Born Maila Syrjäniemi in 1921, Nurma moved to Ashtabula, Ohio with her family when she was two . Arriving in Los Angeles at age 17, she modeled for a while then gaining a foothold in the film industry with an uncredited role in Victor Saville’s 1947 film, If Winter Comes. Like many struggling actresses in the 1950s, Nurmi (along with Julie Newmar, Tina Louise, et al.) posed for pin-up photos in dozens of men’s magazines such as Famous Models, Gala and Glamorous Models. Nurmi was friends with Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and briefly dated Orson Welles.
The idea for her Vampira character was born in 1953 when Nurmi attended a masquerade ball in a costume inspired by a character in The New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams. ( Yes- this was Morticia from the Addams Family.) Her appearance with pale white skin and tight black dress caught the attention of television producer for KABC-TV. The name Vampira was the invention of Nurmi’s husband, Dean Riesner, screenwriter of Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, Play Misty For Me and numerous other movies and TV episodes.On Friday night, April 30, 1954, KABC-TV aired a preview, Dig Me Later, Vampira, at 11:00 p.m. The Vampira Show premiered on the following night, May 1, 1954. For the first four weeks, the show aired at midnight, moving to 11:00 p.m. on May 29. Ten months later, the series aired at 10:30 p.m., beginning March 5, 1955. As Vampira, Nurmi introduced films while wandering through a hallway of mist and cobwebs. Her horror-related comedy antics included talking to her pet spider Rollo, and encouraging viewers to write for epitaphs instead of autographs. When the series was cancelled in 1955, she retained rights to the character of Vampira and took the show to KHJ-TV 9.
Nurmi made television history as the first horror movie hostess. In the years that followed, Universal Studios released a syndicated package of 52 horror classics under the program title Shock Theater. Independent stations in major cities all over the U.S. began showing these films, adding their own ghoulish host or hostess (including Vampira II and other lookalikes) to attract more viewers.Nominated for an Emmy Award as “Most Outstanding Female Personality” in 1954, she returned to films with 1955’s Too Much, Too Soon, followed by The Big Operator and The Beat Generation. Her most notable film appearance was in Ed Wood’s camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space, as a Vampira-like zombie ( 1959). In 1960, she appeared in I Passed for White and Sex Kittens Go to College, followed by the 1962 film, The Magic Sword.In the 1980s, Nurmi was asked by KHJ-TV to revive her Vampira character for television. She worked closely with the producers of the new show and was to get an executive producer credit, but Nurmi eventually declined their proposal. KHJ-TV continued with the show and changed the name of their character to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Later, Nurmi sued Cassandra Peterson, the actress who played Elvira. The case was dismissed when Nurmi was unable to pay for legal expenses. In 1994, Maila Nurmi was portrayed by actress-model Lisa Marie in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.
Until her death, Nurmi lived with her pets in a small North Hollywood apartment. Unlike Elvira, Nurmi authorized very few merchandising contracts for her Vampira character, though the name and likeness has been used unofficially by various companies since the 1950s.