Actress Recalls Days of 'Reefer Madness'

Times Staff Writer

Thelma White recalls her horror back in 1935 when RKO Studios agreed to star her in a low-budget propaganda film about the evils of "marihuana."

"I was a musical and comedy actress. I didn't want to make a movie about drugs," said White, who had headlined vaudeville shows since the age of 2.

But starlets on contract to RKO had little choice in those days, so White swallowed her pride and threw herself into the part of Mae, a hard-boiled blond dame who lures innocent teen-agers to her apartment for sex and marijuana parties.

The movie, called "Tell Your Children," was written by a religious group and filmed in three weeks. It was also plagued by overacting, didactic speeches and improbable action; and White's worst fears were soon realized.

"I hide my head when I think about it. It was a dreadful film," she said, more than 50 years and 40 films later.

Cult Notoriety

Ironically, it is for that less-than-Academy-Award-winning reel that White is best remembered and has in fact, gained cult notoriety.

Re-released in 1973 under the title "Reefer Madness," the film became an overnight high-camp hit and continues to play steadily in repertory houses, college campuses and midnight shows throughout America.

"It was a classic exploitation film of the 1930s," said Howard Suber, a UCLA film historian and professor. "It's unintentionally funny . . . you laugh at people for being so uptight and emotional. Its popularity comes from feeling superior to these people who were ranting and raving."

White isn't laughing today, except perhaps the rueful little laugh that comes from being 76 and feeling 30. Still strikingly beautiful, the actress radiates warmth and enthusiasm and keeps well-informed on everything from AIDS to heavy-metal music. She shares a modest Panorama City home with husband, Tony, a Chihuahua named Lady, a 100-year-old tortoise, Methuselah, and a parrot named Lovey.

Stopped Acting in '40s

The one-time blond bombshell hasn't acted since the late 1940s, when a debilitating series of illnesses virtually crippled her and forced her into retirement.

But White, a tenacious survivor, returned to Hollywood in the late 1950s as a film agent and, over the years, represented actors Robert Blake, Robert Fuller, Ann Jillian and Dolores Hart among others. She also helped develop independent films such as "Tom Jones Rides Again" under Thelma White Productions and has produced comedy shorts for cable TV.

These days, White is semi-retired again, although she reads the trades each day and says she talks regularly with agents, producers and old studio friends. In her spare time, the actress is writing her autobiography, which she taps out on an IBM typewriter in a study filled with the show business memorabilia of 74 years.

Her parents were itinerant carnival performers who moved from Midwest town to Midwest town, hawking ice cream and candy, short-changing customers and fast-talking their way out of trouble. White's mother was 14 when Thelma was born, and the child made her first public appearance two years later as a live baby doll.

For the act, her parents propped her up next to a row of Thelma-sized dolls, and the little girl would coo and come to life on cue. In between shows, she slept undisturbed on top of the lion's cage, she recalls.

White, born Thelma Wolpa in Lincoln, Neb., can't remember when it wasn't show time. To sidestep do-gooders who wanted Thelma behind a schoolroom desk instead of before an audience, her father used a bottle of whiskey and a sob story to obtain a backdated birth certificate from a courthouse clerk. Although she had a private tutor for three years, the education was cursory, and the young performer never finished elementary school.

What White lacked in academic smarts, however, she made up for in street savvy. Living on the road, the actress learned quickly how to size people up. She refined her flat Midwest accent and enlarged her vocabulary. And she honed a fervent curiosity and respect for life that she maintains to this day.

By 10, when her parents split up, White was singing and dancing her way through theaters around the country as the younger half of a vaudeville duo called "The White Sisters." The two performers were not related.

Sepia photos from that era show a doe-eyed little girl whose hair fell in ringlets around her face and whose baby fat was offset by decollete dresses and stage make-up.

Were Prosperous

The Whites made and spent money--lots of it--and Thelma recalls that her mother sewed $1,000 bills into her corset each week because she didn't trust the 1920s banks.

Did she ever feel exploited?

"Sure, I was exploited. But I didn't know it at the time," White said. She has no regrets, and her eyes still light up when she remembers the giddy whirl of hotel suites, trains and theaters.

"I was happiest on stage," White said dreamily. "The audiences were my family."

The young actress grew up fast. At 15, she married for the first time, sneaking off between shows to wed vaudeville performer Claude Stroud, one of the musical Stroud Brothers. Afraid of what Thelma's mother would say, the teen-age couple kept their marriage secret for six weeks.

It was downhill from there. "I loved Claude," White says today, "But we were just kids." The marriage was annulled after several years, and White married again, this time with an alcoholic actor. By 20, she was single again. White would be 46 before she married for the third and final time to actor and costume designer Tony Millard. She says that marriage is her happiest.

Resembled Mary Pickford

By White's late teens, the baby fat had melted into curves and the blond beauty whose warm smile lit up the publicity stills looked not unlike Mary Pickford. White was soloing now and, in the 1920s, was on contract for seven years to Orpheum, the top vaudeville circuit in the nation. The actress says she also starred with Jack Benny and Patsy Kelly in Earl Carroll's Vanities 8th Edition, headlined the Ziegfeld Follies with Will Rogers in New York and had her own radio show.

When the Depression hit in 1929, White grew even more popular. People clamored for entertainment to dispel the dreariness of their lives, and the wise-cracking vaudeville actress provided that fix.

Those were the go-go years for White. Her career was booming, and she crisscrossed the county in a shiny new Packard, turning it in each year for an updated model.

"I had the first pastel Packard ever made," White said proudly. "It was turquoise."

Took a Screen Test

In 1932, White drove a carload of friends to Hollywood and, enchanted by the weather, decided to stay for a three-week vacation. While shopping on Hollywood and Vine, she met an old agent friend who convinced her to take a screen test.

White had always looked upon Hollywood with cool disdain. Theater was what really made her feel alive. But it just so happened that RKO was looking for an actress to star in "Blond Poison," and White was signed immediately.

For one reason or another, RKO never made "Blond Poison." Instead, the studio starred White in a succession of B movies, including "Bowery Champs," "Wanted by the Police," "Song of the Open Road" and "Spy Train."

Then, in 1935, came the edict to make "Tell Your Children," which also was released under the title "The Burning Question."

White doesn't like to dwell on that movie but agreed to discuss it after gentle prodding.

"The director wanted us to 'hoke' it up. He wanted us to show the 'madness,' " she said.

Didn't Smoke

But reefer was something that White didn't know much about in the 1930s. She didn't even smoke cigarettes then. One scene called for her character to drink martinis and smoke a cigarette. "Boy, did it make me sick," White recalled with a laugh.

Grasping the story line took no great intellect. The ads of the era, in fact, sum it up nicely: "A moment of ecstasy . . . a lifetime of hell."

The plot revolves around the efforts of White and her co-star, Carlton Young, to ensnare teen-agers into marijuana addiction.

As Mae, the "hard-boiled blond dame with a heart of gold," White slinks around the flat in a black silk kimono while the hopped-up youths jitterbug, puff furiously on perfectly rolled "reefers" and engage in back-parlor sex.

Tragedy strikes when young, scrubbed ingenue Mary Lane pays a visit to the reefer pad to rescue her addicted boyfriend, Bill Harper. Another stoned teen-ager makes a pass at Mary, and Bill, in the throes of a marijuana hallucination, mistakenly shoots his love. Meanwhile, Mary's younger brother runs over a pedestrian while under the influence of the evil weed.

Film's Message

Bill goes on trial, but Mae and her beau are found out. As she is led off by a dour-faced warden, Mae is overcome by remorse for her dissolute life and flings herself out a high window. As the camera focuses on her inert body, a narrator drones a final warning about marijuana, the "ghastly menace," the "unspeakable scourge" that threatens the nation's youth. In an epilogue, the film makers warn viewers that marijuana is more dangerous and addictive than heroin and that the story they have just seen is "based on actual research."

Smoking the stuff can also lead to acts of "shocking violence ending often in incurable insanity," the movie makers warn.

"I'm ashamed to say that it's the only one of my films that's become a classic," White says wryly today.

Did the actress ever try marijuana? Well, yes, but not until later. In 1946, when White headed an all-girl musical band, she smoked it twice, just to satisfy her curiosity, she says.

However, "I've never had a desire for alcohol or habit-forming things. You can get hooked on it just like liquor, and I've seen too many bad things happen because of that," she said.

Although "Reefer Madness" packed them in on the cult circuit, White says that all she ever received was the about $2,500 weekly she drew from RKO during the three weeks it took to film the movie--small potatoes, considering that "Reefer Madness" has made about $1.5 million in box-office rentals since it hit the cult circuit, according to the trade publication Weekly Variety. Film historians say there are no reliable figures for previous years, but White maintains the movie has played steadily since its 1935 release.

When re-released during the permissive, drug-prevalent culture of the early 1970s, it found instant success in the cult camp, says Robert Shaye, who distributes movies like "Reefer Madness" and "Cocaine Fiends" under his New York-based New Line Cinema label. The copyright for "Reefer Madness" has long since lapsed and the film is in the public domain, Shaye says.

Sales Have Slowed

Today, with the pendulum in the conservative camp and President Reagan and others stressing the dangers of drug abuse, sales of the reefer epic are a bit more sluggish.

Video stores in Hollywood, for instance, report that "Reefer Madness" is still one of the more popular cult films, but that adventure and pornographic movies enjoy brisker sales.

As for White, she has long stopped fretting about her role as the reefer procuress and appears not to be bitter about the lost residuals.

She and her husband, 12 years her junior, say they live on a budget but that "we're happy. We're not wanting."

In their Panorama City bungalow they have a collection of 300 videotapes, including two copies of the infamous movie. After a 30-year marriage, the couple still call each other "honey" and "darling." Tony, a gourmet chef, cooks dinner each night. One recent evening the menu was squab stuffed with mushrooms, onion and apples, beans, potatoes and fresh biscuits.

Reflecting on her long and varied life, White said: "We have such tranquility and laughter and fun. It's a wonderful age."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°