Betty Boop has been as magnetic and iconic a cartoon character as any, but most people are likely blind to her messy origins.
Earlier today, Mashable did a piece on “The real Betty Boop,” a Bronx-born actress/singer/dancer named Helen Kane, who performed as a vaudeville flapper in the 1920s. The article explains Kane’s background in entertainment, specifically noting her vocal style and influence on cartoon Boop:
Following a string of appearances at the 44th Street Theatre, [Kane] was booked for a solo performance at the Paramount Theater in Times Square, where she spiced up her rendition of “That’s My Weakness Now” with “boop-boop-a-doop” scat lyrics.
Her jazzy style, which nimbly combined speech and song, was a hit with flapper audiences. She was soon recording songs and musical films regularly, earning as much as $8,000 per week.
That $8,000 value is about $100,000/week in 2016, due to inflation.
The trouble for Kane started in 1930, when Fleisher Studios animator Grim Natwick debuted the cartoon Dizzy Dishes, which featured a character that Mashable describes as “the spitting image of Kane (with a poodle’s ears and nose).” This instantly mesmerizing character was later humanized and renamed Betty Boop. (Note: Late actress Mae Questel, who also voice Olive Oyl, served as the cartoon voice of Boop after Max Fleisher heard her singing in 1931.)
However, the most compelling part of the Boop history is the $250,000 lawsuit that Kane filed against Fleisher Studios in 1932 for allegedly stealing her likeness. In court, the defense argued that Kane had no rights to the “boop-boop-a-doop” styling because—aha—she’d apparently appropriated the style from a black singer named Baby Esther.
The defense supplied vocal evidence proving that Baby Esther originally sang the Boop-like stylings in clubs and that Kane used them as influence for her own performances. The New York Times covered the trial on May 2, 1934, citing “evidence that syllables similar to Helen Kane’s ‘boop-doop-a-doop’ were sung before she began to use them.”
The NYT article also mentions testimony from manager Lou Walton, stating: “Baby Esther, a Negro girl under his management, had interpolated words like ‘boo-boo-boo’ and ‘doo-doo-doo’ in songs at a cabaret here in 1928.” Ultimately, the judge ruled against Kane. Yet another story of the degree to which America is built on appropriation.
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