All Photos: Alan Mercer
Cassandra Peterson was born in Manhattan, Kansas, and grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She was scalded by boiling water when she was five years old and underwent seventeen skin grafting operations over the course of her childhood to repair the scar tissue.
She began her career at age 17 as the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas history in the show "Vive Les Girls" at the Dunes Hotel. After receiving advice from "The King" himself, Elvis Presley, she traveled to Europe where she pursued a career as a singer and actor. She worked in several Italian films, including Federico Fellini's Roma and performed throughout Europe as lead singer of an Italian rock band.
Upon returning to the United States, she toured the country as star of her own musical-comedy show, "Mama's Boys". She eventually settled in Hollywood, where she spent four and a half years with L.A.'s foremost improvisational comedy group, The Groundlings. In 1981, she auditioned for the role of horror hostess: on a local Los Angeles television station. Her show, ‘Movie Macabre,’ and her newly created character, Elvira, became an overnight sensation.
Cassandra has used Elvira's celebrity status to bring attention to many worthy causes and organizations over the years, including her well-known work for animal welfare and raising money and awareness for the prevention of HIV/AIDS. In addition to co-writing and performing in both the local L.A. and nationally syndicated television versions of ‘Movie Macabre,’ she co-wrote, produced and starred in two feature films, ‘Elvira: Mistress of the Dark’ in 1988 and ‘Elvira's Haunted Hills’ in 2001. Her latest endeavors include producing, writing and starring in the reality series ‘The Search for the Next Elvira’ on Fox Reality and the nationally syndicated series ‘Elvira's Movie Macabre.’
Cassandra Peterson has spent over three decades solidifying the Elvira brand and building it into an international cult icon that has become synonymous with Halloween and the horror genre. She was inducted into the Horror Host Hall of Fame in 2012, as her character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
AM: Cassandra, I’d like to start off talking about Elvis. I have photographed many women who knew or dated Elvis so I find it interesting. What was your Elvis experience like?
CP: Yes, mine was very innocent. You couldn’t even call it a date. I was with Elvis one evening at a party and he kind of just stuck with me. I was a showgirl but only seventeen. Today I am kicking myself wishing it hadn’t been so innocent! (Laughter) We spent an entire evening, night and the next day together. I typically didn’t go to sleep until the sun was coming up anyway.
AM: What did you do?
CP: We were talking, singing and he would show me a belt that President Nixon had given him. He also gave me advice about show business and that turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
AM: You pretty much said the same things all the other woman have said.
CP: He was gentlemanly and so sweet with a naive quality to him. It was easy to see how he could have been taken advantage of by the Colonel.
AM: Speaking of innocent, did you feel innocent as a seventeen year old showgirl?
CP: I don’t know if innocent is the word. I had been go-go dancing since I was fourteen when I moved out of my family’s house.
AM: How did you get away with that at fourteen? Were they not strict back then?
CP: I guess not. Supposedly I was not allowed to drink. I did look mature for my age. I was the one who my high school friends sent out to buy liquor.
AM: Why do you think you looked older?
CP: Probably because I wore tons of make-up and a wiglet on the top of my head and I had a lot of cleavage. So people just got a vibe that I was a lot older.
AM: Did you have the emotional maturity to go along with it?
CP: No I wouldn’t say that. I was street wise because of being on my own but emotionally….I always say Elvira is me as a teenager because I was a smart ass know it all.
AM: Aren’t you from the Midwest?
CP: Yes I was born in Kansas and lived there until I was seven. Then from seven to seventeen I was in Colorado. My parents started out on a farm. I grew up in a really small town of 350 people.
AM: We have similar beginnings. I grew up in Nebraska.
CP: Did you really? My Mom is from Nebraska. I could walk through the town and see all my relatives.
AM: So Las Vegas must have been very uptown for you.
CP: It was my dream after seeing ‘Viva Las Vegas’ with Elvis and Ann-Margret. I just knew that’s where I’d have to be. I obsessed about it all the time. I was fourteen and telling everybody that I wanted to go to Vegas and be a showgirl.
AM: How did people react to this?
CP: Everybody just laughed at me. My relatives told me I wasn’t tall enough or pretty enough.
AM: Were they telling you these things because they didn’t want you to get disappointed?
CP: Some people did. They’d tell me things like that don’t really happen.
AM: I love that you proved them wrong.
CP: That’s what I always did. I think because I had a tough upbringing I was always rebelling. I was one of those people who if someone said to me I couldn’t do something I wanted to prove them wrong.
AM: So were you part of the Vegas scene that included Frank Sinatra?
CP: Oh yes!
AM: I know you knew Tom Jones. Did you like him?
CP: Oh I loved him. I wasn’t a big Tom Jones music fan because I was still so enamored of Elvis and I felt Tom Jones was cutting in on his territory.
AM: So how did you get interested in Tom?
CP: A couple of male dancers from my show took me to see him and I thought, ”Oh my God!” He was the sexiest man alive! I couldn’t believe it. His music just wasn’t for me.
AM: You were much more rock n’ roll weren’t you?
CP: Yes I was. I even stopped liking Elvis music after I was a teenager. I was much more into the Beatles and I became somewhat of an infamous groupie after a while.
AM: Being a groupie at that time was more fun than now wasn’t it?
CP: Yes and it wasn’t sleazy. Pamela De Barres calls me the virgin groupie in her book because I would hang out with these guys and wash their hair. Nobody ever forced me to have sex.
AM: I think we need to educate people today that it wasn’t an orgy scene.
CP: It so wasn’t. It was always about the music. If I didn’t like the music I didn’t even want to talk to the group. If you weren’t seriously into the music you wouldn’t be around.
AM: How did you get into the world famous Groundlings?
CP: I was lucky I got in the Groundlings when I did.
AM: Beautiful women don’t even make it in that group. It’s the smallest demographic.
CP: It is. I think there are more beautiful women today doing comedy but back then you had to be Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields or Anne Meara. I don’t know what it was. I’m sure pretty women could be funny but you just didn’t see it.
AM: Did you know you were naturally funny?
CP: I did. I was always self-deprecating and made jokes mostly about myself. I grew up with scars all over my neck and my back from being burned as a child. I had kids making fun of me and I was bullied a lot. I was very quiet and super introverted so I discovered in Jr. High that if I acted goofy people liked me. If you talk to a lot of comedians they will tell you similar stories of how they were not popular for one reason or another. I don’t think I know a comedian who didn’t have a hard time as a kid.
AM: I think everyone knows the story of Elvira so I don’t think we even need to talk about her.
CP: Oh thank you. I’ve talked about her enough.
AM: I don’t know how you keep answering the same questions.
CP: It’s automatic pilot. I just turn on the switch.
AM: So are you content in your life now or do you still have some burning ambitions?
CP: I’m pretty content and happy with my accomplishments.
AM: You’ve already done more than most people could do in ten lives.
CP: I’m happy about that but I don’t feel completely over it. I don’t want to stop. I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t working. I am trying to write my autobiography and I’m not trying very hard yet!
AM: That’s a great idea.
CP: I’d love to do that and get an animated Elvira going. I believe the character can live on even if I’m not doing it.
To keep up with Cassandra as Elvira visit her web site http://elvira.hostedbywebstore.com/