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's Horror Movie Survival Guide

A machete-gray hearse gleams under the dim lights of the Four Star Theater on 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 Peterson was 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.”

“You rode the Elvira ride? You and half of Hollywood, honey. No, really, I don't remember how the ride came about. Stevie Wonder wasn't available. That's how I get most of my work. It's me or Stevie.”

The movie, which is an honestly delightful and surprisingly high-quality parody of Roger Corman's film series based on Edgar Allen Poe stories, was shot on location in Romania, with wonderful sets and costumes designed by Radu Corciova and lascivious one-liners fashioned by Elvira and her infamous “air bags.” The crowd roars with laughter during the fight scenes, the love scenes, the musical scenes, and even the credits. But the night is still young: Folks donating to the San Francisco Stop AIDS Project and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates follow Peterson across the street to the very brightly lit Yet Wah Restaurant, where they dine on pot stickers and shrimp rolls with the Mistress of the Dark.

“This is turning out to be a very surreal weekend,” says a mother of three seated at our table as folks line up to have Peterson sign photographs and body parts.

Rule #4: Cleavage is two of the most important things a girl can own. If you don't happen to have my attributes, you certainly have my condolences, but don't give up!

— Elvira's Fashion Tips

“This wrestling match is for Elvira!” bellows Vinsantos in the dressing room/ storage closet of 26 Mix, the club where Vinsantos and drag king promoter Fudgie Frottage offer “Transfusion” every third Saturday.

“She's been my idol since I was 13,” says Vinsantos, pulling her corset down over her Pokémon tighty-whiteys and Skeletor-skull belt to reveal Elvira's signature across her ribs. “She's more beautiful than ever, an inspiration to us all.”

“Rule No. 1 in drag wrestling,” says Vinsantos, “is tie that hair down. And, keep your eyes open and your legs closed.”

“Tranny tights are very important,” says faux drag queen Nancy Spungen, “the shinier the better. They make your legs look really muscular and ripply so they scare your opponent. And fake eyelashes — that's my favorite part of drag. I beat my last opponent by ripping off her eyelashes.”

“I always use Hot Fudge [lipstick] by Estée Lauder,” says the Flying Wahine, a wrestling sky-diver who does exotic dancing for jump tickets.

“And high heels, nothing under five inches,” says Humidity LuRay, waving her spider arms, which are made of shiny red patent leather gloves that match her 6-inch-tall stiletto boots.

“Round one!” announces Frottage.

The Bible-thumping Holy Roller Girl, in a white baby-doll nightie and sneaker roller skates, does battle with a baby-faced drag king, but there's more talking than fighting on the federation-approved futon and no one seems impressed.

Next are drag kings Sid Vicious and Billy Idol. Vicious can barely keep his head out of the puke pail that Bucket Boy carries for him, but his girlfriend Nancy's large eyelashes and larger sneer are enough to scare off the slightly fey Idol for a time. Then, with a rebel yell and the choreographed pumping of his fists, Idol gets the upper hand and pushes Vicious to the mat. Vicious spits. Idol balks. Then Vicious buries Idol's head in his armpit; the pop star swoons, only to revive and pin one of Vicious' shoulders to the mat. Sensing her boyfriend's need, Spungen arrives with a bag of white powder, which distracts both wrestlers for different reasons. She knocks their heads together and wins the match.

At last, Vinsantos steps onto the futon, staring eyelash to eyelash with her adversary, Vladika, a “Transfusion” veteran who arrived at the club with a date and no intention of wrestling. Thankfully, with this crowd, wrestling always rules over romance. With only a little coaxing and a lot of improvising (a pair of fishnets here, a scrap of leather there, a bit of glitter over the top), Vladika is ready to smear the mat with Vinsantos' cake makeup. Immediately, she pulls off Vinsantos' wig and the well-matched pair fly into the crowd, breaking a girl's glasses and knocking over drinks. They flip, they fall, they grapple, they slap, they pull half nelsons and camel-toe holds; ass cracks appear, mascara smears; people cry, cajole, and jeer; it's mayhem.

“Elvira would just kick 'em in the groin,” says a nearby sympathizer with inside information.

At last, after a slightly questionable three-count from under a cocktail table, Vinsantos emerges victorious if not a little worse for wear. It's certain the Mistress of the Dark and Queen of the One-Liners would be proud.

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