The Hidden History of BOOP! THE MUSICAL Animation Icon, Betty Boop!

This fall, Betty Boop is making her musical theatre debut in BOOP! The Musical, a colorful new tuner from director and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell.

By: Nov. 27, 2023
The Hidden History of BOOP! THE MUSICAL Animation Icon, Betty Boop!

The iconic Betty Boop is currently making her musical theatre debut in BOOP! The Musical, a colorful new tuner from director and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell.

After nearly 100 years of small screen success, it seems impossible that this timeless fixture of pop culture is only just making her way to the stage. And though we are intimately familiar with Betty (and her enduring catchphrase), the inspiration and origins behind the beloved Betty are a bit more murky. 

Below, go inside the hidden history of this animation icon!

On August 9, 1930, Dizzy Dishes, the seventh installment in Fleischer's Talkartoon series. featured the first incarnation of the animation icon the world has come to know as Betty Boop.

Originally created as an anthropomorphic French poodle, the character went on to play a supporting role in ten cartoons as a ditzy but lovable flapper girl. In her earliest appearances, she went by the name "Nancy Lee" or "Nan McGrew" and usually served as a girlfriend to a character called Bimbo.

Within a year, animators Grim Natwick, Berny Wolf, Otto Feuer, Seymour Kneitel, "Doc" Crandall, Willard Bowsky, and James "Shamus" Culhane transitioned the character from a human-canine hybrid to a fully human character. They morphed her floppy poodle ears into hoop earrings, and transformed her black poodle nose into a girl's button-like nose.

The new and improved Betty made her first appearance her new form in a cartoon called Any Rags and quickly became the star of the Talkartoons. She was given her own series that same year, beginning with a cartoon titled Stopping the Show. From that point on, she was crowned "The Queen of the Animated Screen" and enjoyed widespread popularity throughout the 1930s, going on to star in over 100 cartoons

Audiences were drawn to Betty thanks to her unique portrayal of women, which stood in stark contrast to her animated contemporaries, like Disney's Minnie Mouse. Betty also became popular among male viewers who were attracted to her suggestive outfits and alluring persona, making her the first sex symbol of animation.

The Hidden History of BOOP! THE MUSICAL Animation Icon, Betty Boop!

In her earliest incarnations, Betty was voiced by Margie Hines, followed by several voice actors including Kate Wright, Bonnie Poe, Ann Rothschild. The longest-running Betty is Mae Questel, who began voicing Boop in Bimbo's Silly Scandals in 1931, and continued with the role until 1939, returning nearly 50 years later in Disney's Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Today, Betty is voiced by Sandy Fox and Cindy Robinson.

In terms of the inspiration behind Betty, silent film star Clara Bow is often given credit as the main source of inspo behind Betty's look and signature style, however, it is said that Max Fleischer initially told his artists that he wanted a caricature of singer Helen Kane. It is said that Betty's original name "Nancy Lee" or "Nan McGrew" was derived from the 1930 film, Dangerous Nan McGrew starring Kane. Throughout the 30s, it was a well-known fact that Betty's performance style, babyish speaking voice, and signature catchphrase had been inspired by Kane. 

As the character grew in popularity however, Kane, who had fallen into some financial trouble due to studio layoffs and a lavish lifestyle, quickly became jealous of Fleischer's success, as the character's fame surpassed her own.

In 1932, Helen sued Fleischer Studios and the Paramount Publix Corporation for $250,000 for allegedly stealing her persona, which she insisted was her original creation, as well as the "novel manner" in which she performed as a singer, frequently using baby talk and interpolating the catchphrase "boop-boop-a-doop" and its variants into her songs. Kane averred that all of these elements combined to form the feminine performance archetype known as the "baby vamp."

Fleischer vehemently denied the charge that Boop had been based solely on Kane, and brought forth several actresses who had given voice to the character over the years to prove that they were not copying Kane in their performances.

Kane's case eventually made it all the way to the New York Supreme Court, where it stalled thanks to a number of witnesses and performers who claimed they’d heard or used “boops” and baby talk in nightclub, cabaret, and vaudeville acts going back to the early 1900s, long before Kane became famous.

Composer Clarence Williams, Felix Mayol, Edith Griffith, Little Ann Little, Chic Kennedy, Irene FranklinNan HalperinPeggy Bernier, Duncan Sisters and Hannah Williams were all brought forth to testify that their own use of baby talk and scatting techniques, or "hot licks," predated Kane's popularity.

It was also noted that until 1931, Helen Kane was originally known as the "Poop-Poop-a-Doop" girl, not the "Boop-Boop-a-Doop" girl and she would utter "Poop" in her songs instead of "Boop." Broadway performer Chic Kennedy claimed that Helen stole her "Poop" routine back in 1928.

One testimony, in particular, proved most damning when talent manager Lou Bolton testified that he taught has his protégé and ex-client, Black vaudeville performaner Baby Esther Jones scat techniques in the early 1920s.

He stated that Esther would use numerous hot licks including, "Wa-Da-Da," "Boo-Boo-Boo," "Doo-Doo-Doo," "Wha-Da-Da","Doo-Doo-Doo," "Do-Do-De-Do-Ho-De-Wa-Da-De-Da," "Boo-Did-Do-Doo," "Lo-Di-De-Do," "Roop-Woop-a-Woop," "Ud-Up-Deo-Do," "Skeet Scat," "Bup-Bup," "Poo-Poo-a-Doo" and, finally, "Boop-Boop-a-Doop" as staples of her act. 

The day's testimony proved most stressful for the court stenographer, who is said to have thrown his pen down in frustration after a long afternoon logging a huge number of scatisms for the court record. 

Bolton also testified that Helen Kane and Baby Esther had both been clients of booking agent Tony Shayne, and that Shayne and Kane had both witnessed Jones scat singing at the Everglades Club in 1928. Not too long after, Helen had started to scat sing in her act. 

The Hidden History of BOOP! THE MUSICAL Animation Icon, Betty Boop!

The origin of scat singing for female performers of the time was proven to have Broadway origins and was credited to Gertrude Saunders and the all-black Broadway musical Shuffle Along, in which performer Florence Mills also appeared. Mills would often use a "Tooty-Tooty-Too" in her song "Baby and Me," in a higher pitch. Baby Esther is said to have based her act on Mills, and performed as a Mills impersonator at the Everglades. Kane's lawyers would later make a refuted claim that Baby Esther had actually based her persona on Helen. 

Kane later insisted that she was wholly unfamilar with scat-singing and hot licks, an improbable claim as she would have never been able to interject "Boop-Boop-a-Doop" into her songs had she not understood scat rhythm at the time. Kane also admitted that numerous stage performers had predated her use of baby talk. 

Helen's style, including her hairstyle and made-up facial features, namely painted on bow lips, were also ruled out as proof due to their ubiquity among flapper girls of the era

Kane also tried to lay claim to a voice that she did not own, as she had not ever performed as the official speaking voice of Boop, and was later told that a voice could not be copyrighted. According to Mae Questel, the official voice of Betty Boop, Helen tried to negotiate with Max Fleischer by asking him to make her the official voice of Betty, telling Max that she would drop the suit if he did. Fleischer refused, and remained loyal to Mae Questel. In 1930, several years before Questel became the official voice of Betty, Helen Kane complained about Questel using the "Boop-Boop-a-Doop" girl title and she forced Questel to change it. 

To clinch the case, a 1928 MGM short of Esther Jones scat-singing was presented in court and became the piece of evidence that helped determine its outcome. Though Baby Esther was not the main reason as to why Kane lost her lawsuit, Jones' story, as well as that of the other musicians and performers, led to Kane ultimately losing her case. 

Later on, Grim Natwick, said to be the original creator of Betty Boop, confirmed that he had used a photograph of Helen Kane to create Betty Boop, and when Betty appeared in her first cartoon Dizzy Dishes, it was a play on Helen Kane, who he says made, "Boop-Boop-a-Doop" famous.

Following the end of the case, Kane continued to pursue Betty Boop. Kane is said to have used the character in posters promoting her performances and even played Betty Boop cartoons when she made appearances. She also went on to sign a contract with King Features to rival Betty Boop in a comic strip by Ving Fuller, which was eventually replaced by Betty Boop's official comic strip series.

Despite legal counsel's advice that Max Fleischer sue Kane, he did not and allowed her to continue using Betty Boop to avoid another lawsuit. 

Kane eventually gave up her pursuit of Betty Boop and continued to dub herself the original "Boop-Boop-a-Doop" girl, up until the day she died.

To this day, Fleischer Studios maintains that Betty Boop is a composite of several popular female performers and actresses of the day and cannot be traced to one individual in particular. 

Photo Credit: Mark Seliger