Speak Your Mind

Elvira's Haunted Hills (2001)

An Interview with Cassandra "Elvira" Petersen by Riki Markowitz

Photos: Bob Menasian

Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson

On one of the first cool days at the end of a scorching summer, Hollywood Outsider was offered the chance to meet and interview a woman who began her career as a dancer in Las Vegas more than three decades ago; someone whose marriage is in its geriatric years compared to her thespian colleagues, and whose talent combines the best and worst of vaudeville, camp and excessive absurdity. Her given name is Cassandra Peterson, but the rest of us know her as the "Mistress of the Dark", Elvira.

On this day, the day after September 11th, 2003, Peterson was in town to show and hopefully find distribution for her latest project, Elvira’s Haunted Hills . Yet, unfittingly, she arrived to the interview on time, polite, cooperative, out of costume and, most unusually, wearing colors fit for spring. I mention this only because I never expected that the woman who is the true alter ego of Elvira, the dark’s most popular mistress, would wear anything other than black. Not that she was wholly free of the anti-color that has become her trademark. Peterson’s nails were done in manicured midnight, because, as she explained, she grew tired of painting and stripping her nails on a nearly daily basis. But other than this one feature—which may resemble claws when she’s donning the full Elvira regalia—looked to be ordinarily, well-groomed manicured nails with black nail lacquer.

As we spoke in a quiet pocket of Central Park, teens, tourists and locals passed by with wandering eyes. Their gaze spoke of a curiosity about this woman. I thought she bore a striking resemblance to Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, one hotel concierge suggested Cynthia Nixon from Sex and the City . But one thing was very clear, no one, not even the actors dressed as whores and tramps at the restaurant Jekyll and Hyde, knew that this fair, redheaded and cutely freckled woman was the same buxom, black tressed mistress, Elvira.


RIKI: You're dressed like Cassandra. Do you do all of your interviews dressed as Cassandra?

CASSANDRA: I used to do them more as Elvira but I found that when I did, I had to plan them out more. They had to be more scripted, more jokey, I had to be in character the whole time. Interviewers kept asking things like, "Where were you born? I heard that you're married?" I would say, "No, no, no, no. I don't think so." When I’m like this I can talk about anything.

RIKI: Did you study as an actress before Elvira?

CASSANDRA: I started out as a showgirl in Las Vegas when I was 17. From there, I went to Italy for several years to sing in a band, then I came back to the states and had a band here. Finally I got into acting in LA and I went on auditions and got little parts for television shows like Happy Days.

RIKI: Tell me about getting Elvira.


CASSANDRA: I went on a typical audition in L.A., it was for a horror-hosting job for a local television station in Hollywood. At the time, I was with a comedy improv group called The Groundlings. So I went in and improvised and they liked it and hired me and said I have to come up with some kind of kooky outfit. My best friend from my singing act, who happened to be an artist, drew a picture of what I should look like. And we had everything made, the wig and makeup...

RIKI: And "the hills"?

CASSANDRA: "The hills." Yeah, well the hills have always been with me.

RIKI: Did you ever think you would be Elvira for 20 years?

CASSANDRA: Oh, god no, I thought I was going to be Elvira for 20 days. I was making 200 bucks a week and I was like, "Yippee! I can pay my rent!"

RIKI: Looking back now, do you think, "How did this happen?"

CASSANDRA: I do, it's 20 years later and I don't think about it that often anymore. I'm lucky. A typical acting career, when someone is having luck with it, lasts five. Mine has been going on 21 years. Wow, I can't believe it's still going on.

RIKI: When I think about your career, I think about actors that were in hit sitcoms like Gilligan's Island and Leave it to Beaver; actors who are stereotyped early in their career and just wanted to move on with their lives. But it seems like you're still enjoying your early success.

CASSANDRA: I enjoy what I do because I get paid more than they did. I own the character. All the other people, like The Monkeys, worked for networks that owned the rights so when they would go out and do appearances and merchandising, the money goes to the network. With me it's really like a little business. The money goes to us, my husband and I; We're business partners. So whatever projects we do, we make the money. That's what keeps you going. If you feel like you found this little cottage industry, you have to sit with it because it's doing really well for you, so why do something else?

RIKI: How do you own the character?

CASSANDRA: When I went on the audition it was just a job for hire. As time went on I asked for a raise, but they wouldn't give it to me. They told me they would give me the rights so I could have a fan club. Then another year went on and they didn't raise the money so they said they would give me the rights so I could do other television shows and other appearances. And then my husband, who became my manager, started asking for more and more rights until one day they discovered that they had given all the rights away and we owned them all. It was a good thing, because I was still making lousy money so I didn't feel guilty at all that I had all the rights. I was doing a lot of work, the show was very popular, I was making $200-$300 bucks a week. We had all the rights, very soon after the station went under. Elvira would have gone down with the station. We were able to carry on with it.

RIKI: When did you meet your husband?

CASSANDRA: He was a struggling musician and we got married right before I got Elvira.

RIKI: He was there from the beginning?


CASSANDRA: We were on our honeymoon when I heard about the audition. He was going out and getting music gigs. After I got Elvira we got several calls from people asking, "Would you come to my supermarket opening?" or "Would you come to my Halloween party?" And he said, "Hey, you know, we could charge $100 and you could go there." I was like, "Oh my god!" We started getting so many appearance requests that we raised the money and he started managing it. Luckily he had gone to college and got a degree in business, so he started taking over that end of it. That's what he's been doing ever since.

RIKI: You're his boss? He's your husband and you're his boss, technically.

CASSANDRA: In a way, yeah. We both think we're the boss. There's a lot of head butting going on.

RIKI: What is your house like?

CASSANDRA: We had the Addams Family-thing going on for several years. For maybe the first ten years we lived in a very big, old 1910 mansion. And now we try to get as far away from that as we can. Now our house looks more like Leave it to Beaver.

RIKI: Are you ever recognized?

CASSANDRA: I am rarely recognized anywhere, ever. It is so infrequent when I am, especially here in New York when they're not expecting me, sometimes in L.A. once in a while, in Hollywood.

RIKI: Is that a good thing?

CASSANDRA: That's a great thing. I love it. I have a normal life, I can run around, I don't have to dress up and look good when I go places. I have a daughter and she can live a normal life because she isn't thinking her mommy's a freak.

RIKI: Do you ever host old campy horror movies anymore?

CASSANDRA: Unfortunately the Horror House thing is kind of dead. When I grew up Horror House was in every city. The reason Horror House isn't happening, the reason Elvira's not happening, is getting a hold of those movies has become prohibitively expensive. All the big conglomerates have bought up all those films and they're pretty much impossible to get. When I was doing it they were giving the damn things away.

RIKI: I hate horror movies.


RIKI: Really?

CASSANDRA: No, not really.

RIKI: My friend's dad is a pig farmer in central Pennsylvania and he's a big fan.

CASSANDRA: Oh, I have so many fans who are pig farmers.

RIKI: What is your fan base like?

CASSANDRA: I have an inordinate amount of prison inmates writing to me. And a lot of bikers getting my name tattooed on their arm. I was just in Vegas promoting my new slot machine and there was this huge line of people getting autographs. It was very weird, it was like 90% little old ladies.

RIKI: My friend's dad also named one of his dogs Elvira.

CASSANDRA: I'm flattered when people name dogs after me. I think they're better than humans.

RIKI: When was your movie first conceived?

Haunted Hills\

CASSANDRA: Two years ago we came up with this idea. We've been pitching movies ever since my last movie in '89. So I wrote a script, sold one, the company went bankrupt. Wrote another movie, pitched it, pitched it, pitched it, sold it, they changed heads of the studio before it got into production. Wrote another movie… that's how Hollywood is. You're always pitching, you're up against a hundred thousand other movies and projects and they don't just give their money to anybody. And years were going by. So finally we said, "If we're going to make a movie, we'll just have to do it ourselves," just like I've done everything else. So we just got the money together, and we really took all the money we had, wherever we could get it. We filmed it in Romania because the cost of shooting a movie is so much lower. And they have wonderful craftsmen and brilliant actors and everything. Then we had to do a distribution deal. Found out if we did the distribution deal the money would all be gone. Bye-bye, money. Just like my first movie. I didn't see a penny from my first movie. And decided that we'll distribute it ourselves. One of the ways we've been doing that is by going around to AIDS charities, they keep all the money, and we get the publicity for the movie.

RIKI: Did you help write the movie?

CASSANDRA: Yes, I wrote the movie.

RIKI: What's the atmosphere like on an Elvira set?

CASSANDRA: When it was somebody else's money, shooting the movie was more fun. Then it was okay to be happy and have a good time. This time I was so serious. I hate to say it, but, it was so frightening because you know it's your money. If someone screws up, you're in Romania, you're in a foreign country, if anything goes wrong, if anyone gets sick, you couldn't get a completion bond, which means the movie is over. I was very sick during the filming with some kind of respiratory thing and we're out in 10-below weather and I'm wearing an Elvira dress with a string bikini. It was frightening, we had a deadline we had to get it done, and the money that is yours is hanging over your head. So it wasn't like the most fun atmosphere. It's not the word that stays in my mind when I think about it.

RIKI: Did the filming go smoothly?

CASSANDRA: I was working 18 hour days. I'm Elvira and I happened to have written myself into every single frame of the movie. I don't know why I did that. So I was there earlier than anybody, of course putting on all the makeup, and later than anybody and in between rewriting because I was the only writer there. And a lot of things changed during the filming because you couldn't get this or you couldn't get that in Romania. Like, I asked for a black cat, there were no black cats. I said, "go get a stuffed black cat toy." And they came back with a brown stuffed kangaroo. So, I was frantically writing, "Okay, how do you change a black cat into a brown kangaroo?"

RIKI: How old would you say Elvira is?

CASSANDRA: She's somewhere between 21 and death. In the first movie she was in present times and in this movie she's in 1851, and she's still the same age. I think Elvira works anywhere, anytime in history.

RIKI: Does Elvira have a good sex life?

CASSANDRA: Yes, she has a good sex life.

RIKI: Will she ever commit to anybody?

CASSANDRA: No, she's a female chauvinist. She just uses men. They're just meat to her. They're just studs.

RIKI: Do you think you're going to find somebody to take over Elvira eventually?

CASSANDRA: The other day my daughter was looking at my makeup and she goes, "Oh, this stuff is pretty cool. Maybe I will be Elvira when I grow up." So, who knows. She doesn't quite seem like the Elvira type. She's not interested in the kind of stuff I was when I was a kid. She’s smart and quiet. But, she might surprise me.

RIKI: Are you thinking about retiring?

Cassandra Peterson

CASSANDRA: No, I just think day to day. When someone asks when do I want to retire I go, what time is it now? So I'm just going forward day to day. But I actually think that the Elvira character can continue without me running around in drag doing the character because there are the slot machines and the pinball machines and the video games and the costume and the wigs and Elvira has a comic book so she can be a character like Superman or Dracula. Without a real actual person playing her. So, I don't think that will be a problem to keep her going.

RIKI: Has your husband ever cheated on you with Elvira?

CASSANDRA: No. I don't want him to screw up my makeup. And you're so uncomfortable in that outfit. You couldn't possibly have that much fun. You're just lucky to stay upright and walk.

RIKI: When you're Cassandra, you don't tell people you're Elvira.

CASSANDRA: No. That way I can overhear people making comments about me. I can eavesdrop. What do they think about Elvira?

RIKI: Everybody loves Elvira


Riki Markowitz -- copyright 2003

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