The original glamour ghoul herself, “Vampira”, of late night 1950s television, was actually born Maila Syrjäniemi (later changed to the easier surname Nurmi) on December 11, 1922 in Petsamo, Finland. Her uncle was the multiple Olympic medal runner Paavo Nurmi. Maila arrived in the United States with her family as a baby and lived a rather nomadic existence at first as her father was a writer who lectured on temperance.
It was director Howard Hawks, of all people, who discovered Maila while she was performing in Mike Todd’s Grand Guignol midnight show “Spook Scandals”. Hawks escorted the lovely blonde beauty to Hollywood with the hopes of grooming her into the next Lauren Bacall. Cast in the film version of the Russian novel “Dreadful Hollow”, the project was put on hold so many times that Maila walked out of her contract in frustration. She became a cheesecake model and an Earl Carroll dancer for several years in his revues, sharing a chorus line at one time with future burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr.
Married at the time to child actor-turned-screenwriter Dean Riesner, she came up with the idea of “Vampira” at a masquerade contest where she based her costume on Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons. Heavily painted up with long fingernails, a mane of raven-colored hair, and slim-waisted black attire, the Morticia gimmick won the best costume award that night… and more. She caught the attention of local television and was placed under contract to Channel 7 in Hollywood to see if she could encourage late night viewers to stay up and watch its regular programming of cheapjack horror schlock. The macabre madam was a genuine hit (for one season, at least, in 1954-55), adding a sexy nuance and silly double entendres to her campy horror set.
She earned an Emmy Award nomination in 1954 for “Most Outstanding Female Personality”. Fan clubs sprouted up all over the world. She appeared in “Life”, “TV Guide” and “Newsweek” magazine articles, and could be seen around and about town and in Las Vegas judging contests and making variety special appearances. Songs were written about the “Queen of Horror”. She even appeared with arms outstretched and ghoulishly attired in the worst cinematic failure of all time, Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), as Bela Lugosi’s zombie-like mate, for which she is infamously associated. Lugosi actually was a huge fan of hers and had always wanted to work with her. Wood shot some footage of her years later as a tribute to Lugosi (he died in 1956 during filming) and added it before the film’s release.
By the late 1950s, Maila’s extended “15 minutes” of fame was over. With her career at stake (pun intended), she stretched things out with haphazard appearances in abysmal movies [The Beat Generation (1959); Sex Kittens Go to College (1960)] before closing the lid permanently on “Vampira”. In later years, Maila divorced her writer/husband and became passionately involved in animal protection rights. A painter on the sly, she created some “Vampira” portraits that became a collector’s item. Living very modestly in Southern California, she appeared in a small gag cameo in the film I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998). Malia Nurmi died at age 85 of natural causes at her home in Los Angeles, California on January 10, 2008.
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