by Steve Desroches
In the summer of 1977 Cassandra Peterson starred in a disco comedy revue called Mama’s Boys at the Post Office Cabaret, featuring her and seven gay men. For three years the group toured the country landing in Provincetown at a wild and decadent time, much to their delight. And their show made the most of those heady days with its variety show format that was always changing, with dance numbers, spoofs and satires, drag, and edgy gay comedy, which was groundbreaking for those days. It would be their last summer together as an act. And in just four years, Peterson would go on to become a cultural icon with the creation of her character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
It’s been 35 years since Peterson became the Queen of Halloween when Elvira’s Movie Macabre premiered on KHJ-TV, Channel 9 in Los Angeles on September 26, 1981. She thought the whole thing wouldn’t last more than a year, never mind become a mega pop-culture phenomenon still going strong. And in celebration, a brand new “coffin” table book Elvira: Mistress of the Dark came out this month, featuring over 350 photographs along with text by Peterson with anecdotes and stories about her years as the wickedly funny high priestess of gothic camp. But Peterson saved one confession for Provincetown Magazine: She’s a drag queen.
“Oh, absolutely,” says Peterson. “First of all I have been around drag queens my whole life! I have a really strong connection to drag queens. I really do consider myself a drag queen, very much.”
Peterson grew up around drag queens in Colorado Springs, where her mother and aunt owned a costume shop, where many were clients. When she was 14 she worked as a go-go dancer at the Purple Cow, a gay bar located right next to the Fort Carson army base just outside of town. One night one of the drag queens canceled, prompting the show’s co-stars Tawny Tim and Mr. Bobby to convince her to step in, as she knew the act so well. That evening in 1965 Tawny, who was black, took to the stage as Diana Ross with Mr. Bobby, who was white, and young Peterson in drag as the Supremes, in black face.
From then on, her life became one adventure after another, including stints as a Las Vegas showgirl, making out with Elvis, landing roles in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever and Fellini’s Roma, fronting an Italian rock band and touring Europe. It was upon her return to the United States that she joined Mama’s Boys, which was followed by several years with the prestigious comedy improv group The Groundlings.
When she was offered the job as Elvira, Peterson was largely given creative freedom on the low-budget TV show. She called her Mama’s Boys co-star and close friend Robert Redding, whom she describes as a true Renaissance man. Together they came up with Elvira’s look, with Ronnie Spector as inspiration for the hair, a book Redding had on Kabuki makeup for the face, a little burlesque, and whole lot of drag for the rest. As for the act, Elvira is mostly improvisation, a craft she first explored with Mama’s Boys.
“That show gave me a big leg up doing comedy and improvisation, performing live night after night,” says Peterson. “I don’t think I would have worked with The Groundlings without Mama’s Boys. It definitely sent me in the direction towards Elvira.”
That summer in Provincetown is still sharp in Peterson’s memory for its good times and wild ways. Everyone was there that summer it seemed: famed female impersonators Craig Russell, Charles Pierce, Arthur Blake, and Lynne Carter; Wayland Flowers and Madame; and John Waters, Divine, Cookie Mueller, and the rest of the Dreamlanders. She had a boyfriend who was a bartender at Front Street, and after her show at the Post Office, she’d sometimes go down to Vorelli’s and sing a few numbers by the piano till last call. She lets out a devilish laugh when thinking about the stories she won’t tell about that summer of 1977.
Shortly after Labor Day she and her castmates boarded a plane along with Russell, Pierce, and Flowers (Madame, presumably, was with the luggage), and as the plane was zipping down the runway at the Provincetown Airport, Pierce turned around and said, “If this plane goes down the drag world is over and it’s taking gay culture with it.”
Peterson has been back to Provincetown many times since, including a couple of weeks this past summer. But as much as she has a deep love for Provincetown, the Cape tip will always elicit a melancholy in her. While they all got a big laugh about Pierce’s drag disaster scenario on the flight to Boston that day, a tragedy was looming. Russell, Flowers, and six out of her seven Mama’s Boys co-stars all died of AIDS, including Redding, who had helped her design Elvira, as did so many of her friends in town. It’s in part why she has been involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS since the very beginning.
As October has arrived and Halloween is upon us, Peterson is knee deep in her busiest time of year making appearances, promoting the new book, doing interviews, and performing her Halloween stage show Elvira’s Dance Macabre nightly at Knott’s Berry Farms just outside Los Angeles. And while she has a lot to do, she can’t help but continue to reminisce about Provincetown and her hopes of returning next summer for an extended stay. She laughs and says she has one more good story and then she has to go, for real this time. It was in the mid 1990s and she was visiting her old friends at Front Street when she almost lived up to her sinister on-screen persona.
“My daughter was in the car and she was three or four years old and I was backing out and I almost ran over John Waters on his bicycle,” says Peterson. “It was right near Front Street. I just missed him. He fell over and was not very happy, but then he saw it was me and he was okay. I could just see the headlines ‘Elvira Kills John Waters!’ For months my daughter would tell random people ‘Mommy almost killed John Waters.’”
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is available online at Elvira.com and Tweeterhead.com for $44.95 with signed editions at $89.95.