You might have seen the Betty Boop cartoon, whose iconic character was known worldwide for her exotic features. It had an adult theme, regarded as the first animation to become a sex symbol, which was later toned down for the viewership of minors.
Cartoon animator Max Fleischer created Betty Boop in the 1930s mimicking Baby Esther, but actress and singer Helen Kane sued the creators and Paramount, demanding $250,000 for mimicking her look, mannerisms and voice without getting a dime.
Although the Betty Boop creators have acknowledged that Baby Esther is the true original, most people credit Helen Kane because she went out of her way to take the credit.
Who was Esther Jones, aka Baby Esther?
Baby Esther Lee Jones was an African-American singer originally billed as Lil’ Little Esther. She began as a child entertainer who lived in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother, Gertrude Jones, and her father, William Jones, managed her career.
Esther was a trained scat singer, dancer, and acrobat who performed regularly at nightclubs in Harlem and all over the United States in the early 1920s. In her act, Baby Esther would dance, make funny faces, roll her eyes, and interpolate words such as “Boo-Boo-Boo,” “Wha-Da-Da,” & “Do-Do-De-Do-Ho-De-Wa-Da-De-Da,” and would finish off her routine with a “De-Do.”
Baby Esther’s career took off in the early 1920s when she won first prize in a Charleston contest in Chicago—she was only four then. Esther lived in the obscure “colored” part of Chicago with her mother and father. Russian-American theatrical manager Lou Bolton saw her performance and got her engagements in Chicago, New York, Detroit, Toronto, and other cities, after which he brought her to Europe. At one point, she was called “Miniature Florence Mills,” deriving inspiration from Florence Mills.
Helen Kane Starts Scat Singing
In 1928, at the Everglades Club, where Esther performed, Helen Sugar Kane watched her sing and dance on stage. Helen Kane suddenly started to scat sing in her act also. She became a star thanks to the new style she imitated, which delighted audiences.Esther toured Europe in 1929 and became the highest-paid child artist in the world. While touring Europe, she delighted audiences, including royalty.
The London Sunday People said of Baby Esther: “Thousands flock no longer to the Moulin Rouge to see Mistinguett herself or the clever American ballet girls, or the beautiful women of the chorus, but to applaud a little mite, 10-year-old, who has won fame and wealth within the space of a few weeks. We are living in an age of speed, but this amazing little child has broken every record of sudden theatrical success.”
When Esther returned to the United States, she continued touring and danced for Cab Calloway and his Orchestra as one of his Sepia Dancers at his club in New York. From 1933 to 1934, Esther appeared in Helena Justa’s Harlem Maniacs revue. Misinformation spread by pseudologists claimed Esther had died, but she was still active until September 1934.
Kane Sues Fleischer Studios
When Kane attempted to sue Fleischer Studios for using her persona, the studios defended themselves by arguing that Kane had taken it from “Baby Esther” Jones. They used an early test sound film of Baby Esther’s performance as evidence. In court, it was presumed that Jones was still in Paris.
Success had eluded Helen Kane for years despite trying her hands on many acts, including vaudeville, singing troupes, and chorus lines, till her manager brought her in to see Baby Esther perform.
“Helen Kane first saw Esther perform in 1928, where she had a ringside seat with Tony Shayne (booking agent for both Kane and Jones) at the Everglades Club on Broadway. “
According to Lou Bolton, Esther debuted her “Boops” in April 1928. Helen Kane adapted the scat sounds she had heard to “Poop Poop Padoop,” first using it in the Broadway musical Good Boy, in which she interpolated it into the hit song “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” becoming famous overnight.
Helen also used a variety of scat sounds in her 1928 Victor song releases; “That’s My Weakness Now” and “Get Out and Get Under the Moon.” Kane didn’t release the hit Broadway song “I Wanna Be Loved By You” on record until September 20, 1928. An early test sound film was discovered that featured Baby Esther performing in this style, disproving Kane’s claims of inventing the scat lyrics “Boop-Boop-a-Doop.”
“Baby Esther’s ex-manager Bolton testified that Helen Kane had seen Baby Esther’s cabaret act in 1928 with Tony Shayne, and then not too long after suddenly started to scat sing in shows. Supreme Court Judge Edward J. McGoldrick ruled: “The plaintiff has failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative force.”
Honoring Baby Esther
The curious case about Baby Esther is that after the trial, having served her purpose as a legal defense, she was dropped. No efforts were made to revive her work or compensate her or her family. Instead, baby Esther had been whitewashed from history until later when the true story emerged.
Esther and Josephine Hall were honored in 1930 for representing African-Americans and the United States of America when she toured Europe. Jazz studies scholar Robert O’Meally has referred to Esther Jones as Betty Boop’s “black grandmother.”
Although she lived in relative obscurity, a piece of her lives on in the iconic character Betty Boop.