By Patterson Lundquist
What started off as a bleak rainy Saturday soon began to morph into a day that caught me off guard. Which is rare.
Picture it, Saturday morning eleven thirty, drizzling gray skies hung over the towering sky scrapers of down town Atlanta. Normally one would encounter fairly empty streets, not much pedestrian traffic, and very few tourists. In Atlanta, when it rains, we stay in doors. Unlike New York, you won't find mobs of umbrellas moving up and down the streets.
I hauled myself into the lobby of the Marriott Marquis Hotel. One of Atlantas largest and most dazzling 'old school' hotels. It's been around for a while, but is amazing in architecture and still gives newer luxury hotels a run for their money. It's unique architecture being one of it's most popular features, from the main lobby you can see up through the center to the fiftieth floor. Unique architecture catches the most attention, however what made this visit different were the masses of costumed individuals, the directional signs and the surfacing whisper "Elvira is here."
Of course, I knew in advance, Elvira herself, the persona which has been attached at the hip with Halloween since the baby years of the 1980's in fact was not present. Her alter ego (as she calls it) Cassandra Peterson was however.
This being my first encounter with the infamous 'Cassandra Peterson' I began to wonder just how much the two figures would differ (no pun intended). The night before, Elvira, in all her kabookie make-up, polyester clad - cleavage exposing, bouffant topped glory had wowed the crowd which packed the grand ballroom where she screened her new movie "Elvira's Haunted Hills."
Hamming it up to the masses, slipping double entendres into her replies to nearly every question asked, while managing to keep a constant sparkle, Elvira...LIVE proved to be better than anyone might have expected. Not only did she manage to keep everyone laughing, but of course she found a way to direct attention to her two most famous features, 'Trick and Treat' as she is known to call them. Now was the moment of truth. Would Cassandra Peterson live up to the reputation set forth by her alter ego?
In a word... YES.
Upon rounding the corner of the main exhibition hall I spotted her, perched in a gorgeous blood red, lace lined stretch top, with elbow length black sweater and knee length skirt. Flowing long strawberry blond hair and dazzling blue eyes you could spot from the moon. I must have been smiling, because as I approached her booth (unknowingly passing a line of fans waiting for an autograph) she perked, looked up at me and smiled. Energetically bubbled and exclaimed "Hi Patterson!"
Don't get me wrong, I'm sure she remembers quite a few people, and true. I was with her the night before, and took photos near the end of her movie screening. Though, I believe I instantly split Elvira from Cassandra when I saw her as herself. Not stopping to realize that she is truely the same person in her own right sharing memory of what she did as Elvira.
"Hey," I almost blurted back, caught off guard.
"Great to see you," she smiled as I rounded the side of her booth and allowed the fan before her to express his... enthusiasm.
"Mark, hi," I exclaimed shaking hands with the other half of the Queen of Halloween. It was an honor to meet the man behind the proverbial curtain that is Elvira. He who turns the wheels, greases the axles and has kept Elvira a part of American pop culture for now twenty years.
Joining them was Susan McNabb, Cassandra's stand-in and hand double for most of 'Elviras' film/video career. Susan has been seen for years now along side Cassandra/Elvira at many of her public appearances. From what I've gathered from fans, everyone thinks they are sisters. Truly, they look like sisters. Susan in a word 'fun.' Not only was she polite but she carried no airs about herself. Which was refreshing, sometimes friends of celebrities acquire this air, as if they are important because of who they are friends with. This was not present with Susan. Cool on the phone, great in person and fun all by herself.
What started off as a brief conversation turned into a sit down, and hang out with the 'Elvira Crew.' Sitting back and watching along side the three of them I was amazed at the grace and beauty Cassandra exudes. Each fan was greeted with a smile, a chuckle and clearly appreciated. From the almost too eager, to the almost too shy. It was nice to see that each fan was treated with the same sweetness.
"Don't spit in it," she chirped with a wink as I went to refill her water glass at the stand near by.
Usually I'm prepared for a quick come back, but with Cassandra I never am prepared when she says things like that. Thankfully the time spent tipping the water keg (it was low on water) allowed me to come up with something to reply with when I returned.
"I think I managed to pick out all the hairs," I smirked as I handed her the glass.
"Ewww yuck, uh thanks I think," she laughed as she sipped and returned to signing. Thus proving that Cassandra Peterson while an alter ego of Elvira, is not a prude in any sense of the term.
Now the classic question comes forth,
"Is she Elvira out of costume?"
Yes and no. While she definitely looks nothing like Elvira without the pounds of make up and hair she honestly shares some traits. Her voice, identical. The chest, just as large, and even more visible. When you wear black, curves are hidden. Cassandra was truly working that outfit for all it was worth. Humor, similar, exclude the Halloween'ie transformations of words like 'weirdos and weirdetts, ladies and dobermans,' and other corn pone sound-a-like Halloween style slangs.
Aside of it all there is a clear difference. Sitting there watching and chatting with the real woman allowed me to realize, I do feel different around Elvira in regard to the feeling I get around Cassandra. Elvira has a history, a well publicized, highly illustrious career. Standing before her, chatting with Elvira, you feel you know her, you've grown up with her or admired her for years.
Cassandra's past is, honestly less glamourus at times, less over dramatized and much more interesting. Which is made possible because it's real, and not cooked up over a backstage water cooler or during a drive to an interview. It's not all pretty, not all fun and not all bad. Heartache, struggle, stamina and success of Cassandra Peterson's life replace the horror, mystery, seduction and vampish facade that is Elvira, and replaces it beautifully.
Cassandra is a real person, therefore, in front of her, talking and chatting you find yourself on slightly unfamiliar ground.
'This is real, this isn't a fantasy. This isn't a story line, it's real life.'
So, lunch time arrives. When you're keyed up for fans, you need down time, you need a break and a breather. I was more than happy to slip off and have a quiet lunch with myself.
After all that, I needed time to gather myself for the after lunch signing.
Q: So after all these years, are you finally giving Knotts the heave ho? You know hanging it up?
A: You know I ask myself that every year. The event is so much fun it's the biggest Halloween event in the country, and the money is so good. I mean yah after all these years you do get tired sometimes. I guess, at the end of the season I'm going 'it's over no more I'm tired!' But then the next season rolls around, the offers come in and you go 'maybe just one more time.' So fact is, I never know one month to the next what I'll be doing.
Q: Has retirement ever crossed your mind?
A: Has it ever! (laughs) Actually I'm a few years beyond when I had planned to retire.
Q: Are you unhappy as Elvira? After twenty years still playing the character?
A: Oh no, I love her. She's great, she's allowed me great anonymity. It's just getting harder and harder to fit into that gown. You know she hasn't changed dress sizes in twenty years?! I'm not unhappy about how long I've done Elvira, it's nothing like that. I've had many offers to do many other things as Cassandra, they either didn't pan out or I chose not to take them. Elvira is where the money is, you get more for Elvira than you do for Cassandra Peterson.
Q: Would you ever consider going back to hosting movies on television again?
A: Oh yeah! I'd love that! That was so much fun. But the thing is, all those old, bad movies have been bought up by all the big studios. So to try and buy rights to air them, I mean you can do it, but it's so expensive. Lets just say, you can't make money doing it that way anymore. It's too expensive.
Q: What is it like now, juggling a daughter and your Elvira career?
A: I used to never think I'd say this, but being a good mother is the most important thing to me. We tried so hard to have children, and well Sadie is just a miracle. It's tough sometimes, you know to juggle. But we manage. (smiles)
Q: Does Sadie have any confusion as to you as Mom and you as Elvira?
A: No, not at all. I had kinda wondered if she would in the beginning. But she's totally into it. She even has her own little Elvira costume. I took her once with me to a photo shoot, and she sat in my lap for a few photos and didn't want to leave! She wanted to be in all of them! She's so precious, I had just gotten back from having my nails done over in black for the fall season and she looked at them and said "Oh no! Mommie you're turning into Elvira!" (laughs)
Q: What are your hopes for the near future?
A: Ah... that Elvira's Haunted Hills does well. I'm tellin' yah. Otherwise I'll be living out of the back seat of my car.
The Macabre Mobile right?
(laughs) Yeah that's right. You know I just got it back a few years ago. It was falling apart, had been since we used it in '88.' It was sitting in this garage and the guy who had it asked us if we wanted it, otherwise he was gonna have it scrapped, we were like "YES!" So we've had it restored, and I've been taking it to auto shows, really having a blast. It's driveable now!
Yes, I've seen the photos of it in your 2002 Calendar, as well as on your site and in some news magazines it looks great.
Q: I guess finally I should ask you where you're going to be popping up next, where fans can expect to see you.
A: Oh man, like I said, I never know from one month to the next. I guess the best answer I could give you is to tell them to check elvira.com. All my scheduled appearances are listed there as soon as we book them.
I've been there, your site is actually one I check up on every other day or so to see how it's coming. It's a really great site. I've watched it grow from when it first opened to the present. I feel almost like a proud parent! I tell everyone who asks me about you to go to your site, because it's so awesome.
Oh! Why thank you! Oh that's great. Yeah I'm very happy with the site, there's just so much to do and see there. There's even a section for the movie there where you can go behind the scenes and see photos on the set. It's really great.
What finally wrapped up a lengthy after lunch autograph session turned into a trek I'm sure none of us will forget. For Mark, Susan and myself an on foot pursuit for Cassandra's next appearance. For Cassandra a good half an hour or more of remembering why high heel shoes should qualify for induction into the book 'Instruments of the Spanish Inquisition.'
After making it up the escalator with Cassandra (and goosing about five people with the Elvira guitar in it's casket shaped carrying case) we hit the streets. Hopefully next year we can look forward to the street between DragonCon's host hotels to be closed, allowing pedestrian traffic to cross at either point, instead of a quarter block down at the intersection.
Before you ask yourself why Cassandra would appear out of 'Elvira drag,' let me explain one very wonderful accessory Cassandra has... Anonymity! Only the hardcore, die hard Elvira fans recognise her out of costume. The night before after the screening of Haunted Hills 'Elvira' walked with no less than four body guards just through the hotel lobby to the elevator up to her suite for the night. Everyone she passed nearly broke their necks to watch her. Making an unguarded stroll a request for a mobbing. However as Cassandra it was a breath of fresh air for two people to stop and smile, in exchange for fifty people to stop turn and charge towards you.
After photos were taken and thanks exchanged, when all was said and done upon retiring to her room in her suite I was truly amazed by how the entire day had progressed. Packing my camera as I chatted with Mark I began to realize that everything, when going right flies past you at lightening speed. Leaving you to scramble to remember how it happened. Through it all one thing was clear. Cassandra Peterson is not only Elvira, she's a mother, an actress, a comedienne, a Samaritan, and a lady who has the ability to withstand the test of time.
When moments became rough during our time together, when schedules were mixed, and panel locations were jumbled Mark pulled through, Susan supported and Cassandra glowed. Proving that one can be famous, one can be rich, one can be talented, but at the same time, all those gifts and blessings does not require one to be a bitch. If ever I was confused as to how Elvira, outside of marketing and demographic based strategies has held up for twenty years, all that was resolved by Cassandra's charming nature, natural beauty and wonderful personality. If Elvira is the Mistress of the Dark, then Cassandra is Goddess of the Light.
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