Betty Boop might have one of the most recognizable faces in the world! Her exaggerated 1920's flapper girl style, her baby doll voice, and her silly adventures make her a beloved American treasure. She made her first appearance in the early 1930s in a talking cartoon called, "Dizzy Dishes" created by Max Fleischer and Grim Natwick and produced by Fleischer Studios and Paramount Studios. Betty Boop was actually created to be a dog originally, it wasn't until 1932 that Betty got a makeover and turned into the Betty Boop we know her to be today! Watch the video below to learn more about Betty's complete evolution!
Who Was The Real, Betty Boop?
Clara Bow is one of the many women cited to be in inspiration for Betty Boop. Bow was one of the few silent film actresses of the 1920s that successfully transitioned to talking movies in the 1930s. It is clear that her likeness is very similar to Betty's, but I think it speaks more to the times that both the women rose to fame than anything else. Betty Boop was a caricature of what the 1920s "It Girl" was, Clara Bow was the 1920s "It Girl".
Helen Kane, pictured above, is the woman most credited with being the inspiration of Betty Boop. She was an American Singer and Actress most known for her song "I Wanna Be Loved By You" featured in the musical "Good Boy" in 1928. Now the idea that Helen Kane was the inspiration for Betty Boop is half true, Fleischer Studios did ultimately use Helen Kane's likeness in order to create Betty. But who did Helen Kane base her likeness on? That is where the story begins.
Esther Jones is the Real Betty Boop!
Esther Jones or as she was billed "Baby Esther", was a child entertainer from Chicago Illinois. Esther was a trained scat singer, dancer, and acrobat who performed regularly in nightclubs in Harlem and all over the United States in the 1920s. She was known for making adorable facial expressions and Betty's famous tag line, "Boop-Boopy-Doo" was directly lifted from Esther's act.
She often performed at the Cotton Club, an iconic New York club that had some of the most famous black entertainers of the time headline. The Cotton Club was in operation from 1923-1940, having the likes of Duke Ellington and Billy Holiday grace the stage. Baby Esther was an incredibly sought after child performer, who was a regular at this historic night club!
In 1928, Baby Esther was preforming at an obscure nightclub called the Everglades Club when her booking agent, Tony Shayne brought Helen Kane to see her performance. Tony Shayne also managed Helen Kane at the time and brought her to check out Baby Esthers set. From that point on Helen began imitating Esther's performance, and subsequently, Kane's career started to gain some steam.
Although her act was appropriated by Helen Kane, Esther Jones was still a massive star. In 1929, Esther toured Europe and became the highest-paid child star of her time. She performed for the King and Queen of Spain and was specifically requested to perform for the King and Queen of Sweeden. She performed at the iconic Moulin Rouge and was billed at the "Miniature Josephine Baker". Her success continued as she traveled throughout South America, attracting crowds and much acclaim.
Unfortunately, after the 1930s there is not much news or information about what happened to Esther Jones, she was an extremely successful child star and she just disappeared. Her story is a powerful and important one, and contributions to our culture are undeniable. Baby Esther's story is symbolic of America's relationship with Black people and their overall contributions to our history and our culture.
Cultural Appropriation has been happening since the beginning of time!
The truth is many of the inventions, foods, and music we interact with on a daily basis probably have an origin story similar to Baby Esther's and Betty Boops. Someone with a valuable skill or talent was used to inspire and influence another creative in order to move their career forward. Once said creator gets popular there is no reference or reach back to the person they themselves were inspired by. Instead, they opt to take the credit for originating said valuable skill or talent and the questions usually stop there. For years Betty Boop's singing style and mannerisms were credited to Helen Kane, no one ever asked questions or challenged that fact, but as we all know there is always more to the story.
It doesn't just start with the well-known story of Elvis Presly stealing his hit song Hounddog from Blues singer Big Mama Thorton, its deeper than that. When it comes to the micro, it is easy for people to see how destructive this cycle of appropriation can be, but for some reason its harder to empathize with the victims of appropriation at the macro scale. This country was built on the free labor of enslaved Africans, and without this violent past, America would surely not be what it is today. Though people and history are quick to downplay the importance of this sacrifice and attribute America's success to European Colonization, there is no hiding the truth. Check out the video below to understand how much America's success is tied to the suffering of enslaved Africans.
Many people complain that we live in an extremely sensitive society, to me that sounds like a cop-out. In a lot of ways, we are living in the information age and the ENTIRE story has an opportunity to finally be told. For so long what we considered to be historical facts were biased ideas created by those in power to reinforce the power structure. For the first time in history, the internet has played a huge role in giving a lot of previously hidden stories the platform to be told to the masses, the story of Esther Jones is one of these stories.
The Betty Boop Controversy!
In 1932 Helen Kane filed a $250,000.00 lawsuit against Fleischer Studios and Paramount Studios claiming that the likeness of Betty Boop was lifted directly from her image. As previously stated, in the first couple of "talkie" cartoons Betty Boop was actually a dog, by the time Kane filed this lawsuit Betty had transformed into a human flapper girl of the 1920s, her floppy dog ears were traded in for her iconic hoop earrings. Though Betty's mannerisms were the same, the switch from dog to human cartoon pushed Kane to file the lawsuit against the two studios.
Again, Helen Kane being the inspiration of Betty Booy was in fact half true. The original animator of Betty Boop admitted to basing the look, voice, and mannerisms on Helen Kane directly before he died. But Helen Kane based her act completely around the look, voice, and mannerisms of Baby Esther, so who came first? The chicken or the egg? Although Kane never said that she was inspired by Baby Esther's act, not surprisingly, the same studio she was exposing for stealing her look was about to expose her for stealing Baby Esther's look.
It was proven in court that Helen Kane had appropriated her act from Baby Esther's 1920s act. They discussed how she went to see Baby Esther performing in 1928 with her then manager and Esther's booking agent Tony Shayne. When they compared Kane's performances from before seeing Esther's act in 1928 and after, it was clear that she had completely changed her act to mirror Esther's. The Voice, the cutesy faces, and the "Boop-Boopy-Doo" catchphrase were all things created by Baby Esther. In fact in her most famous song, "I Want to Be Loved by You" from 1928, the "Boop-Boopy-Doo" catchphrase was center stage.
Many people from Kane's past were called to testify on behalf of the studios. They supported the story that Kane had mirrored her likeness to Baby Esther in order to help her career, and it worked. She gained moderate success from changing her act, but due to this fact, she had no ownership of the character that Betty Boop was based on. In fact, because she was inspired by Baby Esther, they did not copy Helen Kane's likeness, they copied Baby Esther's, or so they argued in court. As you can imagine, Helen Kane's career did not recover after losing this lawsuit and she soon faded into obscurity, much like Baby Esther did.
Betty Boop is the original cartoon sex symbol and her back story is in some ways as classic as her legacy. The appropriation of Baby Esther's likeness, making it white and profiting off of it, is a tale as old as time when it comes to Black creators in this country. Black History Month was created to amplify voices that were purposely ignored, so finally, the other side of the story can be revealed. Many stories have yet to be told, but the importance of Black contributions to this country can no longer go unnoticed. Betty Boop was Black, and that is a historical fact! What do you think about the origins of Betty Boop? Please comment and share if you enjoyed this post!