HOLLYWOOD -- Behind the slinky, sinuous sex symbol known as Elvira lies a fresh-scrubbed product of homegrown goodness named Cassandra Peterson.
Elvira is an invention of a woman who grew up on a farm in the hamlet of Randolph, not far from her birthplace in Manhattan, Kan.
The tall, red-haired and statuesque Cassandra will star in her first movie 'Elvira, Mistress of the Dark' just in time for Halloween.
Until she became Elvira, Peterson was a struggling Hollywood actress who appeared now and then in small parts in episodic TV. She was also a member of the Groundlings, an improvisational comedy group.
Then she heard that KHJ-TV in Los Angeles was looking for a horror hostess to introduce a string of classic (and truly bad) horror films from the past.
'There was no such thing as a horror host in Kansas,' Peterson said wryly. 'It sounded dopey and I didn't want to work in a costume like Bozo the Clown, but I was told they were looking for someone sexy and funny, and that appealed to me.
'I went to a casting call,' she said, 'but no one had told me to dress in vampire drag. Two other girls with the biggest busts I'd ever seen were wearing tight, sexy leotards and plunging necklines. One of them sported fangs installed by a dentist. They both wore black wigs like Lily Munster.
'One of them looked at me and said, 'You might as well leave now. I've got the job.' The others went in for auditions and then it was my turn to take what they called a scream test.
'I got the job because I improvised on the script. It pleased me that I wasn't hired on the basis of the size of my breasts.'
The station executives asked Peterson to make herself look as spooky and ghoulish as possible, but she refused to play the cliche vampire.
'I had a friend draw me a picture of Sharon Tate as she looked in 'The Fearless Vampire Killers' with long red hair and pink diaphanous gown.
'It was sexy, but KHJ insisted on black hair and gown, black fingernails and big cleavage. I objected, but they knew what they wanted.'
The year was 1981 and Elvira was born. She was an instant hit introducing the occult and horror pictures with humor and wit.
The worse the picture, the funnier Elvira became, talking about such nuggets as 'Werewolf from Washington,' 'The Thing With Two Heads' and 'The House That Bled.'
Not long after its debut, the show was syndicated across the country, covering some 70 percent of the major markets. Suddenly, Elvira was a major celebrity.
'I write a lot of my own jokes,' she said. 'The horror hostess job ended when we ran out of old spooky pictures three years ago, but I still need jokes for TV guest shots and personal appearances.
'I've made a series of video cassettes, which I also helped to write, and now I'm doing a horror hostess series titled Movie Macabre for Australian television.
'Halloween is really the busy time of year for me.'
Elvira took over Peterson's life. She hasn't played any other role since assuming the persona.
'I like being stuck with Elvira,' she said. 'Why work for scale wages looking like every other actress in town?
'As Elvira I have very little competition. I've found my own niche in this business. I make good money being paid to act and best of all I have anonymity when I want it,' she said while having lunch in the busy Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, where she was recognized by no one.
Peterson calls herself a comedian and soft peddles the sexy elements of Elvira.
In 'Elvira, Mistress of the Dark,' Elvira loses her job as a horror movie hostess and goes to a New England town to collect an inheritance. On arrival, she casts a spell over the village with electrifying results.
Peterson says the picture is essentially a spook show with laughs. The picture, which has a PG rating, wasn't intended to be erotic, despite Elvira's bulging bosom. The double entendres, it is hoped, will go right over the heads of kids.
'Being Elvira has become a professon with me,' Peterson said. 'The sexy aspect of the character is good-natured. Humor takes the sexy edge off of her.'