Betty Boop & a Harlem singer named Baby Esther
I was surprised to see so many Betty Boop figurines at auction again. The week before, tons of them were spread out on more than a half-dozen tables at the same auction house but in another room.
And here they were again, not as many but all in foam boxes and in pristine condition. A few of them were actually pretty nice – even though I’m not a Betty Boop fan.
“Lots of people collect Betty Boop,” my auction buddy Janet texted me when I told her that I bought one of them (checking eBay, I saw that it sold for a nifty price). Betty seems to be undergoing a resurgence these days, with a new online cartoon, dresses and a red lipstick inspired by her and a play in California that features an African American Betty.
At the auction, Betty posed as a blues singer, painted her toenails, wore a red hat (as a member of the Red Hat Society), showed her patriotism in a red/white/blue outfit and stood over a sidewalk heat vent à la Marilyn Monroe in the “The Seven Year Itch”. All the figurines were produced for the Danbury Mint.
Seeing so many Betty Boops got me to thinking about where this very popular character with the over-sized head, tiny body and annoyingly squeaky voice came from. I was surprised to learn that her origin was not very straight-forward.
Betty Boop first appeared in 1930 as a human-like French poodle-sidekick of another cartoon character. Within a year, she had been transformed into a female character (with the help of several other cartoonists); her floppy ears became earrings and her nose was altered. This new character was drawn as a sexy 1920s flapper with her own unique style (and appeared in cartoons that were as racially stereotypical as just about everything else in its day).
She was a caricature of Kane, a white singer and actress who used the phrase “Boop-oop-a-doop” in several of her songs, including the famous “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in 1928. Betty Boop also sang it in Fleischer’s cartoons. You can hear her singing it here in “Betty Boop: ‘Boop-Oop-A-Doop'” (at 5:10 into the cartoon).
Kane had heard Baby Esther sing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Esther – whose birth name was Gertrude Saunders – was a regular performer there, delighting audiences with her baby singing voice. She interjected several scat phrases in her songs, including “Boo-Boo-Boo,” “Doo-Doo-Doo” and “Wha-Da-Da.”
I could find very little information about Baby Esther, whose name seemed to have surfaced when Kane sued Fleischer and Paramount Publix Corp. for $250,000 in 1932, accusing them of making money off her image.
Baby Esther’s manager Lou Walton testified that he taught her how to combine the boop and doop in a scat, creating “Boop-oop-a-doop,” and that he had taken Kane to see Baby Esther perform before Kane introduced the phrase in her own songs. He also offered a film of Baby Esther singing and scatting. Kane lost the case in 1934, but she would continue to be seen as the Betty Boop model.
Baby Esther apparently did not appear at trial, and she never sued, although she probably would’ve had a better case. The Afro-American newspaper suggested in 1934 that she should. But this was 1930s America, and it would’ve been tough for her to win.
Although Baby Esther is largely forgotten and rarely mentioned in the same sentence with Betty Boop, one jazz scholar has likened her to Betty’s “black grandmother in her background.” She would appear to be closer to the black grandmother with the passing-for-white granddaughter who didn’t want her white friends to know her background.
Here are some Betty Boop figurines from the auction: