Thelma White: From Revues to Reefer Madness

December 4 gave us Thelma White (Thelma Wolpa, 1910-2005).

Originally from Lincoln Nebraska, White started her career at age two in the family tent show, playing a “living doll” named Baby Dimples — she would remain absolutely rigid and still until she received a cue to come to life. According to IBDB, when she was six years old she was cast in the Broadway production of J. M. Barrie’s A Kiss for Cinderella (1916-1917) starring Maude Adams.

By age 10, she was dancing with her siblings in a vaudeville act called the White Sisters. The skills she developed there were a springboard to Broadway musicals: she was in Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1926 and 1930, as well as the shows Spring is Here (1929) with Charlie Ruggles; Tell Her the Truth (1932) with Margaret Dumont and William Frawley; Saluta (1934) with Milton Berle; and Right This Way (1938) with Joe E. Lewis and Blanche Ring. I’ve often seen it reported that she was also in the Ziegfeld Follies, but she’s not listed as such on IBDB, although she might have traveled with touring editions of the show.

Her first marriage was to actor Claude Stroud of the Stroud Twins. According to the Washington Post, they were married when she was only 15; the marriage would have covered the years 1925-1930. The break-up occurs at the same time she got into films.  From the 1930 and 1934 she starred in musical and comedy shorts. The first was A Night in a Dormitory (1930), directed by Harry Delmar and co-starring Ginger Rogers. A couple of her shorts co-star her with with Fanny Watson of the Watson Sisters. Most of them team her with a now-forgotten New Orleans entertainer named Billy Wayne. Ironically one of the last of her shorts from this period, Hey Nanny Nanny (1933) pairs her with two of the biggest comedians Clark and McCullough. Her first feature was a bit part in Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hips Hips Hooray (1934).

In the mid to late 30s she alternated between bit parts in mainstream features, and starring roles in B movies, the most famous (notorious) of which was the 1936 exploitation film Tell Your Children a.k.a. Reefer Madness in which she plays a tough broad who turns on a bunch of innocent high schoolers to the tea that will drive them to insanity and murder. Sadly this has become her best known association. I mention it in the title to get your attention, but I purposely “buried the lede” in this post, because ya know what? The rest of her career was pretty great. The few people who think of her at all nowadays probably think she was some bottom feeding amateur or something. But she worked with some great people and she was in some great projects. Her career would have a dignity and a worth all its own whether or not she had ever done Reefer Madness and now today that movie sticks out like a sore thumb to bedevil her memory.

There is a bit of a gap in her career between the years 1938 and 1942; this may be the period when she was married to bit player/ B movie actor Max Hoffman, Jr. Little is said about this marriage anywhere except that it was brief and that he was an alcoholic. He died in 1945 at the age of 43.

Her career kicked back into action during the World War II era. She made a USO tour with her band Thelma White and Her All Girl Orchestra (their biggest hit was a 1946 record called “Shoo Shoo Ya Mama”). She gets to sing a song in the 1942 film Syncopation, with a cast/ bill that includes Adolphe Menjou, Jackie Cooper, Bonita Granville, Robert Benchley, Walter Catlett and Connee Boswell. She co-stars in the 1942 comedy short Pretty Dolly (1942) with Leon Errol. She has a decent part in the 1944 Bowery Boys comedy Bowery Champs. She’s in the 1947 Columbia short Hectic Honeymoon with Sterling Holloway and Christine McIntyre. Her last film was the 1948 musical Mary Lou. 

A “crippling disease” is said to have taken her out of acting after this, although she did keep a hand in the business as an agent, representing people like Robert Blake and Ann Jillian. In 1957 she married actor and make-up artist Tony Millard; the two were together until his death in 1999. Meantime, in 1972, Reefer Madness was uncovered and began to began screened as camp at college campuses and art houses. It began her best known film. As we’ve established, she was a show biz creature, with rather a packed and diverse resume, for nine decades.

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