Interview with Sam Soto from The Viva Vampira Art Show – at Kat Von D’s Wonderland Gallery – West Hollywood, CA

July 11, 2012

Interview by Louie Bones
Big Wheel Staff Reporter


With the aid of technology good news happens to travel faster than ever and with that said the news of an exhibit dedicated solely to Vampira was something we at Bigwheel had to get the scoop on. The good people over at Wonderland Gallery with the help of Johnny Coffin have really outdone themselves with the Viva Vampira art show; their biggest and most popular show to date at the gallery.




We wanted to know more so we went down and had a chat with head curator Sam Soto (who’s best known for his bass playing in Exene Cervenka's Original Sinners, Mercy Killers, & Fangs on Fur)
Below is our conversation - Enjoy!

We are here today at Kat Von D’s Wonderland Gallery, there are a ton of Vampira photos and memorabilia on display, how did all this come to be here at the gallery?
We have a show here happening at Wonderland, it’s called Viva Vampira, it’s a collection of Johnny Coffins (of Coffin Case fame) Vampira collection, it’s photos and memorabilia, some of the photos have never ever been seen before though some of them have, and we have her classic bat glasses on display in that case right over there. What we’re trying to do is put on a respectful Vampira exhibition.

This seems to showcase the character that is Vampira but there are also photos of her dressed down self, Maila Nurmi.
The image of Vampira and who she was as a person adds to the character because it was her character that she developed herself, it was her style, she was a true rebel long before it was cool to be a rebel. If you look at these photos from 1955 you’ll see her with a shaved head and stuff, this was still totally not “cool” to have or to do that kind of stuff or have that kind of confidence. It’s such a solid idea. It was all very unique, especially for the time. She made and designed her own jewelry too.

 It’s like she had a D.I.Y. ethic…
Oh yeah! Most definitely! Totally, she designed her original dress. Eventually she worked with Liberace; he helped her when she was starting to get her career going again, just like he helped Elvis with the sparkle jumpsuit.

If you look at these pieces over here, this is real early on the set of the Vampira show, you can see how she did her dress herself, she modified it, she actually wore a dress backwards because they didn’t have low plunging dress back then, so she flipped it around and shredded it, she knew how to work it, it’s really cool how she did everything..

She was very fashionably original…
She had an idea of the image she wanted to have as a character, she had a full idea. She’d take notes and make drawings of how she wanted things to be and how things should look; she didn’t take any shit at all.

Can you tell us about the opening night of Viva Vampira?
Sure! It was a full night! We have a capacity of 110 people in here at a time, we kept letting em in! The line was wrapped around the building all night, it was totally packed! We had a live stream camera where we did interviews in here for Vampira fans online, we had 110,000 viewers, it was our biggest show ever. This is actually only our 3rd show ever too. Viva Vampira runs till Halloween, and we are open everyday. Our next show opens on Dia De Los Muertos.

Would you say that the casual Vampira fan to the most obsessive fan would get a kick out of this show?
Oh most definitely! Vampira’s niece and her family came down and she was beside herself. She said it was the most respectful exhibition for Maila and she wishes she could be alive to see this, she said this is how it should be done and that nothing like this had ever been done before for Maila. So hearing that from the family really meant a lot to me because we worked really hard on this and presenting it in a truthful respectful way where it wouldn’t come off as just camp. Sure there is camp, but there are levels of camp, like there is Divine eating dog shit, and then there is Vampira, two totally separate levels of camp. This is way beyond any of that, Vampira got in trouble for some of the things she would say, she’d go off script on set and say things into the camera like “Hey kiddies, go kill your parents!”

That’s pretty fucking morbid!
Yeah! And she was the first one to ever do anything like that, the first horror hostess.

We heard from a reliable source that the family of Bela Lugosi were in attendance and have checked out the show. Is there truth to the rumor?
Yeah they were! The Lugosi family! They were really cool, they loved the show! In fact they are interested in doing a show here. I did a card set for the Viva Vampira show and I’m probably going to do a card show for them as well.

There are postcards made from collections of the show, all limited edition in sets of 8. Just like the photos hanging in the gallery they will be available online very soon, and once they’re gone they’re gone! Everything here except for the bat sunglasses are for sale, we even sale the photos with our custom frames or without.

There are vintage televisions under the photos. Maila’s niece said that she used to watch Vampira on the same kind of TV back when she was younger. It’s all part of the vibe since she was more than just a photographic image.

(The Televisions play non stop static lending an eeriness appropriate for such a spooky show)
You’ll notice we even have photos of her dressed out of costume on display as well. She used to do beauty shots too. We have a shot from her life magazine shoot; it’s one of my favorites. She and James Dean were friends and they hung out together, they were part of the same crew when they were all coming up as actors. We have a page from one of her diaries where she mentions how much she loves James Dean. Right next to it is a drawing of Maila with her shaved head done on a napkin by James Dean at their favorite coffee shop Googies.

You and your wife both work here at Wonderland; can you tell us how all the pieces fell into place in order for the Viva Vampira show to open?
Johnny Coffin first contacted the gallery because there was a movie that was made called “Vampira and Me” and he wanted to have a collaboration, like a Vampira weekend where they’d open the film on one day and we’d open the exhibit the next day. Kat loved the idea so it really started as that. The curator who was in charge at the time had moved on, and it was kind of up for grabs, so I stepped in and ran with it, Kat said she couldn’t think of anyone better for this.

Would it be fair to assume that Kat is influenced by Vampira’s style, she too has black hair, pale skin and wears a lot of dark clothing, sort of vampy in a way…
Oh yes she loves Vampira and is a big fan, in fact she told me “You can do this exhibit, but don’t fuck it up because she (Vampira) means a lot to me!”
Her knowledge of Vampira is very deep; she has lots of really cool interests and allows this all to happen here, it makes this all better with her support. It’s all very natural when you have a boss who you don’t have to go against. She wants people to be exposed to and know about Vampira and her legacy, her influence is long lasting and important.

A lot of this has never been seen before so it’s very cool that we get to put this on display for free for fans. As a fan I’m seeing a lot of these for the first time too.

Big Wheel would like to thank Sam and Lacy Soto for their time and personal tour of the very impressive gallery exhibit.

Kat Von D’s Wonderland Gallery is located just south of Sunset Blvd at -
1257 N. La Brea Blvd, West Hollywood, CA.
(Corner of La Brea and Fountain Ave)

As a horror movie fan, especially of Vampira, I was blown away by the amount of cool photos and priceless memorabilia on display. The good people over at Wonderland have really paid the ultimate respect to Vampira and it must be noted that what they are doing is nothing short of honest and admirable.

Do yourself a favor and pay a visit before the show wraps up on Halloween. Make sure to say hello to Sam, he is the pale punk rocker behind the counter!





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