Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lady of Horrors / The Vampira Show (1954-1955)


KABC-TV, 1954-1955
Producer: Hunt Stromberg, Jr.
Director: Hap Weyman
Script: Peter Robinson
Cast: Maila Nurmi (Vampira)

Dangerous and alluring, the sexy femme fatale of the television network netherworld, Vampira, was TV's first female late night horror hostess, having only been preceded by her male counterpart from Chicago -- The Swami Drana Badour -- on Murder Before Midnight (1950-1953). The show premiered as Lady of Horrors, in which the likes of Vampira and the show's creepy format had never been done before on the West Coast and television home viewers quickly embraced the sultry seductress's package of late night thrillers. The landmark program was an instant success and was soon retitled The Vampira Show, continuing the ghoulish skits and antics of the wasp-waisted fright hostess as she introduced B horror and suspense thrillers every Saturday night on KABC-TV in Los Angeles, California.

Materializing from a long, dark corridor blanketed in thick billowing fog, the silent and gothic figure of Vampira would stroll right up to the camera and let out a bloodcurdling scream. Fully invigorated, the voluptuous ghoul in basic black would then quickly compose herself and, with a seductive and mischievous smile, inform us: "screaming relaxes me so." This was the intro that, from 1954-1955, television audiences thrilled to tune into every Saturday night.

After a necessary word or two from the sponsor, Fletcher Jones, which Vampira would occasionally ridicule, the glamour ghoul would ascend to her attic where she'd engage in a one-sided conversation with viewers on various macabre topics, especially her compulsion for murder, and introduce the movie of the night. Originally, the program was intended to be called Nightmare Attic, before it was changed to the less impressive Lady of Horrors for its debut. The setting of the attic was minimal and comfortable for Vampira: a Victorian couch adorned with skulls, a candlestick resting on a coffin-shaped table that read 'REST IN PEACE,' and a giant spiderweb in the backdrop. One may assume that the web was made by her pet black widow spider named Rollo. Often, during interruptions of the movie being shown, Vampira could be seen searching by candlelight for her elusive spider.

Vampira was not only television's first female horror host, she also deserves recognition for being one of the best. Her combination of dangerous persona and wickedly sarcastic wit has never been surpassed by any who have followed in her footsteps. Most horror hosts thereafter have taken a more blatant comedic spin on hosting their fright flicks, but Vampira truly was terrifying.

Vampira's sudden popularity and fast rise to fame are quite remarkable considering the times and what was currently airing on television when she first let out a piercing scream into people's living rooms. In 1954, when Lady of Horrors first aired locally in the greater Los Angeles area and its neighboring counties, middle-class home viewers had never seen anything like the horror dominatrix. It was an era when women were expected to concern themselves with raising families, maintaining house, and keeping up appearances. Vampira, however, rose from the the dark depths of swirling fog and led the fairer gender into a new generation of independence and self-expression, while their male counterparts drooled over the forbidden siren they could never possess.

The show was an instant success, albeit locally. But actress Maila Nurmi, who created and portrayed Vampira, quickly saw to it that the rest of America knew who she was. After the first episode aired, she personally called LIFE Magazine and demanded a publicity photo shoot. While the rest of the United States did not have the privilege of watching the local show for themselves, they were now reading about her and interest in the porcelain-skinned dame in black peaked rather quickly. In later years, her influence would continue to be felt as local television horror hosts began to sprout all over the U.S. like wild mushrooms. In 1958, singer-songwriter Bobby Bare recorded a single called "Vampira" that proclaimed her as his baby. Soon enough, the name Vampira found its way into many other horror novelty songs, often associating her as Dracula's wife.

Maila Nurmi worked hard at promoting her show. She rarely got much sleep as she interviewed live for evening shows like Al Janis' Hi-Jinx, and the nationally syndicated network show The Saturday Night Revue, then having to rush over to the KABC-TV studio set to do her own live show. As Vampira, she attended special events and appeared as a special guest in movie houses that were screening horror pictures. She cut ribbons at supermarket openings, drove around town in a hearse enticing people to watch her show Saturday evenings, and even signed autographs in graveyards. "I was everywhere. Like horseshit at the turn of the century," commented the vivacious Nurmi in the documentary Vampira: The Movie (2006). "You couldn't turn around.. there was Vampira."

After only six episodes, the show's name was changed from that of Lady of Horrors to The Vampira Show in order to capitalize on the popularity the character was achieving. All the effort Nurmi put into marketing the show was to secure a new contract for the second season and help fund a Vampira merchandise line. Sadly, neither would ever take fruit.

After a full season worth of episodes, 49 in all, that ran from 1954-1955 every Saturday night without faulting, the show found itself cancelled despite its popularity. Reportedly, the issue was that the station wanted to own the rights to the Vampira name, but Maila Nurmi refused to give it up and The Vampira Show was no more. In all actuality, it was Nurmi's first husband, screenwriter Dean Riesner (Play Misty for Me; Dirty Harry), who came up with the name. Nurmi, herself, designed the character's look and defined Vampira's persona.

On the night of April 2, 1955, Vampira was due to host her 50th episode of the season and introduce The Woman Who Came Back (1945) as the feature. However, due to the program's last-minute cancellation, the film was, instead, shown on KABC-TV's Nitecap Theater without a host. But Vampira wasn't through yet. The queen of late-night thrillers packed up her cobwebs and arsenic and moved into the KHJ-TV studio where she spooked television audiences all over again with her new show, simply entitled Vampira.

It's unfortunate for horror fans, but because both The Vampira Show and Vampira were aired live, no episodes from either program are believed to exist. However, a short kinescope was made to help promote The Vampira Show to potential advertisers. The footage is a re-shot skit from episode #17 (and possibly #5 as well), introducing the whodunit murder-mystery The 13th Guest. The historical segment was finally shown to the public in a documentary entitled About Sex, Death and Taxes (1995), which covered the lifespan of Maila Nurmi up to that point. In 2006, excerpts from the kinescope were included in Vampira: The Movie. The following year, the Vampira's Attic website began selling a beautifully restored version of the kinescope skit on a Vampira disc that also features the full-length movie The 13th Guest. Adding to the fun, the film is periodically interrupted with vintage Ed Wood, Jr. commercials that are both hilarious and bizarre. It's a horror collector's dream.

Several scripts of The Vampira Show are known to exist and be in the possession of private collectors. Nurmi has commented about how dreadful the scripts were for the first two episodes. Instead of hiring an actual scriptwriter, the producers at KABC-TV, unfortunately, gave the task to a resident pianist for the studio who had never written a script before. This problem would only prove temporary as struggling writer Peter Robinson, who had recently moved to Hollywood with his wife and children to pursue his career, saw the show and wrote an entire script for the Vampira character and submitted it. Robinson also included a cover letter that emphasized the show's need for a structured format. Upon reading Robinson's work, Nurmi was both delighted and thrilled. Robinson was immediately hired and demonstrated his skills beginning with episode #3 and lasting throughout the show's duration.

One particular contribution of Robinson's was a rhyme that may have been part of the #17 cocktail episode: "Here's to zombies, the living dead. May you find one beneath your bed. They live on blood and you should too. Hemoglobin is a drink for you. Trickle, trickle, trickle, trickle..." Other known skits involved Vampira conversing with ghosts, playing with Rollo the Spider, and a special guest star appearance by James Dean who played a 'naughty boy' that falls victim to the disciplinarian tactics of Vampira (dressed as a librarian). Whew! What a sight that must have been!


1. Dig Me Later, Vampira Vampira makes her debut as television's first horror host. Because the show's concept had never been done before, Vampira's first episode was meant to inform home viewers what to expect by providing a preview of horror, mystery, and suspense movies she would be hosting... and enticing everyone to tune in to the show every Saturday night. The show launched the horror hosting craze for many future generations, but very few were as wickedly sexy and frightening as Vampira -- the original Queen of the Horror Hosts. 4/30/1954

2. White Zombie (1932) After settling down in her attic, Vampira welcomes her viewers, "I hope you have been lucky enough to have had a horrible week;" and, for those who have ever attempted suicide, she devises a sinister hospital plan called The Yellow Cross. Also in this episode, Vampira informs us that the color of her long fingernails is 'hemorrhage red'.  5/1/1954

3. The Face of Marble (1946) "The Lady of Horrors will again welcome you to her eerie attic on KABC (7) at midnight to show you a movie called Face of Marble starring cadaverous John Carradine. The ghoulish glamour girl will get you watching if you don't watch out." 5/8/1954

4. Revenge of the Zombies (1943) Scott Warrington (Mauritz Hugo) and a hired detective (Robert Lowery) investigate the mysterious death of Scott's sister Lila (Veda Ann Borg) and discover that she and many others have been turned into zombies by a mad scientist (John Carradine) working for the Third Reich. The zombies, however, seek revenge against their creator. 5/15/1954

5. Fog Island (1945) Vampira offers us a foaming vampire cocktail "that will absolutely kill you." Later, Vampira goes on a quest to find her missing pet spider, Rollo. 5/22/1954

6. Condemned to Live (1948) A pregnant woman is bitten by a vampire bat in Africa. Years later, her son, Paul Kristan (Ralph Morgan), grows up to be a professor who starts having blackouts and commits a series of murders, terrorizing the locals in his village. 5/29/1954


7. Gog (1954) The mechanical monster Gog visits Vampira in her attic playroom at 11:00 P.M. on KABC (7); The show's name, Lady of Horrors, is changed to The Vampira Show due to all the positive attention and publicity Vampira has been receiving in such a short period of time. Although only aired locally, the show is featured in magazine and newspaper articles -- LIFE Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, TV Guide, etc. -- reaching thousands of people all across the U.S. 6/5/1954

8. Devil Bat's Daughter (1946) Under the care and treatment of a shady psychiatrist named Dr. Elliott (Eddie Kane), Nina MacCarron (Rosemary La Planche) believes that her late father was a vampire and that he has taken possession of her... especially when she wakes up with blood on her hands and discovers a dead corpse. 6/12/1954

9. The Flying Serpent (1946) When archaeologist Andrew Forbes (George Zucco) discovers the legendary Quetzalcoatl, he accidentally brings about the death of his wife. Realizing he can use the vicious serpent creature of Aztec mythology to kill anyone of his choosing, Forbes seeks gruesome revenge on his enemies. 6/191954

10. The Mask of Diijon (1946) After being humiliated on stage, mad magician Diijon (Erich von Stroheim) employs hypnotism to exact his revenge and make others kill for him. Among his intended victims are his much younger wife (Jeanne Bates) and her former lover (William Wright). 6/26/1954

11. The Strange Mr. Gregory (1946) Master illusionist, Mr. Gregory (Edmund Lowe), falls for another magician's wife (Jean Rogers). Mr. Gregory fakes his own death and has the young man framed for his murder and places the married woman under his spell. 7/3/1954

12. The Man with Two Lives (1942) When a vicious criminal is sentenced to death in the electric chair, his evil soul takes over the body of recently dead Phillip Bennett (Edward Norris). Assuming leadership of his old criminal organization, the vengeful crime lord unleashes an all out gang-war upon the city. Marlo Dwyer and Frederick Burton also star. 7/10/1954

13. Corridor of Mirrors (1948) Beautiful Myfanwy Conway (Edana Romney) meets a stranger in London named Paul Mangin (Eric Portman) who seems to have a strange obsession with a portrait of a woman who looks very much like her. When Myfanwy's personality begins to change and resemble that of the woman in the portrait, it just may be that she and Paul are reincarnated lovers from a previous life. The problem is... Paul appears to have homicidal tendencies. 7/17/1954

14. Fear (1946) Out of anger and desperation, medical student Larry Crain (Peter Cookson) commits murder, but soon draws suspicion onto himself the more reckless he becomes. Featuring Warren William and Anne Gwynne. 7/24/1954

15. Rogue's Tavern (1936) Planning to elope, Jimmy Kelly (Wallace Ford) and Marjorie Burns (Barbara Pepper) check into a hotel room, but quickly discover that they are in the company of jewel smugglers and a mad killer that's on the loose. Also starring Joan Woodbury and Jack Mulhall. 7/31/1954

16. Dangerous Intruder (1945) Jenny (Veda Ann Borg) is an actress who has the misfortune of being struck down by a car while hitchhiking her way across the country. Surviving her ordeal, Jenny is taken in by the driver, Max Ducone (Charles Arnt), to recuperate. But Jenny's nightmare isn't over. Someone has murdered Mr. Ducone's wife in cold blood. 8/7/1954

17. The 13th Guest (a.k.a. Mystery of the 13th Guest) (1943) While lighting a cigarette from a candle wick, Vampira tells us why she doesn't rig the attic with electricity: "Everybody knows electricity is for chairs." 8/14/1954

18. Midnight Limited (1940) A mysterious figure known as The Phantom Robber has been pulling a series of robberies on a locomotive headed for Montreal. When Joan Marshall (Marjorie Reynolds) becomes the latest victim, she teams up with Detective Valentine Lennon (John King) to capture him. Unfortunately, The Phantom Robber soon resorts to murder. 8/21/1954

19. Bluebeard (1944) Siblings Lucille (Jean Parker) and Francine (Teala Loring) cross paths with a mad killer dubbed "Bluebeard," who has all of Paris in a grip of terror. John Carradine and Nils Asther also star. 8/28/1954

20. Missing Lady (1946) Lamont Cranston -- secretly the vigilante known as The Shadow (Kane Richmond) -- investigates a murder and a stolen jade statue that is referred to as the "missing lady." The Shadow, himself, becomes the prime suspect when his sleuthing only leads to more people being killed. Featuring George Chandler and James Flavin. 9/4/1954

21. Murder by Invitation (1941) In order to get their hands on rich Aunt Cassandra Hildegarde Denham's (Sarah Padden) fortune, greedy relatives attempt to have the old woman declared insane. Despite this, Aunt "Cassie" invites them all over to her estate. That's when the murders begin. Also starring Wallace Ford and Gavin Gordon. 9/11/1954

22. Red Dragon (1945) "Vampira, the amazing glamour-ghoul... take[s] a bath during the show. Naturally it'[s] a cauldron of fire fanned by gasoline." -- Long Beach Press-Telegram9/18/1954

23. The Missing Heiress (a.k.a. Dr. Morelle: The Case of the Missing Heiress) (1949) Poor Cynthia Mason (Jean Lodge). She was do to marry a struggling young author and inherit millions, but mysteriously disappears. Her friend, Miss Frayle (Julia Lang), happens to be the secretary of the great detective Dr. Morelle (Valentine Dyall). Both Miss Frayle and Dr. Morelle head to the creepy dark mansion to solve the case. 9/25/1954

24. The Missing Corpse (1945) Newspaper publisher Henry Kruger (J. Edward Bromberg) leaves the city and heads to his country home to do some hunting. Unfortunately, an unscrupulous rival publisher Andy McDonald (Paul Guilfoyle) turns up dead in the trunk of Henry's car. As more people get involved in the situation, the elusive body keeps turning up missing. 10/2/1954

25. The Fatal Hour (1940) San Francisco Police Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) calls in the famous sleuth James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff) to help solve murders in connection with a smuggling ring by the harbor. Also featuring Marjorie Reynolds and Charles Trowbridge. 10/9/1954

26. Phantom Killer (1942) Assistant D.A. Edward A. Clark (Dick Purcell) investigates several murders that all seem to lead back to a deaf-mute named John G. Harrison (John Hamilton). The crux of the dilemma is that Mr. Harrison is always seen by witnesses attending benefits at the time of the murders. 10/16/1954

27. The Shadow Returns (1946) Lamont Cranston (Kane Richmond), a.k.a The Shadow, gets a tip on a jewel smuggling racket, which, of course, leads to murder. Barbara Reed and Tom Dugan also star. 10/23/1954

28. King of the Zombies (1941) "Vampira, the dream ghoul [has] a special show for this Halloween with fun and games for her friends (?). Formaldehyde-and seek, bobbing for poison apples and other such games [are] played and refreshments [also] include suicider and Thirteen Up." -- Long Beach Independent10/30/1954

29. Doomed to Die (1940) When shipping magnate Cyrus B. Wentworth (Melvin Lang) is shot dead, the prime suspect turns out to be his daughter's fiance. But famous detective James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff) and meddling reporter Roberta Logan (Marjorie Reynolds) have their doubts as Mr. Wentworth had a lot of enemies. 11/6/1954

30. House of Mystery (1934) When Vampira has car trouble, Fletcher Jones tries to get her to trade in her vehicle for one of the sponsor's used models. Vampira refuses and wrecks her car on a fire hydrant. Grabbing her shredded umbrella, Vampira proceeds to hitchhike. 11/13/1954

31. My Brother's Keeper (1948) Two escaped convicts (Jack Warner and George Cole), that happen to be handcuffed to one another, escape and go on the lam. As the two fugitives try to ditch the police and the reporters that are hot on their tail, one of them ends up murdering a hunter that stumbles upon them. 11/20/1954

32. Dear Murderer (1947) "Vampira [takes] her flying hearse to Decadence Manor for a Thanksgiving dinner of young Tom Vulture. Rest of the dinner menu includes Sparkling Arsenic, Sour Potatoes, dressing of head crumbs and tid-bits of toes, crank-berry sauce and dead lettuce salad." -- Long Beach Independent11/27/1954

33. The Castle of Doom (a.k.a. Vampyr) (1932) When Allan Gray (Julian West) checks into an inn, he discovers he has also placed himself in grave danger as vampires terrorize the village of Courtempierre. Also starring Maurice Schutz and Sybille Schmitz. 12/4/1954

34. The Charge is Murder (a.k.a. Atto d'accusa; The Accusation) (1950) Famous attorney Massimo Ruska (Karl Ludwig Diehl) turns to murder when he discovers his wife Irene (Lea Padovani) has been having an affair with former lover Renato La Torre (Marcello Mastrioanni). 12/11/1954

35. Return of the Ape Man (1944) "Vampira... goes Christmas chopping to fill her hate list." -- Long Beach Independent. 12/18/1954

36. Man with the Gray Glove (a.k.a. L'uomo dal guanto grigio) (1948) Anna Gaddi (Annette Bach) finds herself a prime suspect in a murder and the disappearance of a famous painting. Starring Antonio Centa and Lauro Gazzolo. 12/25/1954

37. Apology for Murder (1945) Villainess Toni Kirkland (Ann Savage) manipulates reporter Kenny Blake (Hugh Beaumont) into falling in love with her and has him murder her much older husband Harvey Kirkland (Russell Hicks). 1/1/1955

38. Decoy (1946) A greedy Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) comes up with a plan to fake the death of her gangster boyfriend, Frank Olins (Robert Armstrong), and break him out of prison. It seems Frank has in his possession a map to the secret location of $400,000. But jealousy and deceit lead to multiple murders. 1/8/1955

39. Murder Is My Business (1946) Private Detective Michael Shayne (Hugh Beaumont) investigates the murder of wealthy Eleanor Renslow Ramsey  (Helene Heigh), but an unscrupulous local law enforcement detective, Pete Rafferty (Ralph Dunn) attempts to frame him for the crime. Mr. Shayne's personal secretary, Phyllis Hamilton (Cheryl Walker), comes to his aid. 1/15/1955

40. Phantom of 42nd Street (1945) When a Broadway actor is murdered and suspicion falls on Claudia Moore (Kay Aldridge), critic Tony Woolrich (Dave O'Brien) teams up with Lt. Walsh (Jack Mulhall) to investigate the homicide and rescue the woman he loves from the Phantom Killer. 1/22/1955

41. The Case of the Guardian Angel (a.k.a. The Adventures of P.C. 49: Investigating the Case of the Guardian Angel) (1949) "Vampira... receive[s] the first 'Black Skull of Death Award' from the Mystery Writers of America during her show... Along with the mounted death head [are] an assortment of weapons that have been featured in mystery stories written by the famous authors." -- Long Beach Independent. 1/29/1955

42. Lady Chaser (1946) "Vampira... visits the spider pound to reclaim her black-widow spider." -- Long Beach Independent. 2/5/1955

43. Killer at Large (1947) Newspaper reporters Paul Kimberly (Robert Lowery) and Anne Arnold (Anabel Shaw) investigate an embezzling ring. Also starring Charles Evans and Frank Ferguson. 2/12/1955

44. She Shall Have Murder (1950) Jane Hamish (Rosamund John) is an aspiring mystery writer who works as a law office clerk. However, her very life is in danger when she investigates the murder of a client. Also featuring Derrick De Marney and Mary Jerrold. 2/19/1955

45. The Lady Confesses (1945) Vicki McGuire (Mary Beth Hughes) is shocked to discover that her fiance's first wife, Norma Craig (Barbara Slater), is very much alive after having gone missing for seven years. That is only the beginning of this odd mystery as Norma is later murdered and Vicki finds herself caught in a web of lies and deceit. 2/26/1955

46. Larceny in Her Heart (1946) Two-fisted sleuth Michael Shayne (Hugh Beaumont) investigates the disappearance of Helen Stallings (Marie Hannon). Unfortunately for Shayne, this is a case of murder which literally lands on his doorstep. 3/5/1955

47. The Glass Alibi (1946) A greedy reporter, Joe Eykner (Douglas Fowley), and his treacherous girlfriend Belle Martin (Anne Gwynne) plan to murder his rich wife Linda (Maris Wrixon). Paul Kelly and Selmer Jackson also star. 3/12/1955

48. Detour (1945) Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a struggling pianist from New York City who hitchhikes his way to California to be with his ex-girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). When Al meets up with a pill-popper that croaks on him, he steals the man's car and identity, but soon becomes the puppet of a femme fatale named Vera (Ann Savage). 3/19/1955

49. Strangler of the Swamp (1946) Someone or something is killing off the male descendants of those who hung an innocent man in the swamps. Starring Rosemary La Planche and Robert Barrat 3/26/1955



  1. The photo above of Vampira and James Dean on the set of her 2nd show (on KHJ-TV) is a photoshop. I know, because I was the one that made it. Dean's face never appeared on the show a)Because he was under contract to Warner Bros. and it was in the contract of studio stars that they could not appear on TV at the time and b)With the low budget of the show they could have never afforded his SAG payment. Only the back of his head ever appeared on the show, in an over the shoulder shot.

    1. Thank you for the info, Sid Terror. I have seen this pic circulating EVERYWHERE. Nice job. I've read quite a bit on Vampira and watched a couple of documentaries on her, but I never came across much info on the episode with Jimmy Dean. Where did you learn about it? Also, I understand that she only had a stool to sit on in the 2nd show. The picture you made has her skull lounge next to the stairs that lead to her attic in the first show. Ahhh, Vampira continues to shroud us in mystery many decades later. Thank you again, Sid T.


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