Reefer Madness Revisited
by Paul Krassner
NOTE: In this issue, Reefer Madness was awarded the High Times Magazine 'Stony Award' for Best Theatrical Production. The trophy was a large engraved metal bong, which appears to be fully functionalÉ
A musical version of the classic antipot scare movie is entertaining Hollywood theater audiences.
In 1936, Reefer Madness, originally titled "Tell Your Children," helped to further fan the flames of antimarijuana hysteria. In 1972, NORML founder Keith Stroup discovered it in the Library of Congress film archives, paid $297 for a print and held the first revival screening--as a campy benefit for NORML--at St. Mark's Cinema on New York's Lower East Side.
Robert Shaye saw the possibilities and became a distributor for midnight showings of what would become a cult movie, evoking laughter instead of fear. It helped launch New Line Cinema, whose first production was Nightmare on Elm Street. Meanwhile, as late as 1974, students were still being shown Reefer Madness in high-school gyms as though it were a factual documentary rather than outrageous propaganda.
In 1999, a parody of Reefer Madness complete with songs opened at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Hollywood. It won five of the year's Ovation Awards for Los Angeles theater, including best musical in a small theater -- more than any other show. In accepting the award, Harry S. Murphy, who plays the show's alarmist narrator, thanked "anyone who ever inhaled." Ironically, it has been traditional theater-lovers more than rebellious pot-lovers filling the seats.
The authors, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, admit, "This play could have just as easily been about any controversial arena which is subject to hysterical scapegoating: Ken Starr and/or Bill Clinton Madness! Radical Christian Madness! Violent Rap Lyric Madness! NRA Madness! Gays in the Military Madness!" Although they confess that "we have smoked no more marijuana than the President of the United States," they researched anti-marijuana forces and learned that "marijuana is illegal today largely due to the efforts of some very rich people who wanted hemp eliminated for financial reasons." Indeed, the Playbill includes a full page devoted to "Historical Background on the Anti-Marijuana Movement."
In the play, Murphy emphasizes "the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marijuana is that drug --a violent narcotic, an unspeakable scourge, the real Public Enemy #1!" Which leads into the title song: "Creeping like a Communist/It's knocking at our doors/Turning all our children into/Hooligans and whores/Voraciously devouring/The way things are today/Savagely deflowering/The good ol' USA.
Christian Campbell (brother of Neve) plays Jimmy Harper, an upstanding yet naive 16-year-old who becomes hooked on weed at the infamous Reefer Den. His character proceeds to unwind into a degeneracy that goes well beyond the bounds of any stereotype. When he is seduced into taking his first hit, the stage goes black, lit with pulsing red, and there is a crazed musical orgy scene, including a fire dancer. (At one performance, Thelma White, star of the original Reefer Madness, now in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank, was sitting in the front row, only three feet away from the fire dancer. Afraid that she might explode, a frantic message was communicated to the fire dancer, instructing her to steer away from the oxygen tank.)
While Jimmy's girlfriend, Mary, played by Jolie Jenkins (Melanie in TV's Party of Five), is busy working on a Sunday-school project to build a Nativity scene out of popsicle sticks, he steals her car and, driving stoned, runs over an old man, killing him, then goes on the lam. Later, in search of Jimmy, Mary herself is tricked into puffing a joint at the Reefer Den. She immediately tears open her blouse, laughing with crazed abandon. "I'll tie you up with phone cord," she sings.
"We'll play with whips and nipple clips and candle wax!"
Should you get stoned before seeing Reefer Madness? Well, one night the entire theater was reserved by a large, respectable-looking group. Before the play, they were smoking pot on the sidewalk and in the alley. The cast figured there would be a party atmosphere during that evening's performance. Twenty minutes into the play, though, a glazed look had swept across the faces in the audience.
"Every audience before and after has just been wildly enthusiastic," says director Andy Fickman. "But paranoia must have made it look almost to much like an instructional video in which they truly see the evils of pot. So tell your friends, 'Don't get stoned before seeing the show.'"
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