A Chat with Cassandra Peterson, AKA Elvira, Mistress of the Dark
Friends and family might know her as Cassandra Peterson, but to fans of bad horror movies, she’ll always be Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Ms. Peterson’s Elvira persona keeps busy every October without fail, and this year is no exception. In addition to her usual public appearances, she’s also seeing six of her best “Movie Macabre” moments being reissued through the fine folks at Shout! Factory, as well as hosting viewings of several Something Weird flicks – that’s a home video company – through Comcast’s video-on-demand program. Elvira -- I mean, Cassandra -- took a few minutes out of her schedule to chat with Bullz-Eye about everything from the film “Werewolf of Washington” to her friendships with Phil Hartman and Pee-Wee Herman, but she started things off by setting the record straight about rumors of her imminent retirement.
Cassandra Peterson: So, how’s it going?
Bullz-Eye: Pretty well, thanks. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.
CP: Oh, thanks! So are we ready to go?
BE: Yep. So what’s this I hear about you preparing to retire from playing Elvira?
CP: Oh, no. It’s all a dirty rumor.
BE: (Surprised) Is it really?
CP: Yeah. No, I’m not retired from playing Elvira. What I’m doing is, I have got a reality show that I’m working on, on which I would find another Elvira to go out and do my evil bidding…like Satan’s helpers, that sort of person. It would be kind of like…oh, I don’t know, I hate to compare myself to Bozo the Clown…
CP: There are dozens of Bozos out there, where they’re sent out to do other appearances. And every year, I get hundreds and hundreds of requests for appearances…some even at shopping malls, sitting around taking pictures with people for Halloween…and, obviously, I can’t go out and do all of those. So I thought that if I had another, sanctioned Elvira, sanctioned by me, picked by me, and someone who I really thought could portray the character right and had all the right, um, parts…
BE: So to speak.
CP: …that person could go out and also be an Elvira, because, like Santa Claus, there could be many.
BE: Exactly. You can’t be everywhere at once.
CP: Yeah. So it wouldn’t be that I would be quitting, anyway; it would be that I would be adding another one. I’d be replicating myself.
BE: I was going to say that, from the recent pictures of you I’ve seen, you still seem to be wearing the costume well.
CP: Oh! Thank you! Well, for now, yeah. Hopefully, someday, I can retire, and then I’ll have a whole little army of Elvira clones that can do the job.
BE: Your minions.
BE: Actually, I thought it was funny that you’d be giving up the gig right now, since you’re in the spotlight more at the moment now than you have been in awhile, what with the Shout! Factory releases and the Something Weird Video video-on-demand deal with Comcast.
CP: Yeah, well, it’s been going along pretty steadily all these years. No matter how much into the background I go during the rest of the year, during Halloween, the Elvira character is pretty much everywhere. I mean, I always have a new product coming out each Halloween and do lots of TV appearances and other appearances. So every Halloween, I’m always back…and that’s how it’s been going for 25 years!
BE: Are you still doing the annual Knott’s Berry Farm Halloween Haunt?
CP: No, I don’t do that anymore. No, unfortunately, I was there for 18 out of the 25 years, but the park was sold to someone else who cut the budget of the Halloween Haunt, much to everyone’s chagrin. And it’s kind of been…going downhill. I hate to say that, but that’s what happens when you cut the budget by 25 percent!
BE: Yep, that’ll do it! With the Shout! Factory films, did you have a hand in selecting the ones that they released, or was it a matter of which ones were easiest to get access to?
CP: It was a matter of which ones they could find, yeah. They had to search all the dumpsters in L.A. just to come up with those six, and it was, like, anything we can get, we took. But all the “Movie Macabre” shows are these crappy – I mean, classic! – films, so it didn’t really matter which six they did. But it’s good they got a variety. They got one from ’81, one or two from ’82, and then a couple from ’83, so it sort of shows the progression of the character…starting with very flat hair! And then the hair got very high, and then by ’83, the hair was so damned high that it doesn’t even fit in the shot anymore!
BE: Well, you’ve got to roll with the changes.
CP: That’s right. And, finally, I managed to tame my hair down to a happy medium. But it’s interesting to see the character in 1981, because it was really early on, and I was still sort of…finding, looking for the character.
BE: Of the ones that have come out, do you have a personal favorite of the bunch?
CP: I do. There’s one that’s so…well, there are a couple that I really, really love. I mean, I love them all. Like, “Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks,” you know, has dwarves and wrestling lesbians. How can you go wrong with that?
BE: You can’t, really.
CP: No, you can’t. But my two favorites are “Werewolf of Washington”…
BE: That’s actually my favorite.
CP: It’s so topical these days, what with Bush in the White House. But I think my very favorite, though, is “The Doomsday Machine.” It’s so hilarious. Just the hairstyles on the women alone are worth the price of admission. It’s really, really low-budget, and although it’s technically not a horror film, it is pretty damned horrible.
BE: When you’re not doing Elvira, are you continuing to do acting as Cassandra Peterson?
CP: Not very much. I mean, I have done a couple of things. In the last year, I did a couple of movies…just small parts, cameos. One was called “Red Riding Hood.”
BE: Right, I saw that on IMDB.com, but you always want to confirm these things.
CP: Yeah, that’s true. It’s a really great movie. It was directed by Randal Kleiser, who did “Grease” and “The Blue Lagoon” and a million and one movies, and it’s a really amazing film which is in this new technology…more in-depth than high definition. I don’t know a lot of details about it, but there are only two or three theaters that could play it, so it played just in those theaters and then was released on DVD. Now, how it works no DVD, I have no idea! But it’s an amazing…a really, really, cute, bizarre movie. It’s more for kids…older kids. And then the other one is “Tomoko’s Kitchen,” which is a short film that’s going to be entered in various film festivals. And I just have small, cameo roles. They were just people who called me up, friends who were working on both films, and asked me to be in them. I just do it as Cassandra Peterson if someone I know calls me up and asks me to do this or that, but I don’t pursue that. Because even though I’m busy at Halloween, the rest of the year, I’m busy putting everything together! And that’s mostly merchandising and licensing of the character, and supporting the brand.
BE: I know you do a few conventions throughout the year as well.
CP: Yeah, quite a few. They’re not posted on my website because they’re in-house things and not for the public, but I do lots of conventions. Whatever products I have out. For instance, I just went to do the MAGIC show in Las Vegas; all the clothing lines and clothing distributors and creators are there. And that was for my new line of T-shirts that are going into Hot Topic. And, omigod, I go to the video conventions and I go to the costume conventions, Halloween conventions…everything you can imagine. Electronics conventions, because I have a video game coming out in November. So I keep busy busy busy during the rest of the year, too. It’s just that this month is a little overwhelming.
BE: I can imagine. So, now, you were a member of (the improv troupe) the Groundlings, in Los Angeles.
CP: I was!
BE: Who were some of the others in the troupe at the time?
CP: At the same time I was in it, Phil Hartman…
CP: …and Paul Reubens. Yeah, you know, it’s really funny that you just said that, because I was just on the internet last night, and a friend send me a little YouTube video of Phil and Paul and myself and a bunch of Groundlings at the time doing an ad for some kind of film festival. I couldn’t believe it; I didn’t even remember ever doing that! It was probably from 1980 or something.
BE: Don’t be surprised if that link shows up in the piece! (Sadly, the link has already been taken down due to “copyright infringement.”)
CP: There you go! There’s something about the Groundlings…oh, yeah, it’s for Filmex, it’s called. Actually, it’s pretty funny. I guess I was so bad that I don’t have a speaking role; I’m just mugging and wiggling around for the camera kinda wacky.
BE: And I know you developed the Elvira character while you were with the Groundlings, but beyond that, what was the experience like for you?
CP: Oh, it was life-changing. I mean, the Groundlings were definitely responsible for me being Elvira…because I learned to be fearless, basically. I always say, if you can get up in front of an audience full of people and not know what you’re going to do beforehand and then have to come up with it to try to entertain people, then you can…honestly…do anything in life. I’ve even had friends of mine…doctors, lawyers, all kinds of people…go through the Groundlings, because once you do that, it’s just, like, public speaking and everything else becomes, “This is so easy! I have a script!” So it was a really powerful experience for me. Plus, most of my best friends of my life come from the Groundlings, and through watching them, I learned a lot, too. Through watching people like Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens, my God, I learned a lot.
BE: I know you were in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” but have you continued to stay in touch with Paul?
CP: Oh, yeah, we stay in touch all the time. I just had a birthday party, and he was here. And I talk to him on a regular basis.
BE: And with Phil, you stayed in touch up ‘til his passing?
CP: I sure did. I spoke with him for almost an hour and a half on the phone the day before, and we were very close. It was a really big blow. I’ll never get over that.
BE: He’s one of those guys whose death I’ll probably never get over myself…and I didn’t even know him; I just feel like I did because of his work.
CP: Oh, everyone who ever even met him one time just loved the guy. He was just an amazing, amazing person, and I don’t think there’s a person alive who ever met him who didn’t just adore him.
BE: Y’know, there are very few people can claim to have worked with both Fellini (“Roma”) and Cheech and Chong (“Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie”).
CP: Yeah. Hey, there’s… (Laughs) That’s kind of funny, I never thought of that. I’m gonna use that line from now on! “I’ve worked with all the greats…from Fellini to Cheech and Chong!”
BE: Yeah, but when you get down to brass tacks, which do you prefer?
"I'm actually being ordained as a minister so that I can officiate at the marriage of Dee Snider of Twisted Sister. Now I'll be Elvira, Minister of the Dark…!"CP: Oh, my goodness! That’s hard to say, because I love them both…in very different ways! Oh, my God, it was pretty impressive to work with both of them. That would be a hard one to pick. I don’t think I could. (Laughs) Both incredible and bizarre in their own special ways.
BE: I read that you had an estate sale when you moved from the Hollywood Hills to Santa Barbara. What kind of people turn out for a sale of Elvira’s belongings?
CP: Oh, my God, it was bizarre. I was not there, thank God…
CP: …but it was kind of…I heard that the news covered it, there was a helicopter flying overhead. It was a lot of fans, a lot of memorabilia collectors, and apparently a lot of Elvira fans, because I was selling a lot of Elvira stuff. What I was basically doing was…well, I got a divorce, and in order to split our assets, some of the things – like Elvira memorabilia – there’s not really a way to put a price on it except to sell it and split the proceeds. So that’s basically what I was doing. It’s funny, a lot of people thought I was retiring because of that. And, also, I was moving to Santa Barbara, but, actually… (Laughs) …I changed my mind. I had every intention of moving there, and I then decided that moving there would be akin to career suicide, so I decided not to – even though I love it there – and decided to kick around Hollywood for awhile.
BE: I see you have your own page on MySpace. Do you yourself actually check your messages?
CP: Oh, I do, yes, absolutely! I check it very frequently. It’s my assistant, who works with me, that runs the site for me, and I e-mail him the info on a daily basis to put in there…and photos from my appearances or whatever I do. So we try to keep that moving, changing, and up to date…as well as my official site, http://www.elvira.com.
BE: And, of course, I checked that out before calling.
CP: Excellent! I have a lot of appearances that have not come up on there. I just checked it out myself this morning, and, strangely enough, a lot of the more recent ones…I don’t know what happened. I put them on there, but they haven’t shown up yet. So you might want to check it out again; I hope they pop up. When you checked it out, did it mention that I was going to be on “The Girls Next Door” this Sunday?
BE: I don’t think so…but I’m sitting in front of my computer, so let me check.
CP: When I found out the date it was airing, I put it up. It’s funny, I was doing an interview, and when they asked me what I’ve been doing, I said, “Oh, I just shot ‘The Girls Next Door.’” And I paused for a few seconds, then went, “The TV show!” I didn’t even think about it. Oh, well.
BE: It is on here now, by the way. October 15th.
CP: Oh, good! Fantastic! I think there are a few others that are supposed to be on there as well that aren’t.
BE: It lists a NASCAR appearance in Memphis, and the Super Mega Fest in Massachusetts.
CP: Oh, but those are November; I’ve got several other October ones as well.
BE: No, they’re not up here.
CP: Well, we’re doing one in New York, one in New Jersey, and one in Canada. I may not have the exact dates, maybe that’s why they’re not up there. I’m doing one in Las Vegas. I’m actually being ordained as a minister so that I can officiate at the marriage of Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.
BE: Wow. There’s a reality show to be had there, I just know it.
CP: Yeah, it’s scaring even me. Now I’ll be Elvira, Minister of the Dark!
And with that, the conversation ended.
And I don’t mean it wound down and we said our goodbyes; I mean, I went to ask my next question and there was no one else on the line with me. Jason from Shout! Factory called me back a few minutes later, apologizing for the disconnection and asking if I’d gotten everything I needed. Well, in truth, I had two more questions – one about Cassandra’s work with PETA, the other about the accuracy of her Wikipedia entry, which offers up the claim that she lost her virginity to Tom Jones (and…ouch!...required stitches as a result) – but I couldn’t bring myself to have Jason set up the conference call again just for those two questions…especially since I knew I’d never have the balls to ask the one about Sir Tom, anyway. So I asked if he’d just ask Cassandra if she was still working with PETA...and, indeed, she is.
“I really admire them,” she replied, “and I recently did a Halloween pet safety poster for them.”
Damn, that’s anti-climactic. I knew I should’ve asked about Tom Jones.