Haunted Hollywood: part 8
WHO KILLED THELMA TODD... AND WHY DOES HER GHOST STILL WALK TODAY?
Thelma Todd... "Hot Toddy"
The ghost of Thelma Todd still walks in Hollywood, or at least that’s what the owners of a building on the Pacific Coast Highway have claimed for years. It was in this building where Todd’s “Roadside Rest Cafe” was once located and its not far from the house where she met her mysterious end. This is a house where the ghostly elements of her demise are still repeated today. But what strange events are have caused this glamorous ghost to linger behind in this world? The reader doesn’t have to look far for that answer, for the strange death of Thelma Todd remains one of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved mysteries!
Monday - December, 16, 1935
On the hills above the Pacific Coast Highway, between Santa Monica and Malibu, stands a house belonging to movie director Roland West. Inside of the garage, a Packard Convertible idles with its top down. The engine is running, filling the air with deadly exhaust fumes. In the front seat is sprawled a gorgeous blond with tousled, curly hair and infectious smile and a face that could stop a passing train... or at least that’s how she had been described. On this Monday morning though, she looks somewhat different.
The blond is facedown in the seat of the Packard. Her blond hair is matted and her skin is pale. A porcelain replacement tooth has been knocked out of her mouth and blood is spattered on her skin, her evening gown and the mink coat that she wears. As the gas drains from the engine of the automobile, it slowly steals away the life of the blond. Finally, her heart stops and her lungs breath no more. Thelma Todd, Hollywood’s “Ice Cream Blonde” and the queen of the zany comedies of Hal Roach, is dead.
Thelma’s body was discovered later that morning and the police were summoned at once. The coroner on the scene believed that she had died from choking on the exhaust fumes from the car. He also admitted that suicide was a possibility, but no note was discovered. She was found because she was late for her expected arrival at the Roach Studios, where she was starring with Laurel and Hardy in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL. She had been Stan Laurel’s choice for the leading lady, but the film would have to be finished without her. Thelma’s career ended with her death. At the age of only 30, she was already a part of Hollywood history.
Thelma Todd was born on July 29, 1905 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was an exceptional student and did very well in school. She became a teacher after graduation but began entering beauty contests to help pay the rent. After winning a contest at the age of 20, she came to the attention of some Hollywood talent scouts, who encouraged her to try her luck in California. She got lucky with Paramount Studios and in 1925, she was placed under contract and started at the studio’s new acting school. A year later, she was awarded her first small part in the film FASCINATING YOUTH, which starred Charles “Buddy” Rogers.
Throughout 1927, Thelma was given small parts in other feature films, like RUBBER HEELS with Ed Wynn and NEVADA, a western starring Gary Cooper. Then, Al Jolson spoke a few words onscreen in THE JAZZ SINGER and the motion picture was changed forever.
Thelma in a Studio Publicity Photo
The industry went through a terrifying series of changes as the “Talkies” became the new medium of choice. The old silent films were gone for good and with them went some of the biggest stars of the era. The careers of screen legends like John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Norma Talmage and many others were suddenly over. They were forced into retirement when the public did not respond to the sound of their voices.
For Thelma, the coming of sound motion pictures could not have occurred at a better time. She was now able to develop her wise-cracking persona and the demise of many screen veterans made room for newcomers and little-knowns like Thelma. A new generation of screen stars was born.
Thelma and Actress Zasu Pitts
In 1929, Thelma came to Hal Roach, who featured her and comedy actress Zasu Pitts in a successful series of two-reel comedies. A former director at Essanay, Roach persuaded the Pathe company to sponsor him in his own studios and he soon emerged as a comedic talent, envisioning hilarious situations and translating them to film. Roach concentrated more on story than slapstick and audiences loved him at the box office. His biggest stars became Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chase and Thelma Todd. She proved to be a real asset to Roach, not only appearing in her own films but as a female foil to Stan and Ollie and others.
In addition, Thelma also played major roles in films for other studios. They were mostly comedies in which she portrayed the sarcastic and wise-cracking blond that most suited her. She appeared in two different films with the Marx Brothers, MONKEY BUSINESS and the classic HORSE FEATHERS. Stan Laurel always wanted Thelma as the female lead in he and Hardy’s films, but her personality didn’t always mesh with the two comedians on screen. She and Laurel became close friends and he often found work for her in other films when she wasn’t working for Roach. He loved her bawdy sense of humor and when she suffered from boyfriend problems, she always confided in Stan.
By 1930, Zasu Pitts had moved on to other work and Thelma was often joined on screen by Patsy Kelly. They were still going strong in 1935 and her professional career was filled with high spots. Unfortunately, the same could not always be said for her private life. She had been married for a short time to Pat DiCicco and after her divorce became involved in a number of affairs. In 1931, she made a picture called CORSAIR, co-starring Chester Morris. It was directed by Roland West. He was married at that time to an actress named Jewel Carmen, but in true Hollywood fashion, he moved in with Thelma.
Thelma and Chester Morris in CORSAIR
Roland West was one of the most respected directors in Hollywood during the 1920’s and early 1930’s. While his output of films was small, his work was very much appreciated by studios and audiences alike. His greatest success came in 1926 with THE BAT, an atmospheric thriller starring Jack Pickford and West’s wife, Jewel Carmen. His visually astounding 1928 film, THE DOVE, won an Academy Award for art direction. In 1931, he created one of the most extraordinary chillers of the time, THE BAT WHISPERS with Chester Morris and then filmed THE CORSAIR. This second film led to the end of his marriage and his taking up with the cute blond leading lady of the film, Thelma Todd.
(Left) Director Roland West
(Right) A Poster for One of West's Greatest Films, THE BAT
Together, Thelma and West opened up a business called “Thelma Todd’s Roadside Rest Cafe”, located under the Palisades along the Pacific Coast Highway. Many of their famous friends became frequenting the place and it became popular with actors and star-struck fans alike. They were also living quarters above the cafe, while West also maintained a grand house on Pasetano Road, nestled behind Sunset Boulevard at the point where it connects with the Pacific Coast Highway. It was only a short climb, via steps, from the restaurant.
One fateful afternoon, Thelma was visited at the cafe by none other than gangster Lucky Luciano. At that time, gangland activity was starting to appear in California, moving west from places like New York and Chicago. Bootlegging and drug trafficking had already begun in Hollywood, but by and large, it had remained untouched by the underworld. However, by the mid-1930’s, Luciano was making an attempt to penetrate California with his illegal gambling enterprise. He already had casinos all over the country and with som much money flowing in and out of Hollywood, he was looking for a way to get a piece of the action. He was also on the lookout for establishments where he could place gambling parlors and Thelma’s Roadside Rest Cafe looked to be the perfect front.
Luciano turned out to be very disappointed by his visit to the Roadside Rest. While he may have been one of the biggest gangsters of the time, Thelma Todd turned out to be as gutsy as the characters she portrayed onscreen. Luciano made her an generous offer and in return, he wanted to transform the upper floor of the cafe into a secret casino. All she had to do was to keep business flowing by escorting her rich and famous friends upstairs to try their luck at the gambling tables. He promised that she would be well rewarded with a cut of the take.
Thelma turned him down flat.
Thelma with Hal Roach, Laurel and Hardy
Thelma’s career continued to soar. In 1935, she appeared with Bing Crosby in the Paramount musical TWO FOR TONIGHT and in November, she began working with Laurel and Hardy again in the feature-length musical THE BOHEMIAN GIRL. This film was also based on an operetta and Stan found an unusual part for Thelma to play. She appeared as a gypsy’s daughter, wearing a black wig to cover her blond curls. She continued to work on the film well into December and by the 14th, when she was one of many guests at a Hollywood party, was still shooting scenes.
The party was thrown by Ida Lupino, a relative newcomer to Hollywood, and had the makings of a blow-out Hollywood event. The guest list was vast and unfortunately included Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat DiCicco. After a few drinks, Thelma and DiCicco exchanged some heated words, which made Thelma drink even more. By the early morning hours of Sunday, she had downed more than her share of alcohol. Luckily, she a driver to take her home.
As she prepared to leave, Roland West, who was at the apartment over the cafe, received a phone call from theater owner Sid Grauman saying that Thelma was a “bit under the influence” and was on her way home. Grauman suggested that West see her safely into bed. But sometime between the telephone call and Monday morning, Thelma Todd died in the garage of West’s house on Pasetano Road.
On the morning that she was found by her maid, Stan and Ruth Laurel received a Christmas card from Thelma. Her death stunned the Laurel’s and Hal Roach. Throughout the following week, gifts that Thelma had sent continued to arrive at the homes of friends, including Stan’s, further adding to the shock and misery.
One week later, on December 23, Thelma was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Cemetery. A huge crowd gathered to view the open casket in which she lay covered with yellow roses. A short time later, Thelma’s body was placed in the ground.. forever silencing both the perky actress and the mystery of her death.
The inquest into her death revealed more questions than answers. Many suggested that Thelma may have committed suicide. It was not an uncommon method for such an act, but then murders had been committed in a similar fashion. In addition, if she had killed herself, where had the blood on her face and clothing come from? To make matters more suspicious, an autopsy had revealed that Thelma had suffered a broken nose, several broken ribs and enough bruises to suggest that she had been roughed up. This, combined with Thelma’s successful career, seemed to rule out suicide.
But if she had been murdered, who had killed her? Roland West seemed to be the likely suspect and witnesses from the party, including Id Lupino, testified to her state of mind when she left the event. All agreed that she had been drunker than usual and Sid Grauman appeared to testify about his telephone call to West. Also, witnesses from the neighborhood told the court how they had seen Thelma, still in her evening gown and mink coat, screaming obscenities and kicking at the door of the apartment. So, if she was so drunk, how had she gotten from the apartment to the house on Pasetano Road?
West was called to testify and he admitted that instead of helping Thelma into bed on Sunday morning, he had locked the door to the apartment. He also confessed that they had gotten into a terrible fight over her intoxicated condition. However, he added a strange twist to the testimony. He stated that he had been awakened by his dog barking around 3:30 in the morning and was sure that he heard water running in the apartment. He assumed that Thelma had somehow gotten into the house.
An examination of the door did reveal marks where it was apparently kicked. Police were baffled though as to how Thelma could have gotten inside when it was bolted shut on the other side. This made them even more suspicious of West. Someone raised the incredible theory that West had hired an actress to pretend to be Thelma beating on the door while he was actually beating the real woman to death inside. The idea of the look-alike aside, West had a strong alibi against murder. Although his statement was contradictory, there was no evidence to tie him to the murder scene. He was, by his own admission, the last person to speak with Thelma on Sunday morning, just a short time before she died.
(Left) Thelma's Roadside Cafe at the time of the Death Investigation.
(Right) The Steps Leading up to the House on Posetano Road... where Thelma's body was discovered
Then came more surprising testimony, this time from West’s wife, Jewel Carmen. She claimed that she had seen Thelma on Sunday morning, after the sun was up, driving her Packard past the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. At her side was a handsome stranger. This testimony was so bizarre because the coroner and the police believed that Thelma was already dead by then. They were sure that she had died during the early morning hours of Sunday and was not discovered until the following day.
But how reliable was Jewel Carmen? She was West’s wife and he was the prime suspect in the case. If she was lying, why would a jilted wife protect her unfaithful husband? Some suggested that perhaps if West did kill Thelma, perhaps Carmen hoped to get back into this good graces by providing an alternate killer in the form of the “handsome stranger”. She could also put Thelma in another place and far from the early morning argument with West.
Whatever the facts behind Jewel’s testimony, it threw the jury into total confusion. They spent weeks going over and over the evidence and eventually, they announced their verdict.... “death due to carbon monoxide poisoning”. That was all they could agree on and the case was closed.
But Thelma’s attorney, who attended the inquest, was sure that the police had been on the wrong track all along. He requested a second inquest, in which he would be able to prove his theory. He believed that he could pin her murder, not accidental death, on Lucky Luciano. He was sure that when Thelma had turned down the gangster’s offer to turn the cafe into a gambling parlor, she had signed her own death warrant. The attorney was convinced that Luciano ordered Thelma to be “rubbed out” as a warning to anyone else he approached with such an offer or because she became aware of his secret plans for the casino.
The district attorney agreed to the idea and a second inquest was scheduled. However, when Hal Roach learned of the plans for the second inquest, he begged the D.A. to drop the matter. Terrified at the thought of crossing the mobster, he urged the District Attorney to reconsider. Reluctantly, he agreed and the case was closed for good. As a result, the murder of Thelma Todd was never solved.
Although the case was wrapped up as far as the law was concerned, there were just too many unanswered questions and as usual, involvement in the affair was enough to bring on the Hollywood style of retribution. In the past, Hollywood circles had ruined the careers of popular stars like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and the death of Thelma Todd would bring on the destruction of Roland West. In fact, he never worked again.
Even so, not everyone believed that West was involved in the murder. Many, like Thelma’s lawyer, were sure that Luciano had been involved. However, they had no plans to publicly point fingers at the dangerous mobster. Privately though, the Hollywood stars quickly learned to avoid Luciano and his “colleagues”. If he could not be avoided, then he was treated with respect and caution. They knew what would happen to them if they didn’t... but unfortunately, this warning came a little too late for Thelma Todd.
The mystery over the unsolved death of Thelma Todd has lingered for more than six decades. Some believe this may be why her spirit is so restless. He ghost is still frequently seen and encountered at the building where the Roadside Rest Cafe was once located. Staff members at the production company that is now located there say that they have often spotted a filmy apparition that resembles the “Ice Cream Blonde”. They have been reported to say that the specter usually appears at the top of a staircase and then floats down the steps toward an outside courtyard area. Perhaps re-playing the events on the night before her death when she found herself locked out of her own apartment?
But the Cafe is not the only spot connected to Thelma Todd’s death where ghostly events take place. In the garage of the house on Posetano Road, people have complained about the sound of a spectral engine running when the space is actually empty. Others say they have smelled, and have been nearly overwhelmed, by noxious exhaust fumes in the garage, even when no car is present. Apparently, the terrible events of that night in December have left an indelible impression on the place.
But will Thelma ever rest in peace? It’s not likely. Unless new evidence would somehow come to light, her murder will always remained unsolved. This leads me to believe that her ghost will most likely continue to walk for many years to come.
Haunted Places: The National Directory by Dennis William Hauck (1996)
Haunted Houses of California by Antoinette May (1990)
The Hollywood Murder Case Book by Michael Munn (1987)
Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger (1975)
Hollywood’s Unsolved Mysteries by John Austin (1970)
(C) Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.