Can Elvira Save Halloween Again?
“Making Halloween sexy? I think I can say I had something to do with that,” laughs Cassandra Peterson, who, since 1981, has played the role of Elvira, Mistress of the Night to a global audience.
She had a wide range of experiences to fall back on as she built the character, having spent the ‘70s as a Las Vegas showgirl (who also happened to date Elvis Presley) and then a feature performer (but that's not her on the cover of Tom Waits’ album Short Change). Elvira became known for her clever sense of making audiences feel involved, her sharp sassy tongue and a dress that sometimes got her into trouble with mainstream producers.
One such clash came as she worked on the 1982 Halloween episode of CHiPs. Bosses were concerned that the neckline that shot down and the thigh cut that shot up would be too much. But Peterson was used to that, having spent the first few months of her gig as a horror hostess on Los Angeles television assuring producers she had adjusted her dress, even though she didn't touch it. “If it became a problem, I’d just pull my hair down in front of the dress,” she tells UCR. But that’s not her most lasting memory of her CHiPs guest spot. “It was exhausting – long days from 7AM to midnight because there were so many costume changes going on with everybody else. I was in heels the whole time. And Erik Estrada … he was a bit – how do I put it? – full of himself. But I met him again years later and he was lovely.”
Halloween was a bigger deal in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world when Peterson first put on the tight dress and beehive hair. But there's no denying that by adding some sex and sass at a time when global communication was exploding contributed to the holiday’s increasing popularity worldwide. “Making Halloween fun and for adults came from the gay parades,” she says. “I used to join the parades and have so much fun, and a part of Elvira came from that. I’m happy to take some credit for all of that happening.”
Nearly 40 years later, Halloween needs to be reinvented as a result of coronavirus restrictions. Can Elvira come to the rescue once again? “I think she can,” Peterson says without pause. “I was getting really thoughtful as we came toward October. I was thinking that, for the first time since it all started, I might get some time to myself this month!”
That was before she became involved in the stage show In Search of the Sanderson Sisters: A Hocus Pocus Hulaween Takeover, which will be streamed live across the world as a one-time event on Oct. 30. Peterson will host as Elvira, while Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy recreate their roles from the 1993 movie Hocus Pocus, with help from Meryl Streep, Billy Crystal, Jamie Lee Curtis, Adam Lambert, Martin Short and others. Surprise guests are also promised.
“Normally, you couldn’t bring all these amazing people together in a way you never could before,” Peterson says. “I mean, Glenn Close, Sarah Silverman – it’s really amazing. Normally, people would have different schedules and be in different parts of the country. It’s really very, very funny.” But still a bit evil? “Still a lot evil – and a bit sexy!”
Performers who invent a character that becomes indistinguishable from the creator often achieve a certain kind of immortality. So, what would happen if Elvira met Cassandra in real life? The question elicits a laugh, a pause and then another laugh. “I think I’d just cower,” Peterson says. “She’s so sassy and smart, and nothing’s gonna stop her. She’d say, ‘I’ve met so many shriveled wimps like you – get outta my way!’”
Peterson sees Elvira as "sorta like a teenager who never grew up. We all have that teenager inside us, don’t we? So I think Elvira is me … before I became warmer and nicer!”
Tickets for In Search of the Sanderson Sisters: A Hocus Pocus Hulaween Takeover are on sale now.