In 1981, Los Angeles TV station KHJ-TV was in the market for a horror host program. Although they had success with Fright Night in the past, its host Seymour (played by Larry Vincent) had passed away in 1975. Then someone got the idea to revive the program that started off the horror host boom: The Vampira Show (perhaps due to her reprising the role in a comedic horror short called Bungalow Invader). Although Maila Nurmi liked the idea, it was decided that a new actress should play Vampira. So she recommended Lola Falana for the role.
Loletha Elayne Falana was born in Camden, New Jersey in 1942 (but spent most of her early years in Philadelphia). Displaying a talent for both singing and dancing at a young age, she ran away from home as a teenager in order to become a star. Initially given a break as a dancer by none other than Dinah Washington, her dancing career took off when she was noticed by Sammy Davis Jr. while dancing in Atlantic City. Casting her in his 1964 stage musical Golden Boy was their first of many performances together. Davis also got her a role in the movie A Man Called Adam two years later. After amicably parting ways with Davis in 1969, Lola Falana made numerous film and television appearances and eventually went back to the stage. This led to her becoming the face of “Tigress” perfume (which made her the first African-American spokeswoman for cosmetics), a television special and numerous nightclub appearances. She soon became known as the “First Lady of Las Vegas” due to her countless sold-out shows and for being the highest-paid female entertainer in Las Vegas. Naturally, she got some award nominations along the way.
Given her beauty and her various performing talents, it’s no wonder why the original Vampira chose her as a replacement. Sadly, not everyone was as excited about the idea as Maila Nurmi. Rather than hire Falana, the producers apparently went behind her back and put out a casting call for new talent! The winner was one Cassandra Peterson. In the 2006 documentary Vampira: The Movie, she discussed how she was told she would be playing Vampira and Maila Nurmi claimed Peterson was present one day when she was called in to sign some paperwork. When she learned what happened, Nurmi quit the project and took the right to use the name “Vampira” with her. But it seems as if the desire to do a Vampira show remained, as the costume Cassandra Peterson had pitched (a gauzy pink dress inspired by Sharon Tate’s outfit in The Fearless Vampire Killers, a look what would have let Peterson utilize her natural red hair) was rejected in favor of her wearing a black dress and wig. They also vetoed her plans of wearing white facial makeup with black bags under her eyes. Even the name chosen for the new character, “Elvira,” seems similar. It should be noted how the name was randomly picked out of a coffee can containing several last minute suggestions for a new name. That said, the inclusion of a name ending in “-ira” does make one wonder. Movie Macabre hit the airwaves in 1981 and Elvira quickly became a pop culture icon. Not only that, but she ended up replacing Seymour as the host of Knott’s Scary Farm. Nurmi filed an ultimately failed lawsuit in 1989 and the rest is history.
Although I’m a fan of Elvira and am happy that the character has brought much success for Cassandra Peterson over the years, I still think it’s unfortunate that Nurmi’s original idea fell through and it took until 1995 for the first African-American horror host to appear. That’s when comedian John Dimes created the character Dr. Sarcofiguyeventually recovered, relapses are still an issue. As a result, she rarely performs and instead focuses on religious charity work. Thankfully, this video from 2009 seems to indicate that she’s currently in good health.