Esther Jones might not be a name that you recognize. But if you grew up watching old cartoons in the 70’s and 80’s the name and cartoon Betty Boop might ring a bell.
The original Betty Boop cartoons were made in black-and-white. As new color cartoons made specifically for television began to appear in the 1960s, the original black-and-white cartoons were retired. Boop’s film career saw a revival with the release of The Betty Boop Scandals of 1974, becoming a part of the post-1960s counterculture. Years later, a number of the color cartoons were compiled that featured Boop, entitled Betty Boop for President, to connect with the 1976 election.
In 2002, Betty was voted in TV Guide’s 50 greatest cartoon characters of all time, ranking #17. In 2004, Betty Boop was voted among the “100 Greatest Cartoons” in a poll conducted by a British television station, ranking at #96. In March 2009, a UK newspaper voted Betty Boop the second sexiest cartoon character of all time, with Jessica Rabbit from the movie, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” in first place.
During the late 1920s, Esther “Baby Esther” Jones became known for singing in a baby voice and regularly performing at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem. Then, after watching Esther’s cabaret act in 1928, white jazz singer Helen Kane adopted Jones’ singing and scatting style. Kane also changed the interpolated words “boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo” to “boop-oop-a-doop” while recording her hit single “I Wanna Be Loved By You.”
Kane never publicly admitted to appropriating Esther’s singing style, but the truth was revealed when Kane filed a lawsuit against Max Fleischer, the animator who created Betty Boop in 1930. Ironically, Kane claimed that Betty Boop was imitating and profiting off of her image.
Before a judge in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, the defense called Jones’ manager, Lou Walton, to testify. Walton said he taught Esther how to merge the scat lyrics “boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo,” and use them in her uptown performances. He added that he saw Baby Esther’s acts with Kane before the white singer started her “booping.”
When Walton produced a sound film featuring Baby Esther practicing in her baby voice and “scatting” as proof, Kane, at the height of her career, was exposed as a fraud and lost the case.
In “The Magic Behind the Voices: A Who’s Who of Cartoon Voice Actors,” authors Tim Lawson and Alisa Persons agreed that Kane had made the phrase famous in her song “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” but there were several other women who voiced the Boop character, including Mae Questel, who was actually imitating Kane’s voice.
According to the New York Daily News, “When Walton produced a sound film featuring Baby Ester practicing in her Baby voice and “scatting” as proof, Kane, at the height of her career, was exposed as a fraud and lost the case.”
Charles Solomon, author of “The History of Animation,” summed up the case and the reason Kane lost, saying, “The Fleischers won the case by proving that a black entertainer named Baby Esther had previously used the phrase before either Kane or Questel.”
Betty Boop’s popularity continues to grow in today’s culture. With references appearing in the comic strip Doonesbury, where the character B.D.’s busty girlfriend/wife is named “Boopsie” and the animated reality TV spoof Drawn Together, where Betty is the inspiration for Toot Braunstein, the Betty Boop image continues to be used.
The 1980s rapper Betty Boo (whose voice, image and name were influenced by the cartoon character) rose to popularity in the UK largely due to the “Betty Boop” revival. The 1933 Betty Boop cartoon Snow-White (not to be confused with Disney’s film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)) was selected for preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress in the