BY SETH WILLIAMS
In the midst of the Great Depression and growing conflict around the world during the 1930s, cartoonist Max Fleischer sought to raise America’s spirits with the delightful and entertaining throwback to the roaring 20s with the flapper-caricature Betty Boop. She found popularity with adults, who enjoyed the comedy of the double entendre present in many of her earlier cartoons. Betty’s well-known attribution to being a caricature of Helen Kane, though, has been proven to be inaccurate.
The characteristic baby-voice and scatting that was the cornerstone of Betty Boop’s (and Helen Kane’s) singing styles were, in fact, borrowed from the performances of a jazz singer named Esther Jones. “Baby Esther” had become a regular performer at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s, so nick-named for the baby voice she used during her cabaret performances. After Helen Kane and her manager, Lou Walton, saw Baby Esther’s acts they began to appropriate her signature style, right along with the scat lyrics “boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo,” which Kane transformed into the “boop-oop-a-doop” that made it into Fleischer’s cartoons.
Ironically, as Betty Boop grew in renown and Kane’s own popularity began to fade, Helen Kane filed a quarter-million-dollar lawsuit over the cartoon for infringing upon her persona and profiting from her artistic creation, “boop-oop-a-doop.” The case made it to the New York Supreme Court, where Walton admitted to having seen a performance by Esther Jones with Kane before she began using “boop-oop-a-doop.” Walton, brazen in his own lack of regard for Mrs. Jones’s intellectual property, provided a film of Baby Esther performing in her baby voice and scatting. The judge, recognizing it for what it was, dismissed the case.
While Helen Kane’s career was already in decline, being exposed for her appropriation of Ether Jone’s unique style and techniques was certainly a blow to her popularity. Sadly, with the Jim Crow era already in full swing and the theft of black artists’ creative material by white artists being considered commonplace, Jones never took up suit against Kane, likely because the burden of proving infringement against a once-popular white actress seemed insurmountable. Kane went to her grave without ever admitting to the crime.
You can read more of the original article on BlackEnterprise.com at http://www.blackenterprise.com/billboard/black-history-month-esther-jones-betty-boop/
Samuels, Anita M. “Black Harlem Singer Was the Inspiration for Betty Boop.” NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 19 May 2017
Pellot, Emerald. “The Scandalous Story Behind The REAL Betty Boop Will Blow You Away.” LittleThings.com. N.p., 12 Mar. 2015. Web. 19 May 2017.
Photo Credit: James VanDerZee, Wikimedia Commons
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