January 13, 2005
Thelma White, whose portrayal of a hard-boiled addiction queen in the 1936 movie "Reefer Madness" was largely forgotten until the film resurfaced in the 1970s as a cult classic, died of pneumonia Tuesday at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. She was 94.
Born in 1910, White was a carnival performer as a toddler, progressed to vaudeville, radio and movies, then worked as an agent and producer for many years. During her heyday as an actress, she appeared alongside such legendary performers as W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Red Skelton and Jack Benny. What secured her place in Hollywood history, however, was a movie so awful that its memory still made her shudder 50 years later.
"Reefer Madness" was a low-budget propaganda film written by a religious group to broadcast the dangers of marijuana. It was relegated to the cinema waste heap for almost 40 years until 1972, when Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws discovered it in the Library of Congress archives and paid $297 for a print. He then screened it in New York as a benefit for the advocacy group, unwittingly launching it on the road to cult-film history.
The movie was seen by Robert Shaye, who recognized its appeal as a hilarious, if unintentional, parody. He re-released it through his then-fledgling company, New Line Cinema, holding midnight showings until the film became a high-camp hit, especially popular on college campuses. (Based on early successes such as "Reefer Madness," New Line grew into a force in the entertainment industry, responsible for "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and other hits.)
Today the film that critic Leonard Maltin calls "the granddaddy of all 'Worst' movies" still commands a loyal audience on the cult circuit. Amazon.com ranks it No. 35 on its list of 100 bestselling cult-movie videos, and it has been viewed free more than 19,000 times in recent years at http://www.archive.org/movies .
"I'm ashamed to say that it's the only one of my films that's become a classic," White, who made more than 40 movies and shorts during the 1930s and 1940s, told The Times in a 1987 interview.
"I hide my head when I think about it," she said, adding that it was "a dreadful film."
Born Thelma Wolpa in Lincoln, Neb., White was the daughter of itinerant carnival performers who traveled throughout the Midwest. She made her debut at age 2 when her parents stuck her in a line of dolls and at the appropriate moment cued her to start cooing and wiggling.
By 10 she was dancing and singing in vaudeville as the younger member of an act called "The White Sisters," even though she was unrelated to the other half of the duo. They were such a hit that White recalled her mother sewing $1,000 bills into her corset for safekeeping.
After stints with the Ziegfeld Follies and Earl Carroll revues, White turned to movies, signing in 1928 with RKO Studios, which cast her in B movies such as "A Night in a Dormitory," "Sixteen Sweeties" and "Ride 'Em Cowboy!"
In 1935, the musical and comedy actress, to her horror, was asked to star in a movie about teenagers lured into marijuana addiction. White was to play one of the adults who push the "demon weed" on unsuspecting youths. As a starlet still on contract to RKO, she had little choice but to accept the role of Mae, a tough blond who lures high school students to her apartment for back-parlor sex and marijuana orgies.
The characters come to dismal ends — one of the addicted teenagers shoots his girlfriend when she comes to rescue him, while another victim of the "evil weed" runs over and kills a hapless pedestrian. The "ghastly menace" of marijuana sends other characters to the insane asylum and death by leaping out a window.
Rife with overacting and arch melodrama, the movie was a flop. Furthering the insult, the rights were sold to a producer of exploitation films, who screened it on the rural circuit after adding tawdry sex scenes.
Despite her unwholesome role in what became one of the most notorious exploitation movies of the 1930s, White continued to earn featured parts in traveling revues in the United States and abroad.
Misfortune struck at the end of World War II, when, as a USO performer in the Aleutian Islands, she contracted a crippling illness and was told she would never walk again. After several years, she recovered sufficiently to embark on a new career as an agent for such actors as Robert Blake, James Coburn, Ann Jillian, Dolores Hart and Robert Fuller.
In later years, White produced television and movie projects, including the 1969 feature "Tom Jones Rides Again," in which she also co-starred.
Wed three times, she said her third marriage, in 1957, to actor and costume designer Tony Millard was her happiest. Until his death in 1999, they lived in a modest Panorama City bungalow with a collection of 300 videotapes, including two copies of "Reefer Madness."
The movie also inspired an award-winning musical play by the same name that ran off-Broadway after opening in 1999 at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Hollywood.
White, despite her reliance on a wheelchair and oxygen tank, saw the show twice. Any discomfort caused by the notoriety of the movie was dispelled by the play, which unreservedly spoofed it.
The production "was campy and over the top, and she loved it," Michael Homeier, her godson and only survivor, said Wednesday.