You Stole My Act! A Tale as Old as Time.

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Bacon vs. Rand

Zeigfeld called her “the most beautiful woman in the world”.  Born in California, Faith Bacon began her burlesque career in Paris in the early 1920’s, returning to the United States to appear on Broadway in Eric Carroll’s Vanities in 1928.  Her first arrest for indecency was July 9, 1930 when police raided the New Amsterdam Theater and she was “the nude”, a nude figure on stage while the lights played on her flesh.  According to Bacon, it was this arrest that prompted her to *invent* the fan dance, which she performed in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1931.  In 1933, she was booked to perform at The Chicago World’s Fair.  She accepted the gig before she learned that her bitter rival was also booked- and for a fan dance- which Bacon claimed was a copy-cat.

Sally Rand

Born in Missouri, Sally Rand entered the theater world at just 13.  She went on to silent films in the 1920s, and at the advent of talkies, switched to being a burlesque dancer, starting out at The Paramount Club in Chicago.  There Sally was known for her fan dance and bubble dance, both of which were booked in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

Some claim that Bacon had become “difficult” over the years, but whatever the reason, the fair launched Sally Rand to infamy, and Bacon into decline.  Bacon sued Rand in October of 1938 for $375,000 for “stealing her act”.  According to Bacon, she met Rand in 1930 and hired her to hold her fans backstage, declaring “Rand was nothing but a fan rack”.  Rand responded publicly with “Cleopatra waved fans and did disrobing.  Faith suing me over that fan dance of hers is as funny as Webster suing somebody for using words in the dictionary.”

I could not find the outcome of the lawsuit, but I assume she did not win that sizable chunk of change for the time, as she began a downward spiral in the 1940’s, that culminated in her jumping out of a window to her death in 1956 because she was penniless and unable to find work.

Vampira vs. Elvira

Maila Nurmi, Vampira

Born Maila Syrjaniemi in 1922 in Massachusetts, she moved to LA and later to New York looking to make a career in acting; she was known professionally as Maila Nurmi.  Nurmi goat a few small parts here and there and was reportedly fired by Mae West in 1944’s Catherine the Great, because West feared she was being upstaged.  She gained much attention after appearing in Spook Scandals, a late night horror-themed, Broadway show and also danced alongside Lili St Cyr at the Eric Carroll Theater.

In 1953 she attended an annual masquerade in a costume inspired by Morticia Addams.  Her appearance caught the eye of a tv producer who loved it, and in 1954 The Vampira Show was born, and Nurmi made history as the first horror movie hostess.  Nurmi said her character was influenced by The Dragon Lady comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, and the evil queen from Disney’s Snow White.  Each show opened with Vampira’s classic trance walk followed by her staring straight into the camera and screaming.  Then she would introduce and mock that evening’s film while reclining on a skull encrusted Victorian couch.   The show was cancelled in 1955 and Nurmi retained rights to the character.  Nurmi had a few movie and tv roles in the late 50’s and 60’s, including Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Cassandra Peterson as Elvira

By 1962, Nurmi was making a living installing flooring and selling handmade jewelry and clothing.  Almost twenty years later, Nurmi was asked by KHJ-TV to revive her Vampira character for television.  She was to receive producer credit and work closely with the other producers of the show.  Before it aired, Nurmi left the show over “creative differences”.  Nurmi wanted Lola Falana, an American singer, dancer, and actress of African and Cuban decent.  “When they called me in to sign the final contract there was comedic actress Cassandra Peterson.   They hired her without asking me.”  Unable to use the name Vampira after Nurmi’s abrupt abandoning of the project, “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” was born in the spring of 1981, and aired until 1986.

“The character she (Peterson) is playing is 75-80% Vampira–some parts are missing, some things have been added,” said Nurmi. “They’ve taken a large part of Vampira and added these lowly commodities and given it a wider common denominator, but in so doing this, destroyed the character. I resent their taking my product and doing that to it.”- Maila Syrjaniemi

Nurmi worked hard and saved all the money she could and finally had enough to obtain an attorney and filed suit in 1989.  Peterson responded with: “I’d like her (Nurmi) to be friendly with me. I don’t know why she has such hostility toward me.”  Peterson claimed that Elvira was nothing like Vampira aside from the basic design of the black dress and black hair. Nurmi claimed that the entire Elvira persona, which included comedic dialogue and intentionally bad graveyard puns, infringed on her creation’s “distinctive dark dress, horror movie props, and…special personality”.   The court eventually ruled in favor of Peterson, holding that “likeness means actual representation of another person’s appearance, and not simply close resemblance.”

Nurmi never was as successful as Elvira in securing licensing deals and merchandising, and spent the final two decades of her live living of social security checks and Ebay sales of handmade items.  She died at home of natural causes in 2008.

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