With a sketchy background story involving a family lineage link to Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi, Maila Nurmi moved from her native Massachusetts to New York to pursue an acting career. While seeking her “big break,” the striking and statuesque Maila posed for pin-up photos as well as for artists like Antonio Vargas and the notorious Man Ray. She landed a small role in a Broadway show alongside Mae West. West, however, fired Maila from the production as she felt she was being upstaged. Unfettered, Maila decided to head to Los Angeles.
While she sought out more acting roles, Maila worked a variety of jobs, including hat-check girl at a Sunset Strip club. She also found work in the chorus at the famed Earl Carroll Theatre, as well as a showgirl in a revue featuring stripper Lily St. Cyr. She also gave birth to a child from a secret affair with actor/director/producer Orson Welles, who was married to actress Rita Hayworth at the time. The child was put up for adoption.
Inspired by the lead character in cartoonist Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons, Maila conceived a character she dubbed “Vampira,” donning a long black wig over her pixie-cut blond hair and sporting a slinky black dress. She made appearances at local movie theater’s live “spook shows,” posing in a coffin and mingling with patrons for pictures. Entrepreneurial television producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr. was taken by Maila’s character and cast her to host late-night showings of old horror movies on KABC-TV. The Vampira Show premiered on May 1, 1954. It was an instant hit. The broadcast was so popular, Maila was asked to appear on variety shows, including Ed Sullivan and Red Skelton, on which she performed a skit with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr.
After a year, KABC-TV canceled Maila’s show, although she retained the rights to the character and the name. She took her act to KHJ-TV, a competing LA station. Around this time, she famously appeared ― in character ― in Ed Wood’s infamous film Plan 9 From Outer Space. The character was so renowned, it was acknowledged as the inspiration for “Maleficent” in the 1959 Disney animated film Sleeping Beauty.
But, by the early 1960s, Maila found a new career ―installing linoleum flooring, as well as carpentry and manufacturing drapes. She also owned and operated and antique store and numbered members of Jefferson Airplane among her loyal customers.
In 1981, KHJ-TV contacted Maila with an idea of reviving the “Vampira” character. After much debate, Maila left the project over creative differences. She insisted on having actress/dancer Lola Falana play the role of Vampira. KHJ executives wanted local comedian Cassandra Peterson for the part. Peterson was hired without Maila’s consent. The character’s name was changed to “Elvira” to avoid a lawsuit. Maila sued anyway, but lost.
Not content to stay inactive, Maila tried her hand at music, entering the burgeoning punk rock scene with the band Satan’s Cheerleaders. Later, in the early 2000s, Maila ran a website out of her small Hollywood apartment, selling Vampira memorabilia and original pieces of art. She passed away in 2008 at the age of 85. Her grave marker at Hollywood Forever Cemetery bears a likeliness of her beloved Vampira.