Revoking Betty Boop’s Black Card

Author’s note: In honor of the re-presentation of our coverage of the history of the careers of Max & Dave Fleischer, I’m also presenting this article I started at about the time we did the episode but never finished. It’s unfortunately still a thing, because I keep seeing people repurposing the “Betty Boop is Black!” memes and articles and…yeah. So I finished it. Enjoy!

In 2014, several memes depicting a woman presented as Black circulated social media, accompanied by a caption that identified the woman in the image as being Baby Esther, a 1920s era jazz singer that was purportedly the model for the Flesicher Studio cartoon character Betty Boop. This meme inspired articles on a number of Black-focused blogs and magazine websites, including Madame Noire and HelloBeautiful.

The caption was only partially correct, unfortunately: the woman in the picture is Olya Abramovich, a current (and usually blonde) Russian model. The photos were taken in 2008 by Ukrainian vintage photography collective Retroatelier. While Baby Esther and Betty Boop do share a connection, it is less direct and actually unintentional. The coverage of the history of Betty Boop by my friend D.L. Chandler at Black America Web is far more accurate, but people continued to share the misinformed versions of this story.

So, allow me to reiterate the facts.

Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame

The character who later became Betty Boop first appeared in a 1930 Fleischer Talkartoons cartoon, Dizzy Dishes, animated Myron “Grim” Natwick and Ted Sears (despite Dave Fleischer’s defacto director’s credit on all Fleischer cartoons, the first credited animator  – in this case Natwick – did the actual work of directing the cartoons), distributed by Paramount Pictures. In this first appearance, Betty Boop – who at first not only lacked a name, but wasn’t even human – appears as a heavyset canine – as in dog – cabaret singer performing in a fancy restaurant. The Talkartoons series’ lead character, Bimbo the dog, appeared in the cartoon as an inept waiter and joined the cabaret singer for her number.

With her spit-curls and baby-voiced “boop-oop-a-doop” singing style, the cabaret singer was a caricature of a then-popular white jazz singer named Helen Kane. In 1988, Grim Natwick told Leslie Carbaga, author of The Fleischer Story, how he took Betty’s design from a Helen Kane sheet music cover:

“I had a song sheet of Helen Kane and the spit curls came from her. So I just designed a little dog and put cute feminine legs on her and the earrings which developed later started out as long ears. I suppose I used a French poodle for the basic idea of the character.”

The character continued to make appearances in future Talkartoons as Bimbo’s girlfriend, her design evolving into a more humanoid and slimmer form and her role in the cartoons growing until she became the lead. By the end of 1931, Fleischer Studios named her “Betty Boop” and canceled the Talkartoons in favor of a series of Betty Boop Cartoons the following year. Quite a few women voiced Betty until Mae Questel became the permanent voice circa 1933.

Betty Boop’s Trial

Helen Kane at first found the Betty Boop character’s clear similarity to her a flattering compliment. Betty would perform several of Kane’s hit songs in the cartoons. Mae Questel even performed the voice of Helen Kane for Kane’s New York radio show. As Kane’s career waned, however, she blamed Betty Boop’s rising popularity for her downfall. In May 1932, Kane sued Max Fleischer, Fleischer Studios, and Paramount Pictures for $250,000 in May 1932. She also requested an injunction to stop further production of the Betty Boop Cartoons.

Winning the lawsuit required the Fleischers to prove Kane didn’t originate the “boop-oop-a-doop” singing style that Betty also used. Lou Fleischer, the studio’s music director, tracked down early sound-film test footage of Esther Jones, a young Black jazz singer.  The footage showed Jones, known professionally as “Baby Esther”, singing in the “boop-oop-a-doop” style in 1928 just before Kane became famous.

Lou Fleischer and his lawyers rushed that film to the courtroom. In addition,  stage manager Lou Walton (sometimes miswritten as “Bolton”) testified that Jones, one of his protégés, had been “boop-oop-a-dooping” as early as 1925. Moreover, Walton testified that Helen Kane came to see Jones’ Cotton Club act in April 1928. By the end of 1928, Kane was famous, after having stolen Jones’ act. On May 5, 1934, the judge decided in favor of the Fleischers and Paramount.

There is no indication that Grim Natwick or Dave Fleischer had heard of “Baby Esther” beforehand. As noted, Natwick later admitted to having directly based Boop on Kane. So, while Betty Boop may not be a Black woman, or directly based on the same, the Fleischers inadvertently created her to sing like a Black woman.

2 Comments

  1. E.V

    September 16, 2016 at 3:40 am

    You got that right the trial wasn’t even about Baby Esther. Helen Kane lost her suit because many other performers had scat sung before her, and many other women in the 1920’s also sung in baby voices. Betty Boop as a character is white and always will be, so you can’t really revoke her black card because she never was. Baby Esther the singer was black, does that make her Betty Boop? No. Helen Kane was not Betty Boop either. Betty Boop is a fictional “Jewish” character created by Max Fleischer’s imagination, and should be deemed satire.

  2. Maria Santos

    September 28, 2016 at 7:45 am

    Mae Questel never did the voice for Helen Kane’s radio show. She did the voice for Betty Boop for NBC radio.