The Harris Theater in November 2023. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

“The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers.”

Marihuana is that drug — a violent narcotic — an unspeakable scourge — The Real Public Enemy Number One!

Although easily confused for a campaign statement against the sprouting bipartisan support for weed legalization in Pennsylvania, these are the first few lines of the foreword for “Reefer Madness,” a nearly 80-year-old “educational” film that was so popular when it hit Pittsburgh in 1940, it ran for 17 continuous weeks.

On April 20, Pittsburgh Sound + Image will bring the 16 mm film back to the big screen at 809 Liberty Ave. Although the address is currently the Harris Theater, it was the Art Cinema when the film was originally screened in Pittsburgh.

Steven Haines, Pittsburgh Sound + Image’s co-founder and director of programming, says the film mixes narrative and pseudo-documentary footage to point out “the evils of marijuana.”

“Most famous are the clips of those narrative segments that follow a group of youths who start smoking, and their lives spiral out of control in completely over-the-top fashion,” Haines says.

The high school students in question trade Cheetos-and-Netflix fugue states for, of course, murder and other criminal acts.

“Reefer Madness” started its slow spread across the states at a tumultuous time for the film industry. The 1934 introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code — commonly known as the Hays Code — strictly limited what could be said, shown and implied in films.

The word “reefer” itself originally wasn’t allowed in titles in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so the film was renamed “The Burning Question” for its release in the region, says Joseph Morrison, manager of the Harris Theater.

A July 7, 1940, advertisement for “The Burning Question” — titled “Reefer Madness” outside of Pennsylvania — from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Digital scan courtesy of Pittsburgh Sound + Image.

Films broaching sexual, violent or drug-related topics branded themselves “educational,” but the loophole often turned exploitative — literally.

“What often happened … was that somebody was trying to make a film about out-of-wedlock pregnancy, venereal disease, the dangers of drug use,” Morrison says. “These were subjects that the studios just wouldn’t touch. Then somebody would often purchase the film and add salacious content to make it a true exploitation film that could turn a buck better than the original educational version.”

“Reefer Madness” followed a similar path. The film was released in 1936 as “Tell Your Children,” a church-financed film about the dangers of cannabis use.

Two years later, producer Dwain Esper purchased the rights to the film. Haines says Esper often added prologues and recut parts of an existing film to up the ante. The less-enthralling original cuts would fade away alongside any educational value they might have had.

The 1940 arrival of “Reefer Madness” at the Art Cinema was no coincidence, Morrison says.

“In Downtown Pittsburgh, there would have been … as many as a dozen movie theaters,” Morrison says. “Each one would sort of find its own identity and play big studio films. With enough screens, there was always room for somebody to experiment a little bit, and that’s what the Art Cinema was doing. They found their footing in foreign films.”

An Oct. 4, 1940, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette clipping noting the 17-week run of “The Burning Question.” To the writer's chagrin, it did end up being the film's last week. Digital scan courtesy of Pittsburgh Sound + Image.

Morrison suspects that the Art Cinema’s booking manager turned to exploitative films to keep new content on the screen without competing with the “Hollywood hits theaters” in town.

“Reefer Madness” wasn’t the first exploitative film played at the cinema — that honor goes to “Damaged Lives,” a 1933 film about venereal disease directed by Edgar G. Ulmer — but its approximately 17-week run with four to five screenings a day is still noteworthy. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” barely achieved a theatrical run that long, Morrison says.

“Through the mid-'40s, even into the ’50s, there were at least a dozen or more of these exploitation films that played [at the Art Cinema],” Morrison says. “These theaters were hungry for content; those exploitation films certainly filled a bucket.”

When exploitation films started falling off a few years later, the Art Cinema notoriously became a porn theater when the Cultural District was still Pittsburgh’s red-light district.

In the years since, public perception of marijuana has changed drastically, to say the least. The film was shown on the same screen it first appeared on in Pittsburgh, and Haines thinks audiences will get a kick out of the cannabis classic but doesn’t expect a 17-week run to follow.

Tickets for the Saturday, April 20, show are available through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Be careful out there on 4/20, Pittsburgh, and remember to think of the children “because the dread Marihuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter …. or yours …. or YOURS!

Roman wants to hear the stories created in Pittsburgh. When not reporting, he plays difficult video games that make him upset and attempts to make delicious meals out of mismatched leftovers.