Vampira was a legendary television figure in the Los Angeles area of the United States in the 1950’s. She also achieved worldwide notoriety as one of the “ghouls” in the infamous Ed Wood film Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
But who was this mysterious woman in black? Below is my interview with Sandra Niemi, author of a fantastic book entitled Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi. As you can see from our chit-chat, Vampira lived a fascinating and, at times, tragic life beyond the limelight.
Thank you, Sandra, for your time!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Sandra Niemi and my father and Maila were siblings. I was an only child and I’m the mother of one daughter and grandmother of two. I am 74 years old and graduated from Oregon State University with a B.A. in English in 1969. I’m an avid reader, I like to crochet, travel and drive. I’m a big animal lover.
How did you become interested in the story of Maila Nurmi? She was a relative of yours, wasn’t she?
I had a lifelong interest in my aunt, Maila Nurmi. But since she lived far away in Hollywood I rarely saw her. Finally, in 1989, I was able to locate her and met her for the first time as an adult. We shared a great week together. I had one of the best times of my life. When I heard she’d died, I knew I had to get to Hollywood to take care of her remains as I was the only family she had left. Once I entered her apartment and saw she was a prolific writer, I knew I had to save every scrap of paper with her writing on it. Only this way, would I ever know the life she had led.
In your own words: who was Maila Nurmi? What was she famous for?
Maila Nurmi is best known as Vampira, a character she created in March, 1954. 68 years later, she still has legions of fans. Maila was the pioneer of the Goth movement and the first television horror host. As her niece, when I see Vampira, she is simply my Aunt Maila in a black dress and wig.
What was her life like before becoming Vampira? What was her family like?
Maila was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Her parents were both full-blooded Finns. Her father was a newspaper editor, a prominent orator and one who preached the evils of alcohol. Her mother was an alcoholic. From that strange combination, Maila was reared. As a child, she suffered from near starvation through the Great Depression. Out of that, an extremely creative mind was born.
What drove her to go to Hollywood and become famous?
Maila sought freedom above all else. She wanted the freedom to express herself as she wished without fear of ridicule. Her parents hoped their daughter twould choose a traditional life as wife and mother. Nothing was further from Maila’s thoughts. She needed to surround herself with creative individuals like herself. Small towns did not offer that kind of life.
What kinds of projects did she work on while there?
Maila modeled hats in print ads. A pretty face will sell a hat. In New York City, she was a reporter for the Hobo News. She was in a Mae West play on Broadway and the first. female, hotel bellhop. Back in Hollywood she did turns as a cigarette girl, a dancer and a cheesecake model. She never appeared in less than a bikini but achieved the status of cover girl. She acted in 4 B movies as well as Ed Wood’s Plan 9. She also worked with pianist and entertainer, Liberace, in Las Vegas. Later in life, she worked at more mundane jobs; seamstress, house cleaner, and purveyor of old clothes and junk.
Where did the “Vampira” character come from? How did she come up with it?
KABC, a Los Angeles television station brought Maila in and wanted her to bring Charles Addams’ morbid female character to life to host a horror show on late night programming. The character was unnamed at that time and existed only as a cartoon in a strip called the Homebodies. The strip was the creation of Charles Addams and appeared in the New Yorker magazine. Maila said she wouldn’t infringe upon Addams creation so KABC told her to come up with something else. Maila asked herself what people were interested in and came up with ‘sex, death and taxes.’ So she sexed up the character who delighted in death and darkness and called her Vampira. The taxes? She said she’d leave that to the Republicans.
She acted in Ed Wood’s notorious film Plan 9 from Outer Space. How did she end up in the film? What was that experience like for her?
Maila always said she would never do anything with Ed Wood as to do so would kill anyone’s career. Wood was considered a joke in Hollywood. But Maila was completely broke and finally accepted $200 to appear in Ed Wood’s film. But she asked to remain mute as the dialogue assigned to her character was too mindless and ignorant to speak. That request was granted so Maila appears mute throughout the film. Maila did not enjoy working for Wood but said that he was ‘very, very, pretty.’
What other films was she in? Were they good?
Maila appeared briefly in the films The Beat Generation, The Big Operator, Sex Kittens Go to College, the Magic Sword and Plan 9 from Outer Space. They were all considered B movies and not widely distributed.
She also made appearances in TV shows like the Red Skelton Show. Tell us a bit about these appearances!
Maila appeared on the Red Skelton Show in June, 1955. My family did not own a television yet but some friends of my parents did and invited us over to watch Maila on T.V. I was 7 years old and my grandmother, Maila’s mother, was with us. The reception wasn’t good but we watched.
Afterwards, I asked where my Aunt Maila was and was told she was the lady in the black dress and hair. I thought she was a witch and was sorely disappointed. The Aunt Maila I knew was blond and beautiful. During her career as Vampira, Maila appeared on a few game shows and on the George Gobel show which, at the time, was the most watched television show in America. She also appeared on a TV show called Queen for a Day. Her mother was in the audience and was the first and only time she saw her daughter perform as Vampira.
After her entertainment career, what was her life like? You write beautifully in your book about her life out of the limelight.
After the fame of Vampira was over, Maila fell into poverty. However, whenever she made headlines in the press, she was never referred to as Maila Nurmi but as Vampira. She tried to rid herself of the image, to no avail. Finally, she moved further east in Hollywood and became a recluse. At 46, she acquired the auto-immune disease, pernicious anemia, which caused her to walk with a cane for the rest of her life. Later on, she cleaned houses in order to pay rent and buy food. Life was not easy.
Did Maila dream of doing something that she never got to do? Career dreams that were never realized?
Maila wanted to be an advocate for abandoned, neglected and abused animals. At one time she thought if she performed as a nun in an all lavender habit and called herself Sister Saint Frances, she could gain a following to make money to invest in the animals. The dream never came to fruition.
She was an icon, especially in horror genre circles and people who consider themselves “goth”. Was she comfortable with this status in her later years?
Maila tried for years to shed the Vampira character and then in the late 70’s, the Punks invaded Los Angeles and Maila found ‘her people’ again. People who were rebels and outcasts like she was. An interest in Vampira began to form once again and Maila embraced it. When the movie Ed Wood came out in the 90’s, Maila again was in demand and it resurrected her consciousness and she became more active and happy.
What were her final years like? You write in your book that she struggled financially.
Maila struggled mightily to pay rent and buy food. She always had a dog and cat and worried that she couldn’t afford to feed them so often went without food herself to feed her pets. People started leaving food for her on her doorstep. She could no longer work with her pernicious anemia. She opened a junk store in the front of her apartment to survive.
Gradually, she met friends who were capable of helping her out financially and then the internet came into being and she was able to sell her art work on line which helped immensely.
Where is she buried? Do fans still visit her grave?
Maila is buried at Hollywood Forever, a cemetery established in 1899. This is also where Hollywood legends Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Cecil B. DeMille, among others, are buried. It was where Maila wanted to be. I have been told that Maila’s gravesite is the most visited.
Tell us about your book! How did you research it? How long was the process of writing it?
I began writing Glamour Ghoul in 2008 and didn’t finish it until 2019. It took almost 12 years. I was plagued by self doubt. I was 72 years old and had never written anything other than a few letters to the editor in my local newspaper. In college, I always enjoyed writing but after I graduated, real life got in the way of any aspirations I had. Then, Maila passed away and I discovered all her written notes, letters, diaries, personal thoughts she’d jotted down. It was sad. Here was a life unfinished. She always wanted to tell her story to the world but time ran out for her and I knew I was the only person who could make her wishes a reality. Nearly eleven years later, it came to fruition. But only because I had just found Maila’s son, David Putter. I believe Maila had her hand in the whole process. I can almost hear her say ‘my story is not complete without mentioning my son.’ Two weeks after that wonderful surprise of meeting David, Glamour Ghoul was finished and picked up by Feral House.
What are you currently working on?
I’m not working on anything. At 75, Glamour Ghoul may have been a ‘one and done thing.’ I do have an idea of a fictional book based upon a woman who was famous in Hollywood for 5 minutes and was ripped off of her creation……sound familiar? But I haven’t really worked on the idea.
Is there anything you’d like to add that I forgot to ask about?
No. You asked great questions and ones that I enjoyed answering.
And, finally, my regular questions.
Your top 3 movies?
Trading Places (1984) Dan Akryoyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), with Brad Pitt and Leonard DiCaprio
Singing in the Rain (1952), with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds
Your top 3 books?
Anything written by Carl Hiaasen, John Sanford or John Grisham.
Your top 3 albums?
Sadly, I don’t listen to music. Don’t own a stereo or radio but I love American music from the middle 1960’s and 1970’s. I also love John Philip Sousa march music. His Stars and Stripes Forever makes my heart sing.