The Secret History of Betty Boop

Esther Jones a.k.a. Baby Esther

If you read the first post in our latest Medium collection dedicated to the new Woolly play COLLECTIVE RAGE: A PLAY IN FIVE BOOPS, you might’ve figured out that Betty Boop was originally a dog. But as it turns out, that’s not even the most interesting secret fact of Betty Boop’s origin story. This is a cartoon character with a lot to hide, after all.

Though jazz-era chanteuse Helen Kane is typically credited as the model for Betty Boop, it was actually a Harlem nightclub singer named Esther Jones, a.k.a. Baby Esther, who came up with the famous line “boop boop-a-doop” and many other notable characteristics of Betty’s.

So why didn’t she get the credit for inspiring the character? Because by the time of the cartoon’s debut, Kane had already taken it for herself. Kane was a popular singer in the 1920s with a signature song entitled “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” a song full of scat-singing (and the word “boop”). She eventually became known as “The Boop-Boop-A-Doop Girl.”

Esther Kane

After Betty Boop began to make a splash as a cultural icon, many saw her as a cartoon version of Kane. The performer herself also took notice of the similarities, and ended up suing the Betty Boop studio, Paramount, for $250,000 in 1934 on the grounds that the production house had unduly profited from her image.

During the trial, however, some shocking testimony emerged: an African-American singer named Esther Jones had used words like “boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo” in songs during her act at a New York cabaret in 1928. It was revealed that Kane and her manager had been present during Jones’ performance before the “boop” stuff became a mainstay of Kane’s act. So who’s exploiting who?

The court dismissed the case, and Max Fleischer (Betty Boop’s creator) made this video as a very special little “fuck you” when all was said and done. Justice was served…but it wasn’t. Esther Jones still never got her due, and the owners of the Betty Boop trademark are still profiting from her.

Looking at it one way, this is a problematic aspect of Betty’s history. Seen from another vantage point, it simply makes her more American than we ever realized.


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