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by Steve Desroches

Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark, has been a superstar and cultural phenomenon since she burst onto the scene in the fall of 1981 as the host of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, where she provided comedic interludes during screenings of B horror movies on KHJ-TV in Los Angeles. Within months the character, created in part and portrayed in full by Cassandra Peterson, was internationally famous and dubbed the indisputable title of the Queen of Halloween. Now almost 40 years to the day that Elvira came into being Peterson’s new book Your Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark gives a revealing and candid look at the woman behind the beloved and iconic character as well as detailed stories about her life changing time in Provincetown.

Peterson on Halloween, 1957

Born in Manhattan, Kansas, Peterson’s family lived in the tiny town of Randolph. When she was only 18 months old Peterson was scalded and burned over 35 percent of her body when she reached up and pulled a pot of boiling water off the stove in her family home. The accident left her with scars that would make her feel self-conscious and “like an outsider” for years to come. Then when she was nine, several rivers overflowed and flooded much of the area. To combat future devastating floods a dam was built, which permanently flooded four towns, including Randolph (which was later rebuilt nearby). So her family was forced to move and settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Come the age of 14 a rebellious Peterson began working as a go-go dancer at a nightclub called Hullabaloo near the Fort Carson Army Base and not long after she switched to working at The Purple Cow, a gay bar near the military installation, where she often appeared as a drag queen.

Peterson and Mama’s Boy castmate Robert Redding, 1983

Those seminal experiences at such a young age put Peterson on a trajectory toward being a pioneer in the sexual revolution as well as a horror and Halloween fanatic, as they helped her develop a healthy self-esteem and embrace her sexuality, and sensuality, as well as find a community that embraced her for being different. That led to a fabulous life in which Peterson had been a proud rock and roll groupie, a Las Vegas showgirl, a model, a member of the famed improve troupe The Groundlings where she met longtime friends Phil Hartman and Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens, the lead singer in an Italian pop band as well as appearances in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and Fellini’s Roma. She also reveals difficult periods of her life as well as her life as mother and coming out about her relationship with her female partner. And there is of course all the years as Elvira! But of particular interest to Provincetown readers will be the chapter in which she recounts the summer of 1977, when she stared in a musical comedy burlesque revue titled Mama’s Boys at the Post Office Cabaret. The show featured her and seven gay men, including Robert Redding, who helped her develop the character of Elvira just five years later. Peterson remarked that she’d “never heard of the place, but soon found out that for a ‘fag hag’ like myself, it was like I’d died and gone to gay heaven.” And she’s been returning to Provincetown for years as a visitor, and if many in town have their way she’ll be the grand marshal for the 2022 Carnival parade. Whether or not that happens, Your Cruelly, Elvira is a super fun read of a life that is still very much well lived and a perfect tale for the Halloween season.

Peterson and friend in Provincetown, 1977

Your Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark by Cassandra Peterson (Hachette Books, 2021) is available wherever books are sold. Please support the locally owned bookstores of the Outer Cape.