The 1936 propaganda reel “Reefer Madness” was dubbed one of the worst movies all time by critic Leonard Maltin. Financed by a church group and packaged under several ominous names (including “Tell Your Children,” “The Burning Question,” “Dope Addict” and so on), the 1936 propaganda reel depicts innocent high school students being lured into marijuana addiction by malevolent pushers. From there, they descend rapidly, if implausibly, into hideous acts of murder, suicide, attempted rape and drugged madness.
The film has become a cult classic and has led to a number of parodies and spoofs — most notably a gleeful late 1990s musical and a 2005 made-for-TV musical comedy film adaptation.
New Orleans audiences will have a chance to experience the stage musical on June 6, when the local premiere of “Reefer Madness” debuts at Mid-City Theatre for a three-weekend run.
Ampersand Productions’ “Reefer Madness” features a cast of about 20 local college students and recent graduates.
“The show has a very big cult following, kind of like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ said director and co-producer Amanda Francis, a film student at UNO. “A lot of people are excited about it finally coming here.”
“It’s a fun production,” Francis said. “There’s an orgy scene, an angel scene, a five and dime store scene, a diner scene. It’s all over the place, with some really awesome dancing and singing.”
Leading the cast are Tony Coco (Jimmy), Lindsay Schubert (Mary/co-producer), Charles Regnard (Jack/co-producer), Allee Peck (Mae), Elise McDaniel (Sally), Bill Madere (Ralph) and Nick Giardina (Narrator). Other co-producers are Bobby Cheramie and Katherine Kelly.
There about a dozen songs, sung by the lead actors and the nine-member ensemble.
In a move that certainly would have horrified the films’ 1930s-era creators, a number of states have voted to decriminalize marijuana recently.
“We are aware that it’s a big issue going around in the country,” Francis said. “We personally are not taking a political position on it ... we’re just opening it up in a humorous way, like the movie did with its over-exaggeration of the dangers of marijuana.”
Narrator Giardina isn’t so sure.
“The show’s position is pretty clear to anyone with a basic understanding of irony,” Giardina said. “It’s pretty pro-reefer, I would have to say.”
The two-hour production is set in 1939, in no specific location, Francis said. “It could be ‘Anywhere USA,’ ” she said.
As the narrator, Giardina is taking on the role originally titled “Lecturer” in the film version.
“It’s sort of a play within a play,” he said. “I’m some kind of school administrator, and I’m presenting this production to the parents of the school in 1936. And it’s hilarious. It’s a pretty spot-on satire of people’s willingness to believe sensationalized propaganda.”
In a deliberate twist, the high school is named after Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, also known as the “Father of the Drug War.”
In an effort to stamp out widespread cannabis use, Anslinger proposed a burdensome tax on it in 1937, and he crusaded widely against its use.
“There’s a good reason the original film became a cult hit among stoners in the ’60s,” Giardina said. “It’s definitely laughable. Given what we know now about marijuana, it’s a lot funnier now than it was in 1936.”