visit with Maila, and hadn’t been there for a while—it’s a very small stone—and asked them for directions, I just happened to ask the girl behind the counter, ‘By the way, do people visit Maila’s grave?’ And she said she’s one of their most popular gravesites. So from the place where she stood—yeah, she doesn’t have some gigantic copyright-generating, computer-based behemoth in Hollywood churning out obligatory A&E bio pieces on her, but that just makes her cooler. And that just makes people care about her more, I think. Nobody was making punk songs about too many of her contemporaries in the 70s and 80s, but the Misfits did. The Damned did. And there’ll be a surprise in that area when you see the documentary as well.
You have a new song?
I’m going to be mysterious. Or should I tell you about it?
This is a music magazine!
Since you’re a music magazine, I’ll tell you everything. This is a sequence I just finished, and I’m very excited about it, because it’s new—you get very excited about the new stuff. Maila fronted a punk band for two singles in the 1980s. With Satan’s Cheerleaders. They were really hard to find. It’s interesting enough that Maila fronted a punk band for two singles in the 1980s—and by the way, Maila did not like punk music at all. But the punk scene really liked Maila, and Maila liked outsiders. She was a beat in the 50s, and then in the 70s you find her really becoming—insofar as she was capable of doing it, because she was a bit of a recluse—really becoming a semi-fixture in the punk scene here in Los Angeles. So a friend of hers named Jeff Satan, now Jane Satan, comes and talks to her … [Maila] mentions that she wishes that she could have had a novelty song in the era when she was popular, because people used to do things like that. And he says, ‘Why don’t you record with us?’ She goes into the studio, they punch out four records in like eight hours, and you know what? They slam. They’re absolutely fantastic. And it was very hard to do, but I went and found Satan’s Cheerleaders. Fortunately for me, 25 years on they’re still together. It’s a two-man band. An interesting combination—no bass, just guitar and drums. And I shot a video of them performing as a sort of re-enactment-slash-scratch track that I could put the song into the movie. And it’s in there.
So she regularly went to punk shows?
She didn’t like punk music. But she liked punks. She was a beat. You’ll see that in the film as well. She was a beat, a genuine beat—she went to the beat clubs. She performs to the rhythms of that. So in her head she didn’t hear this sort of on-the-ones piledriving sound. She heard a different sound. And the band actually talked to me—it’s not in the movie but the band actually talked to me about the difficulty that Maila had going in fours because she heard jazz, you know? But she liked punks. She liked these young kids who wanted to stand outside of this god of the normal that everybody seems to have really surrendered to in the past twenty years. And yes, she was part of the scene. She went to indie clubs sometimes. She wasn’t just part of the scene—she was, to them, truly a hero. They understood something that the movie, hopefully, communicates and I want it to communicate, which is that Maila is somebody who really carved out another piece of ground for the people who this isn’t enough for. This pay-your-mortgage, don’t rock the boat, don’t piss off the boss, get a raise kind of mentality isn’t enough for—she helped carve a space that they could stand on, and they were grateful to her for it. And they recognized it. And insofar as they could, they even tried to take care of her a little bit.
Would Siouxsie Sioux be wearing pastels right now if not for Maila Nurmi?
I don’t know about pastels, but the goth scene certainly descends to us from Maila because again there’s that self-awareness. You can find monsters before that. You can look at those old Universal horror films, which are terrific. You can go back to Nosferatu. But the difference is … their tongue is not in their cheek. They’re not self-aware. They’re not letting you in on the joke. A goth who walks around in a supermarket dressed as a goth is a performance artist, and so was Maila. This space is one that Maila made, that millions of people rushed into. But it was costly to make it then, it was costly to make it in the Eisenhower era.
She even invented a waist-slimming cream by researching meat tenderizer!
The important thing about that is that it’s literally body sculpting. The great American dream is to completely re-invent yourself and find love and success and all the rest of it, and Maila didn’t embrace that dream the way everybody else did, but she lived it. She literally reinvented herself. She physically reinvented herself. She changed herself into something. I think that’s an absolutely incredible, incredible thing.
Just the creativity it took to sit down and think, ‘Well, meat tenderizer works by breaking down proteins. What could I do? What could I put on my body that would make this a more striking and unreal character?’ I don’t think most people would go that far.
I have a daughter now. She was born the same year I started working on this film, and the film is dedicated to her. The dedication reads, ‘For Angela, in the hope, belief and expectation that you will find your own vocabulary for freedom.’ I adore my daughter. She’s a great blessing and a great gift, and she’s far too young to watch this film because there are some disturbing things that happened to Maila in her life. But I hope that one day she’ll look at this film and find some runes and some clues about what freedom is. And what it sometimes costs.
VAMPIRA AND ME ON SAT., JUNE 23 AT 7:30 PM AT REGAL CINEMAS L.A. LIVE, 800 W. OLYMPIC BLVD, DOWNTOWN. $13 / ALL AGES. LAFILMFEST.COM.