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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