Unlike her vampire vixen alter ego, Cassandra Peterson has been known to take frights in a stride that’s more like a sprint.
There was that one time back in the 1990s, when she accompanied her friend, Linda Blair, to a celebrity screening of “The Exorcist” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. Peterson got so spooked she had to bail before heads could spin.
“I kept just looking over at her out of the corner of my eye, like pretty soon something’s going to happen,” Peterson said. “She understood. She has that impact on many people so she didn’t get offended.”
Another scenario that clearly seems to terrify the miss behind the Mistress of the Dark?
After nearly five decades as an entertainer — dancer, singer, actress and, most recognizably, horror icon Elvira — Peterson is stepping away from the limelight to pursue other projects. She’ll take a final bow Tuesday at one of her career’s more enduring venues, Knott’s Berry Farm, where’s she’s headlined the Halloween show for 21 of the last 36 years.
“I just decided that, you know, doing live shows is really difficult and it takes up a big chunk of time every year,” said Peterson, 66, whose downtime plans include finishing her autobiography and work on a long-rumored animated series. “I would love to be back on TV with a regular show. We’ll see how it goes. And maybe in between there, have a life.”
Long before the sexy, snark-slinging host of “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” burst onto the small screen — and nearly out of her gown’s plunging neckline — Peterson was exercising her creative spirit in Colorado Springs’ Ivywild neighborhood, where her family ran a costume shop called Peterson’s Partyland.
“I would help out after school. I really loved costumes and dressing up, and I entered every costume contest that came along. My mom and aunts would sew me something,” said Peterson, who was born in Kansas but grew up in the Springs and graduated in 1969 from Palmer High.
From an early age, Peterson preferred costumes on the more revealing side.
“In second grade, I won a costume contest in Manitou Springs dressed as Miss Kitty from ‘Gunsmoke,’ wearing high heels and a garter belt,” Peterson said. “It was very un-PC for a second-grader.”
When she was five, she told her mom she wanted to be the “Queen of Halloween.” During her years in the Springs, she gave other vocations a try, though. Her first job as a teen, working as a maid at a hotel on Nevada Avenue, lasted “about one day.” A gig waitressing at Giuseppe’s ended when she tossed a lit cigarette in the trash and started a fire.
“I was not good at doing regular jobs, so it’s good I got into show business,” she said.
That career trajectory began when Peterson was named runner-up in a nationwide talent search conducted by “Hullabaloo,” an NBC variety show. The attention led to a job dancing — in a cage, wearing a fringy skirt — at a local night spot. She was 14.
“I guess back then it just didn’t matter how old you were. I was dancing there every night and I was still in junior high,” she said.
After graduating from high school, 17-year-old Peterson lit out for Las Vegas to work as a showgirl at The Dunes, a time during which she briefly dated Elvis Presley, who encouraged her to pursue her passions wherever they might lead. Throughout the 1970s, she modeled and acted in commercials, TV shows and movies, including a minor turn as a showgirl in the James Bond film, “Diamonds Are Forever.” She moved to Europe and sang in an Italian rock band, and toured the U.S. with a one-woman comedy show.
“My career meandered all over the place and I finally settled on comedic acting. Of course, I had to do many, many jobs in between to survive, as all actors do,” said Peterson, who in 1979 joined The Groundings, the legendary L.A.-based comedy improv theater.
That’s where she was when she got the call that changed everything. A local TV station needed a comedic host for a late night B-horror movie showcase. Was she interested?
“When I got the call, and then I got the job, I wasn’t that excited. It was for local TV and wasn’t paying very much at all — $300 a week before taxes,” Peterson said. “It wasn’t something to really survive on but I was happy to have any job. I wouldn’t have dreamed in a million years that it would have taken off and turned into a career and I’d be doing it 36 years later.”
The cult of Elvira was quick to ignite. The calls, from “everyone and their mother” began soon after “Movie Macabre” began airing in September 1981.
By October, she was being sought out by fans and businesses to make celebrity appearances at grocery stores, beauty salons and Halloween parties.
“I was listed in the phone book,” Peterson said, and laughed.
When “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson came calling, she knew her life was about to change.
“That was then the biggest and, really, only show of its type on television,” Peterson said. “When you went on that show you knew you were a star. When that happened I was really blown away. Like, this thing is really happening.”
In the years since, Peterson’s beehive-coiffed diva has evolved in a number of ways.
“Thank God, I think the character has gotten better at talking and acting. I see old stuff from the beginning and I cringe,” Peterson said. “The hair has gone from flat to super, super high, and now to a happy medium.”
As for her audience, there was a time when Peterson said she worried whatever zeitgeist she’d tapped was beginning to fade.
“Fans were getting older, as I was, and I was worried when they get old they’d not be interested. Then something happened and the fan base began skewing younger and younger. I don’t know exactly how that happened but I’m very grateful for it,” she said.
It’s been a few years since she’s been back to prowl her old neighborhood in the Springs, the place that in many ways was responsible for inspiring Elvira, an undead character with seemingly undying appeal.
“I saw ‘House on Haunted Hill’ at the Chief Theater in downtown Colorado Springs with my cousin and that was a really big, life-changing thing for me. I think it’s what jump-started my whole thing for horror movies and the horror genre,” Peterson said. “I do miss Colorado. It was a great place to grow up, I’ll say that for sure. I don’t know if I reflect Colorado Springs values very well, but ... whatever.”