Many people are unaware of one of the main inspirations behind the beloved 1930s cartoon character, Betty Boop. The famous sex symbol actually got her signature “boop” from a black Harlem singer named Esther Jones, otherwise known as Baby Esther. While almost everyone can immediately picture the wide-eyed, baby-voiced character that is Betty Boop, the name Baby Esther doesn’t tend ring any bells.
The visual inspiration behind Betty Boop, a Max Fleischer Studios creation, was actually a popular white actress and singer named Helen Kane. While Betty was visually a caricature of Kane, her famous “booping” was the appropriation of Baby Esther’s signature scat, which she performed at the Cotton Club in Harlem throughout the 1920s. Kane believed that the character was based on much more than just her looks, and claimed that it was based on her entire persona— she insisted that she had invented the phrase “Boop-oop-a-doop” in her well known 1928 hit song, “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” As a result, Kane filed a $250,0000 infringement lawsuit against Fleischer and the film company Paramount Publix Corp.
The trial went on for two years until the defense called Baby Esther’s manager, Lou Walton, to testify. Walton revealed that Kane had attended Baby Esther’s act in April of 1928, and began “booping” just like Esther a few weeks after the show. The defense managed to find a 1928 sound film of Baby Esther’s performance, and played it for the judge. Esther had passed away in 1934, so this was the only form of evidence that they could provide.
Almost immediately after the film was released, the trial ended and Kane lost. Baby Esther technically got the credit for the style behind Helen Kane’s “booping,” and by extension, Betty Boop. Scholar Robert G. O’Meally commented on this story in the anthology Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies, saying Betty Boop “had, as it were, a black grandmother in her background.” Unfortunately, to this day, many people are unaware of this story. Esther Jones is the inspiration behind one of the most iconic characters in the American culture, yet most people have no idea who she is.
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