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LOS ANGELES - Actress Thelma White, best known for playing a drug addict in "Reefer Madness," a 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film that resurfaced decades later as a cult classic, has died. She was 94.
She died of pneumonia Tuesday at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in the city's Woodland Hills section, her godson, Michael Homeier said.
White played a hard-boiled blond named Mae who peddles "demon weed" to unsuspecting youths in the low-budget cautionary tale written by a religious group about the dangers of marijuana. In the film, she lures high school students to her apartment for sex and drugs, turning them into hopeless addicts who shoot their girlfriends, run over pedestrians and go insane.
A musical and comedy actress who made more than 40 movies with the likes of W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, and others, White was horrified when RKO studios picked her for the film. She had little choice but to accept the role because of her contract.
"I'm ashamed to say that it's the only one of my films that's become a classic," White, told The Times in a 1987 interview. "I hide my head when I think about it ... a dreadful film."
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.
The movie was destined for obscurity, but in 1972 Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, discovered it in the Library of Congress archives, bought a print and screened it at a New York benefit.
The movie was seen by Robert Shaye, who recognized its appeal as a hilarious, if unintentional, parody. He rereleased 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.
Born Thelma Wolpa in Lincoln, Neb., in 1910, 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.
In 1928, White signed with RKO Studios, which cast her in short films such as "A Night in a Dormitory," "Sixteen Sweeties" and "Ride 'Em Cowboy!"
White twice saw an off-Broadway musical that spoofed the movie in 1999 despite her reliance on a wheelchair and an oxygen tank.
The musical play "was campy and over the top, and she loved it," said Homeier, White's only survivor.
-------------------- "Marihuana produces a wide variety of symptoms in the user, including hilarity, swooning, and sexual excitement ... it often makes the smoker vicious, with a desire to fight and kill." - Scientific American, March 1936