It’s not widely known, but Esther Jones — a black Harlem singer who performed regularly at the Cotton Club as Baby Esther — was an inspiration for the beloved cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop.
This revelation came to light in part due to the popularity of Betty Boop, a white cartoon character who first appeared in the 1930s Max Fleisher studio cartoons, singing a signature “boop-oop-a-doop” phrase.
A Max Fleischer Studios animator’s 1930 caricature of popular white singer and actress Helen Kane were the visual inspiration for the cartoon. And in 1932, Kane filed a $250,000 lawsuit against Max Fleischer and the film company Paramount Publix Corp., contending that they had exploited her persona and asserting she had invented the phrase, “Boop-oop-a-doop,” most famously heard in her 1928 hit song, “I Wanna Be Loved By You.”
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.
But 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.”