The Harlem Jazz Singer Who Inspired Betty Boop: Meet the Original Boop-Oop-a-Doop, “Baby Esther”

Jazz Age car­toon flap­per, Bet­ty Boop, inhab­its that rare pan­theon of stars whose fame has not dimmed with time.

While she was nev­er alive per se, her ten year span of active film work places her some­where between James Dean and Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe. The mar­ket for Boop-col­lectibles is so vast, a defin­i­tive guide was pub­lished in 2003. Most recent­ly, Bet­ty has popped up on pre­paid deb­it cards and emo­ji, and inspired fashion’s enfant ter­ri­ble Jean Paul Gaulti­er to cre­ate a fra­grance in her hon­or.

As not­ed in the brief his­to­ry in the video above, Bet­ty hailed from ani­ma­tor Max Fleischer’s Fleis­ch­er Stu­dios and actress Margie Hines pro­vid­ed her voice.

Phys­i­cal­ly, she bore a close resem­blance to pop­u­lar singer Helen Kane. Their baby­ish vocal stylings were remark­ably sim­i­lar, too. But when Bet­ty put the bite on a cou­ple of Kane’s hits, below, Kane fought back with a law­suit against Para­mount and Max Fleis­ch­er Stu­dios, seek­ing dam­ages and an injunc­tion which would have pre­vent­ed them from mak­ing more Bet­ty Boop car­toons.

The Asso­ci­at­ed Press report­ed that Kane con­found­ed the court stenog­ra­ph­er who had no idea how to spell the Boop­sian utter­ances she repro­duced before the judge, in an effort to estab­lish own­er­ship. Her case seemed pret­ty sol­id until the defense called Lou Bolton, a the­atri­cal man­ag­er whose client ros­ter had once includ­ed Harlem jazz singer,“Baby Esther” Jones.

Two years before Bet­ty Boop debuted (as an anthro­po­mor­phic poo­dle) in the car­toon short, Dizzy Dish­es, above, Kane and her man­ag­er took in Baby Esther’s act in New York. A cou­ple of weeks’ lat­er the non­sen­si­cal inter­jec­tions that were part of Baby Esther’s schtick, below, began creep­ing into Kane’s per­for­mances.

Accord­ing to the Asso­ci­at­ed Press, Bolton tes­ti­fied that:

Baby Esther made fun­ny expres­sions and inter­po­lat­ed mean­ing­less sounds at the end of each bar of music in her songs.

“What sounds did she inter­po­late?” asked Louis Phillips, a defense attor­ney.

“Boo-Boo-Boo!” recit­ed Bolton.

“What oth­er sounds?”


“Any oth­ers?”

“Yes, Wha-Da-Da-Da!”

Baby Esther her­self did not attend the tri­al, and did not much ben­e­fit from Kane’s loss. Casu­al car­toon his­to­ri­ans are far more like­ly to iden­ti­fy Kane as the inspi­ra­tion for the ani­mat­ed Boop-oop-a-doop girl. You can hear Kane on cds and Spo­ti­fy, but you won’t find Baby Esther.

With a bit more dig­ging, how­ev­er, you will find Gertrude Saun­ders — the giv­en name of “Baby Esther” — belt­ing it out on Spo­ti­fy. Some of her into­na­tions are a bit rem­i­nis­cent of Bessie Smith… who hat­ed her (not with­out rea­son). Saun­ders appeared in a few movies and died in 1991.

via Urban Intel­lec­tu­als

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Vin­tage Car­toons: Bugs Bun­ny, Bet­ty Boop and More

A 103-Year-Old Harlem Renais­sance Dancer Sees Her­self on Film for the First Time & Becomes an Inter­net Star

Cab Calloway’s “Hep­ster Dic­tio­nary,” A 1939 Glos­sary of the Lin­go (the “Jive”) of the Harlem Renais­sance

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her play Zam­boni Godot is open­ing in New York City in March 2017. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • John Miller says:

    There’s an excel­lent rea­son Esther nev­er ben­e­fit­ed from the tri­al. Bolton lied.

    Esther Lee Jones was a child singer who per­formed as Li’l Esther. She was known as ‘The Minia­ture Flo­rence Mills’. In 1928 she was sev­en years old.

    Lou Bolton, a man with a crim­i­nal record for fraud, and known friend/associate of the Fleis­ch­ers, tes­ti­fied that HE had invent­ed the “Boop boop a doop” style, had taught it to Esther, and that she was per­form­ing it before Kane. He also tes­ti­fied that Kane had seen this act “some­time around April or May 1928”. Of course, he failed to pro­vide actu­al evi­dence for any of this. Kane’s lawyers were des­per­ate to get the actu­al Esther Lee Jones on the stand to tes­ti­fy her­self, but Bolton has mys­te­ri­ous­ly lost track of Esther.

    And then, the “ear­ly test sound record­ing” of Esther appeared. The ele­phant in the room is…why in the VERY ear­ly days of record­ed film with sound would a film of 7‑year-old Esther Lee Jones have even been record­ed at all? Nat­u­ral­ly, here was no way of con­firm­ing WHERE the film was record­ed, WHEN it was record­ed, or even WHO it was singing on the film. Kane’s lawyers point­ed all of this(and more) out, only to have it reject­ed by a misog­y­nist judge who was open­ly and unashamed­ly hos­tile to Kane. Kane’s lawyers asked that an inde­pen­dent, third par­ty group be allowed to do a tech­ni­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of the film record­ing, to ver­i­fy or debunk whether ti was what it was claimed to be with­out any proof. The judge denied that.

    Esther nev­er cap­i­tal­ize don the pub­lic­i­ty, because if she HAD done actu­al record­ings etc. the myth would have been exposed. And, sur­prise sur­prise, this valu­able “ear­ly test film” was unfor­tu­nate­ly “lost” by Bolton short­ly after­wards. So nobody could ever do a prop­er exam­i­na­tion of it.

    Esther Lee Jones was a pawn in a mis­car­riage of jus­tice. Bolton was so crooked that he could hide behind a spi­ral stair­case with­out being seen. There is noth­ing at all that shows that Helen Kane had even heard of Esther Jones before her name came up at the tri­al. And there is noth­ing at all to prove that Esther Jones ever did any­thing even remote­ly resem­bling the Helen Kane act.

    And the will­ing­ness of peo­ple to accept a Ukrain­ian pho­to­graph from 2008 as “Baby Esther” says it all. They WANT to believe. And the com­plete and utter lack of evi­dence is nei­ther here nor there for them.

  • Donetta Sifford says:

    Just want­ed to say thank you for com­ment­ing with fur­ther infor­ma­tion. I’m a huge fan of Bet­ty Boop and was excit­ed to learn about her ori­gins so I’m glad to have clar­i­ty.

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