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Actress Recalls Days of 'Reefer Madness'

February 12, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | 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."

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