Pubdate: Thu, 13 Jan 2005
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2005 Los Angeles Times
Author: Elaine Woo, Times Staff Writer
Cited: National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws


Thelma White, whose portrayal of a hard-boiled addiction queen in the 1936 
movie "Reefer Madness" was largely forgotten until the 1970s, when the film 
resurfaced as a cult classic, died of pneumonia Tuesday at the Motion 
Picture and Television Hospital. 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 NORML, 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, staging 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 "Nightmare on Elm 
Street" and other hits.)

Today the movie that critic Leonard Maltin calls "the granddaddy of all 
'Worst' movies" still commands a loyal audience on the cult circuit. 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 
on the Internet at

"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 Los Angeles 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. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake