Mistresses of the Dark

Elvira and her progeny make an evening of it. Then the progeny go wrestling.

Rule #4: When you're running from a psycho-maniac killer, be prepared. Wear stiletto heels, a tight skirt, and don't forget to fall down about every 15 feet.

-- Elvira'sHorror Movie Survival Guide

A machete-gray hearse gleams under the dim lights of the Four Star Theateron Clement Street, as indifferent to the motorcycle-parking designation as a Super Shuttle for the living dead. "Put the fun back in funeral," reads the license plate frame.

"Nice publicity stunt," giggles a young muscular man in a sparkling T-shirt made of something clingy and sheer.

"No, it belongs to a fan," says a potbellied geezer with a salt-and-pepper ponytail and a faded Hawaiian shirt. "She didn't come in it. One of those gothics. See what the bumper sticker says, "I dig scrawny, pale guys.' Might be a lady owner, but you never know."

"Well, I'm not pale or scrawny," says the muscular young man, "so no matter to me."

The older man grunts affirmation, and the unlikely pair crush out their cigarettes and return to their seats in the small, sold-out theater where the entire crowd, in fact, seems just a bit unlikely. Young, old, gay, straight, nerdy, hip, Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, well-dressed, depressed, socially aware, socially awkward, single, and married with kids -- if you lined them all up, you would be hard pressed to guess their connection.

"Elvira has always stood up for outcasts and misfits," says 34-year-old Tony Vaguely, an independent film and theater director whose Mission District apartment boasts an entire room dedicated to the former horror movie hostess. "It was murder trying to decide what things I should bring for her to sign." Vaguely finally settled on a life-size stand-up, a poster, a photograph, and a calendar -- only to be outdone by another superfan who chose to bring a BC Rich Warlock electric guitar bearing Elvira's comely countenance.

"She used to be a showgirl at the Dunes, you know," explains Vaguely, a Las Vegas native, "before she hosted Movie Macabre in Los Angeles."

During her Vegas days, 17-year-old Cassandra Petersonwas the youngest showgirl on the Strip, but she got her start three years earlier, in a small nightclub in Colorado Springs. In an interview with Elvira impersonator Cassandra Fever, Peterson credits the star of that first show, a large African-American queen named Tommy Tan, for supplying her with fashion sense and teaching her how to walk, but it wasn't until the late '70s, when she was working with the Groundlings (a Los Angeles-based improv group that spawned Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, and Jon Lovitz), that Elvira was born. Within a short time, Elvira had become Mistress of the Dark, star of the first nationally syndicated horror movie show and the first female celebrity to endorse beer. She also became the first woman to twirl tassels on a national network and the first person to be broadcast in 3-D (millions of glasses were sold throughout the country). Her name and visage have adorned everything from perfume to amusement rides to collector's plates, and her sexy, self-deprecating humor has heartened outsiders everywhere.

"I used to watch her in the early '80s when I was living in Arizona," says stand-up comic Nick Leonard. "She was the only thing happening in Arizona in the early '80s."

"I went out to an auto show in St. Paul, Minnesota, to meet her," says Leonard, receiving indulgent looks from Larry Roberts, a self-proclaimed Elvira widow. "This will be better."

Making her way up the clogged theater aisle, a dressed-down but still well-endowed Cassandra Peterson takes the microphone and flips back her strawberry-blond hair. "I'm glad you all came out, so to speak," chuckles Peterson before discussing the project at hand, Elvira's Haunted Hills, an independent feature written by Peterson and produced by her husband, Mark Pierson.

"We used all our own money," she says, "so, if you like it, take all your friends to see it. If you don't, I'll be living in my car. Anyway, Pee-wee Herman called it the feel-good movie of the year.

"Now, for valuable prizes, who was my archnemesis in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark?"

Hands shoot into the air.

"Vincent!" shouts Vinsantos, a snake-haired creature in a blue band jacket and shredded corset.

"What was the name of my car?"

"The Macabre Mobile!" says an elegant, fey young thing in a cobweb shirt.

"What was my response to the line, "How's your head?'"

"I haven't had any complaints yet!" offers a weight-room wonder.

"Now, for some questions from the audience," says Peterson. "I was told to tell you about my early days in Manhattan ... Kansas, which is where I was born ... anything else?"

Elvira's replies are as fast and glib as her fans' queries:

"Do Cheech, Edie McClure, and I hang out all the time? Well, sure ... I mean, at least I do." Ba-da-bing!

"I'm not going to answer that."

"Or that."

"No, I don't have any zombies cleaning my house, but I've drank a few."

"I use human-hair wigs -- all us queens know about wigs -- but it costs a bundle to get me dressed up in that drag these days."

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