Thelma Hill started her career as one of Mack Sennett's bathing beauties. She appeared in dozens of films during the 1920s but she never became a major star. After struggling with alcoholism she died at the young age of thirty-one.
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In 1928 Thelma was cast as Toots in the short film Fooling Casper. The movie was based on the popular comic strip Toots and Casper by Jimmy Murphy. Bud Duncan played the role of her husband Casper. Thelma and Bud would make eleven more Toots and Casper shorts including Big Hearted Toots, The Family Meal Ticket, and Casper's Night Out. Several of the films were directed by Thelma's fiance St. Elmo Boyce. The final short in the series was Don't Say Ain't released in 1929. Thelma had to wear a blonde wig in all of the films. Unfortunately most of the Toots and Casper movies have been lost. Fooling Casper and Smile Buttercup Smile are the only two currently available to watch.
Thelma Hill was born Thelma Floy Hillerman in Emporia, Kansas on December 12, 1906 (her actual birth date might be 1903). When she was an infant her parents divorced. Her father, a musician named Clifford, passed away in 1914. A few year later Thelma and her mother Gussie moved to California and opened a cafe. They lived at 1723 Sunset Boulevard, just a few blocks from the Mack Sennett studios. Thelma dreamed of becoming an actress and hung around by the studio gates trying to getting noticed. While working in her mother's cafe she met actor Fatty Arbuckle who helped her get a screen test. Thelma became one of Mack Sennett's famous bathing beauties and appeared in dozens of his films. Sennett said she was "the ideal bathing girl". After posing in a mah jongg themed bathing suit her nickname became the "Mah Jongg Bathing Girl". When she wasn't modeling she worked as Mabel Normand's stand-in.
Thelma was just five feet tall and weighed only 100 pounds. Her friends at the studio called her "Pee Wee". She starred alongside Ben Turpin a several comedy shorts including The Prodigal Bridegroom and The Pride Of Pikeville. In 1927 she landed a supporting role in the Marion Davies movie The Fair Co-Ed. The following year she was chosen to play the lead in a series of short films based on the comic strip Toots And Casper. Thelma seemed destined for stardom but her career stalled with the talkies. She appeared in a few more short films and had a small role in Frank Capra's The Miracle Woman. Thelma fell in love with St. Elmo Boyce who had directed her in several movies. They were engaged but their romance ended in tragedy when Boyce committed suicide in 1930. Thelma was devastated and began to drink heavily. In 1934 she married John W. Sinclair, an actor and stunt double for W.C. Fields.
The couple moved into a modest house at 8229 Blackburn Avenue in Los Angeles. Thelma tried to start a new life as a housewife but her happiness didn't last long. In the spring of 1938 she entered the Merrill sanitarium in Santa Monica. She was suffering from alcoholism and malnutrition. Tragically Thelma died from a cerebral hemorrhage on May 11, 1938. She was only thirty-one years old. According to her death certificate Thelma had chronic alcoholism and pellagra (a vitamin deficiency). Thelma's body was cremated. Although a funeral was held her were ashes were never buried. Today Thelma's remains are being kept in a storage closet at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Thelma Hill was a beautiful woman and a talented actress but sadly she could not overcome her personal demons.
In 1934 Thelma married actor John West Sinclair. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee on January 6, 1900. John appeared in more than thirty-five films including The Barber Shop and High Gear. He also worked as a stunt double and gag writer for W.C. Fields. Unfortunately both Thelma and John were alcoholics. They lived in a small house on Blackburn Avenue in Los Angeles and remained married until Thelma's tragic death in 1938. A few years later John remarried. Sadly John continued to struggle with alcoholism and died from cirrhosis of the liver on February 13, 1945. He is buried at Valhalla Memorial Park in
Actress Marie Prevost helped Thelma when she was starting out on the Mack Sennett lot. They first met in 1924 when Thelma appeared as an extra in one of Marie's films. Marie. who had also been one of Sennett's bathing beauties, befriended Thelma and taught her how to put on make-up.
Most sources say Thelma Hill was born on December 12, 1906. This is the date that is on her death certificate. However Thelma may have been lying about her age. On the 1920 census Thelma Hillerman (her real last name) is listed as being seventeen years old. Also there are several newspaper articles from 1905 about the divorce of Thelma's parents, Gussie and Clifford Hillerman. Gussie asked for and was given custody of their infant daughter, Thelma Floy, in June of 1905. This seems to prove that Thelma could not have been born in 1906. She was likely born in 1903 making her three years older than she claimed.