“The Elvira Show”: The Mistress of the Dark’s failed 1993 CBS sitcom promised big tit schtick and a few magic tricks

By on March 17, 2016

In the early 90s, actress Cassandra Peterson — better known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark — was approached by CBS Television execs who wanted her to develop a weekly sitcom, “The Elvira Show,” based on the fact that the campy cult TV hostess and comedienne was already pretty well-known for both her bosomy beauty and good-natured self-mockery.

A network TV sitcom would certainly increase Elvira’s audience beyond the obsessed late-night lite comedy/gorehound fiends who counted themselves among her rabid fans at the time, and so it seemed like the perfect kind of opportunity designed to yield great results for just about everyone involved.

Peterson quickly paired up with her fellow Groundlings theatre troupe member John Paragon, with whom she’d been writing Elvira-related projects for many years.

Paragon — who occasionally had acting roles on several previous Elvira shows, playing “the Breather” on Elvira’s long-running syndicated Movie Macabre show (it aired from 1983-2010), but many of you may also know him as both Jambi and the voice of Pterri the Pterodactyl on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” — and Peterson then began the task of figuring out what kind of show to present to CBS.

By then, CBS had earned themselves a longstanding reputation as the “Tiffany Network,” but in the early nineties were struggling to compete for viewers against the other major networks. In fact, the network was in a prime position for a possible sale in the early 90s, and the network had recently held off a hostile takeover by Ted Turner around this same time. The takeover had failed, but the network had incurred considerable debt in fighting off Turner, and also, during the late 80s and early 90s, they were forced to make big changes in order to shore themselves up, which included selling off many of their side-businesses — like their Columbia Records division to Sony in 1987 — in order to focus on the success of the broadcasting network.

NBC’s comedy programming, meanwhile, was regularly beating CBS with their strong lineup of “Must See” TV sitcoms at the time.  CBS did have a few successful shows in their Friday night lineup, with “Major Dad,” “Designing Women,” “Bob” (that would be a short-lived series for Bob Newhart) and “Picket Fences.” Otherwise, and on every other weeknight, they were focusing on something other than comedy, including primetime soaps like “Dallas,” for instance. They had also been battling behind-the-scenes to sign David Letterman, who had recently split from his own NBC “Late Night” show after being shafted out of the job as host of “The Tonight Show” by his former friend Jay Leno.

What all this means is, CBS needed every situation comedy they were producing to be a hit series — that’s pretty much a given anyway — and there was simply too much at stake, and so there must have been considerable pressure on Peterson and Paragon to produce outstanding results with their pilot script.

At some point, and probably or at least possibly at CBS’s behest, veteran TV writer/producer Anne Beatts came aboard the project. She’d had a longtime relationship with CBS, and certainly wasn’t inexperienced in TV, nor was she new to comedy, having been the first woman Contributing Editor of the National Lampoon and having both performed and written for the “National Lampoon Radio Hour” before joining the writing staff of “Saturday Night Live,” which had earned her two Emmy awards.

In the early 80s she’d created and produced the critically-acclaimed but short-lived half-hour CBS sitcom “Square Pegs” for Norman Lear’s Embassy Television in 1982. That show, however — which had starred Sarah Jessica Parker as a high school misfit among misfits — had failed somewhat spectacularly after just one season.

TV Guide even ran a story after the cancellation of”Square Pegs” titled “Anatomy Of A Failure: How Drugs, Ego, And Chaos Helped Kill A Promising Series” which said that part of the reason the show had failed after just 20 episodes was the fact that Beatts was inexperienced as a showrunner/producer, in charge of the entire production, and she’d become too close to some of the cast, making friends with some cast and crew members (most of them under the age of 18),  while alienating others.

There were also rumors of excessive drug and alcohol use on the set of the show (It was shot at the abandoned Excelsior High School in Norwalk, a suburb twenty miles southwest of L.A., too far away for CBS to really know what was going on), but years later, Gerald Casale of DEVO confirmed to Heeb magazine that when his band headlined a “New Wave Bat Mitvah” on one episode, he snorted cocaine with Sarah Jessica Parker and Jami Gertz in their talent trailers, and he saw a lot of sexual activity going on between everyone who wasn’t on camera at the time.

Nevertheless, Beatts had continued to work in TV, and by the early 90s she had also co-executive-produced the first year of NBC’s long-running hit series “A Different World,” a new sitcom spinoff of Lisa Bonet’s character Denise Huxtable from “The Cosby Show,” which was to follow her as she went off to attend college somewhere in the south.

Beatts — the only white writer/ producer for a show designed to give voice to the African-American sisterhood at the fictional Hillman College — had been brought on board after four dismal episodes had been shot in order to save the show from what NBC saw as a certain failure. Beatts — who was often brought on to new projects to shore them up — had to write an entirely different pilot episode (creating new characters) just six weeks before the show was scheduled to air for the first time with “The Cosby Show” as a lead-in. She would go on to create two of the show’s most memorable characters, a cliche guy named Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Harrison) and Denise’s roommate Jaleesa (Dawnn Lewis).

NBC expected big numbers from “A Different World,” and they weren’t disappointed when the show became a huge hit, but after Lisa Bonet left the show after season one had wrapped — she was apparently unhappy about the show’s direction and she and her husband at the time, Lenny Kravitz, were expecting their first child and she wanted to take time off — Beatts left the show after those first 21 successful episodes were in the can.

We mention all this as a way of introducing the fact that with Anne Beatts on board to help guide “The Elvira Show” beyond the pilot, CBS were sure they were going to get a funny, lighthearted and hopefully sexy sitcom which might actually appeal to their younger viewers — the desired demographic they hoped would bring in solid ratings numbers each week and also attract huge national advertisers — but the pilot episode they got was something else entirely and what happened was somewhat unexpected and disappointing for everyone involved.

Some of the disappointment can probably be traced back to those early decisions made by the show’s writers (Beatts, Peterson/Paragon) themselves, who for some reason thought it might be good to set the show inside a creepy old two story colonial house (that we barely get to see, except for the living room) in the happening suburb of Manhattan, Kansas.

Yes, Manhattan, Kansas, the actual town where Peterson was born (her family would later move to Colorado Springs, Colorado, after the area surrouding her childhood home in Randolph, Kansas, was flooded by the state in order to create a new water reservoir).

Peterson decided to set her sitcom in the low-key Kansas town, having Elvira move from Hollywood, CA, in order to keep an eye on her wacky, aunt Minerva, who is also a witch, but mostly spends her days, remote in hand, channel surfing. She’s played by veteran TV actress Katherine Helmond, whose shows included “Soap,” and “Who’s the Boss,” and movies like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Oh, and she has talking cat Renfield, voiced by John Paragon, doing one of those wise-cracking, sassy and vaguely effeminate feline voices that we’ve come to expect from Paragon.

It was decided that Elvira should keep a low profile, and so she sets up shop as a fast-talking psychic who reads palms and sells homemade love potions to local Manhattan, KS neighbors who drop by the house and admit they need Elvira’s helpful potions in order to help them land “Mr. Right.”

Elvira herself even falls for a hunky dude who just happens to show up on her doorstep, named Chip (Ted Henning) who we learn during the pilot is actually an undercover cop bent on setting Elvira up in order to bust her for illegal business practices and for selling phony love potions after one of Elvira’s customers ends up in the hospital.

It doesn’t sound quite right to us that Elvira should have to throw herself at any dude for their attention, but that’s exactly what the writers came up with. “Oh Chip, I see big things in your future,” she says, as the camera pans down to her crystal ball revealing the reflection of her lovely large milky white breasts. After Elvira accidentally freezes him, she worries aloud, “He’s a policeman! What am I going to do with a big, stiff cop?”

We’re also introduced, during the pilot, to Elvira’s long lost 18-year old niece, Paige, played Phoebe Augustine of the band Cling, who had played the ill-fated Ronette Pulaski on TV’s “Twin Peaks” and also the David Lynch-directed spinoff movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).

Paige basically shows up on their doorstep, out of the blue and dressed like a girl scout, and she pretty much moves in with Aunt Minerva, Elvira and Renfeld for awhile. For her back story it turns out that Paige’s parents died (we’re told her mother died a few years just after her dad had died, during “a mysterious boating accident in the Bermuda Triangle“) and she was raised by Catholic nuns on a remote island off the coast of Maine. Oh, the hilarity! Both Elvira and Minerva conceal the fact that they’re witches from Paige, but by the end of the pilot we learn that she’s a witch too, of course, when Paige saves Elvira’s ass in the nick of time, bringing the pilot episode to its ho-hum climax.

Nevertheless, Elvira tells Paige it’s best not to attract negative attention and it’s best for them to only do the witchly magic tricks at home. “I‘m tired of pulling stakes up to avoid being burned at one,” Elvira says to Paige while reprimanding her for practicing her dark magick in public. Those “tricks,” by the way, were extremely limited — imagine the kinds of special effects you can pull off on a sitcom budget.

Mostly, though, since this was an Elvira show, the writing was going to showcase a lot of boob (and occasional dick) jokes that focused squarely on Peterson’s ample bosoms — and everything seems to have been written in order for her to constantly remind us of Elvira’s cleavage, with lots of risqué double entendres that are mostly, sad to say, “groaners.”

“This is a bust!,” says a female cop during the pilot, which allows Elvira to point to her own cleavage and correct her, “No, this is a bust.” Instead of saying “opportunity only knocks once,” she says “Hey, opportunity only gives you knockers once.” Gettit?

Hey, we love Elvira’s boobs as much as the next guy or gal, but all the big tit schtick gets old pretty fast, especially in the network sitcom format, where you can see the jokes coming from a mile away.

The pilot was shot in front of a studio audience and the plan was then to air it for CBS execs, and the decision was to be made by the president of CBS Entertainment, Jeff Sagansky, who had just a few years earlier predicted that his cellar-dwelling network would win the prime-time ratings race in the 1991-92 season. They didn’t.

However, Sagansky was in the hospital at the time, and so the decision to greenlight the show fell instead to Howard Stringer, who was the president of CBS, Inc., the man responsible for all CBS’s broadcast activities of its entertainment, news, sports, radio and television stations.

Peterson — speaking with the AV Club’s Sean O’Neal in 2009 — described what happened next, when Stringer flew out from New York to see “The Elvira Show” (she gets quite a few of the details about Stringer and CBS wrong, however):

CP: You just hit another very bitter chord. [Laughs.] I’m gonna sound like this angry old bitch. Yeah, that was a bummer, man. That was a really good show, and I was very proud of it—as proud as I am of Mistress Of The Dark. Again, John Paragon and I wrote it, and it was funny as hell. It was a pilot for CBS, and it was the happening pilot at CBS — like, No. 1 with a bullet. And then the president of CBS at the time, Jeff Sagansky, on the day that they screen all the pilots and pick the ones that are going to go on, he got ill — I think with pneumonia — and had to be put in the hospital. So this guy flew out, this VP from New York named Howard Stringer who was head of sports for CBS, and when he saw my show, he said, “Uh… We can’t show those kinds of tits on TV.” [Laughs.] Just like that. And one of the executive producers just stood up and quit CBS right then and there. It was kind of a nightmare.

AVC: Stringer didn’t know what Elvira looked like?

CP: He’d never seen me before! He just did sports. He was like, “We can’t have that kind of cleavage on our channel!” That was it. We had a live audience — I’m gonna brag here — and the guy who does the “sweetening,” you know, with the added laugh track, he said it was the first time in his entire career that he didn’t have to sweeten a TV pilot. That means all the laughs in there were genuine! So that was disappointing. But unlike film, it didn’t take three years to make. Only a year!

Peterson, obviously still has her reasons for being upset that her show’s full first season order was canceled by Stringer after only seeing the pilot episode — which never aired on TV, incidentally — particularly since the ABC network (not CBS, Cassandra) would develop a similar Friday night sitcom just a few TV seasons later.

Sabrina, The Teenage Witch — which premiered on September 27, 1996, to ver 17 million viewers in its Friday night “T.G.I.F.” line-up — was actually based on the Archie comic book series, but it did also happen to feature two aunts who happened to be witches, their teenage niece Sabrina, (the show’s star, Melissa Joan Hart, also a witch) and a 500-year old wizard named Salem Saberhagen, who is serving a 100-year sentence as a talking cat (voiced by Nick Bakay).

AVC: How do you think the premise of this show would have played out had it been allowed to continue?

CP: Well, it was allowed to continue: CBS did Sabrina, The Teenage Witch with the exact identical plotline as my show. The talking black cat, the two old aunts, the teenage girl — the whole damn thing — and they released it the following year. It just focused on the teenage lead instead of me — because in my show, I was the aunt of a teenage girl, along with Katherine Helmond. Teenage girl, aunts who are witches, young girl who didn’t want to be a witch because she wanted to fit in, talking black cat, blah blah blah… It did get made! [Laughs.]

AVC: Did you ever consider taking legal action?

CP: No, because who wants to start a lawsuit with someone like CBS? I didn’t have billions of dollars and tons of years to prove that that’s what happened. But everyone who was involved with the show agrees that that’s what happened. Even though Sabrina was a character that existed before, they just put her in the show that I had. More sour grapes! But it probably would have changed the whole world for me.

My whole thing is, I’m really independent. My character’s not owned by anyone, which has a great side and a bad side. The great side is, I can do anything I want. The bad side is, I don’t have the money from a big studio behind me, so I get much less exposure. But it pays off when I go to horror conventions or Comic-Con, where you see people from Star Wars or Star Trek or whatever. When people wonder why they get tired of their characters and I don’t, it’s because I make 100 percent of everything I get, and they only make a small percentage. The studio gets all the money, and they’re just “allowed” to appear and get paid a fee.

When I sell something, I get all the money. So I don’t ever get tired of my character, because I get all the money. I was at a convention with “Captain Kirk”—you know, what’s his name—and all he wanted to do was get away from that character. And it’s because he can’t make any money at it.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
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