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White, as seen in Reefer Madness
December 4, 1910
Lincoln, Nebraska, U.S.
|Died||January 11, 2005
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Early life and career
Born Thelma Wolpa in Lincoln, Nebraska, White debuted in her family's circus show at age 2, acting as a "living doll" who would stand in place until she got a cue to begin cooing and wriggling. At the age of 10 she was dancing in vaudeville as part of The White Sisters, leading to jobs with the Ziegfeld Follies and Earl Carroll revue before she moved to Hollywood in the late 1920s. Her first film was A Night in a Dormitory (1930) co-starring Ginger Rogers. That job led to a number of short films at Pathé Exchange (later RKO Pictures), where she played leading lady to some of the most familiar comic faces of the day, such as Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol.
White's most famous role arrived in Tell Your Children (1936) better known today as Reefer Madness, a low-budget exploitation film to warn audiences of the dangers of marijuana. White appeared as Mae, the tough mistress of dope-dealer Jack (Carleton Young). Jack encourages high school students to take a toke of marijuana, after which they become involved in rape, prostitution, suicide, and various other traumas. The film was a flop and vanished into the vaults for over 30 years.
White continued to struggle through B-movies and small roles for the next few years, and in Hollywood circles was more known for her private life than any on-camera abilities. She was married three times, first to radio star Claude Stroud (one of the Stroud twins) for five years, then a brief marriage to Max Hoffman, Jr. Her final marriage, to actor and costume designer Tony Millard, lasted for several decades.
Tell Your Children was found in a vault in 1972 and rechristened Reefer Madness by pro-marijuana activists and a young movie distributor who saw the movie as having great comedic appeal. The film gained a following on college campuses for its campy nature as well as its crazed depiction of marijuana use. White, who had starred with W. C. Fields and Jack Benny in her best years, was somewhat chagrined to be known for such a film. In 1987, she told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm ashamed to say that it's the only one of my films that's become a classic."
During World War II, White joined United Servicemen Overseas, a government program which featured entertainment for troops serving overseas, and performed as the leader of an all female swing band called Thelma White and Her All Girl Orchestra. She and her band went to Alaska on several occasions with Rose Hobart and Carmen Miranda. She continued to make appearances in B-movies such as The Bowery Boys film series, but near the end of the war contracted a crippling disease while appearing in the Aleutian Islands. White was bedridden for five years and told she would never walk again. Although she did partially recover and appeared in a few late 40's films, her acting career was essentially over.
White's third husband, Tony Millard, died in 1999. She had no children, and spent most of her time with her Mexican Hairless Dogs. White died of pneumonia in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital on January 11, 2005 at age 94.
|1930||A Night in a Dormitory||Thelma|
|1930||Ride 'em Cowboy||Alternative title: Pathé Folly Comedies: Ride 'em Cowboy|
|1930||Sixteen Sweeties||Alternative title: Pathé Melody Comedies: Sixteen Sweeties|
|1931||One Way Out||Desperate for Permanent Wave|
|1933||Hey, Nanny Nanny||Mrs. Bond|
|1934||What Price Jazz|
|1934||Susie's Affairs||Susie's Blonde Roommate|
|1935||Never Too Late||Helen Lloyd||Alternative title: It's Never Too Late to Mend|
|1936||Reefer Madness||Mae||Alternative title: Tell Your Children|
|1936||Two in the Dark||Woman||Uncredited|
|1936||The Moon's Our Home||Salesgirl|
|1936||Forgotten Faces||Nurse in park|
|1938||Wanted by the Police||Lillian|
|1942||Syncopation||Singer on Piano at Party||Uncredited|
|1942||A Man's World||Dancehall girl||Uncredited|
|1942||Pretty Dolly||Baby, Cigar Counter Clerk|
|1944||Bowery Champs||Diane Gibson|
|1948||Mary Lou||Eve Summers|
- Woo, Elaine (2005-01-15). "Thelma White, at 94; starred in campy 'Reefer Madness'". boston.com. Retrieved 2009-05-15.
- "Obituaries". BackStage. 2005-01-20. Retrieved 2009-05-15.