In February 1995, animation historian Jerry Beck curated a Museum of Modern Art tribute to the cartoons of Paramount's Famous Studios. At a party related to the event, Jackson Beck, most famous as the voice of Bluto in many of the Paramount cartoons, was peppered with questions about the vocal history of the east coast animation studio. His response was something like, "There's only one person alive who was there from the beginning and she can't tell you anything." The person Beck was referring to was pioneer voice great Mae Questel (Betty Boop, Olive Oyl, etc.) and he was confirming recent rumors that she had descended into the depths of Alzheimer's disease and could no longer issue accurate reports from animation's past. An Enchanted Evening Just four and a half years earlier, at Betty Boop designer Grim Natwick's hundredth birthday soiree, Questel had been in high spirits and had charmed the large crowd with both story and song. While in Los Angeles, she was in discussions with Paramount about a role in its upcoming production, The Butcher's Wife,and she was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend the gathering in Natwick's honor. The banquet hall was filled with animation veterans dating back to the medium's pre-World War I beginnings alongside contemporary talents from such projects as The Simpsons. Nonagenarian Walter Lantz took Natwick's hand and practically danced around the large birthday cake at the front of the ballroom, while at a nearby table, Jerry Beck and I were attempting to extract from Ms. Questel the secrets of the Fleischer and Famous studios. Questel was a sparkling dinner companion, but I remember the evening more for what she didn't tell us than for what she did. We were endeavoring to learn the extent of the credited directors' involvement in Famous Studios' recording sessions. We repeatedly asked her who had directed the voice actors during the Forties and Fifties. She kept asserting that Dave Fleischer had directed the sessions, even though Fleischer had left the operation during the first half of 1942. Regardless, she was so clear and direct during the remainder of the conversation that we chalked up her mistaken insistence to the vagaries of normal aging. Questel, with her protective husband Jack glowering nearby, chatted happily with fans and signed autographs well into the night and we most assuredly did not recognize in her behavior any ominous indications of imminent decline. Sadly, Ms. Questel's recent death at the reported age of 89 will leave some questions forever unanswered. Grim Natwick has passed on, as have Walter Lantz and Shamus Culhane, and so many others from animation's early days. Whatever it is that only they knew and no one ever asked, is now permanently lost. The people who lived the history of the medium we love, are both our best and worst sources of information about its past. They know things that no one else can, from a perspective that is theirs alone. But, like most people, they take a less than academic approach to the details of their own lives and thus, are often wrong when we desperately need them to be right. The following is a brief and loving bio of Ms. Questel. Much of it is culled from her own recollections. Some of it may be wrong and much of it is right but all of it was Mae.
Her Early History
Mae Questel was a natural "ham," born into a family that didn't believe show business was a suitable profession for a respectable girl. The young New Yorker had obvious talent and performed frequently at charitable and community functions. However, professional opportunities were rejected by both her parents and grandparents.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Mae would eventually enjoy a professional theatrical career. While still a child, for instance, her talent brought her into the circle of famed violinist Mischa Ellman, who introduced her to many important people. Her career came about, however, not through the intercession of the powerful, but through a confluence of talent and pure happenstance at a time when she thought she had given up her theatrical aspirations for good. Mae had embarked upon a career in teaching when some of her friends, knowing her to be a natural mimic, entered her in a Helen Kane impersonation contest at the RKO Fordham Theater where Miss Kane was appearing. Mae was concerned that such a public display would be inappropriate for a teacher, but she participated in the competition and was, of course, victorious. Alone among the competitors, Mae decided to watch Kane's act before the contest began, and as a result emulated the star with greater accuracy than any of the other contestants. Combined with her natural oomph, Mae's dead-on mimicry earned her a contract with the RKO vaudeville circuit which finally kicked off her professional career. Mae quickly developed an act ("Mae Questel - Personality Singer of Personality Songs") that included impersonations of such other celebrities as Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting and Maurice Chevalier. She began appearing on radio programs and in short order was chosen by cartoon producer Max Fleischer to be the voice of his animated Helen Kane look/sound-alike, "Betty Boop."
An Animated Career
Taking the role of Betty Boop made Mae Questel immortal (and perhaps vice-versa), but the Fleischers got something out of the bargain as well the first in a stable of voice actors that would make Paramount cartoons second to none in the field of vocal characterizations. With the addition of Jack Mercer (Popeye) in the mid-1930s, the Fleischer cartoons began featuring top-quality vocal tracks long before most other cartoons from either New York or Hollywood could even come close. Mae's ability to ad-lib helped the cartoons tremendously as did her magical way with a song. In due time, Mae added other Paramount characters, both male and female, to her repertoire, voicing Olive Oyl, Pudgy and a host of other creations. When Fleischer Studios moved to Florida in the late 1930s, Mae, who had a young family in New York, decided to stay behind. As a result, she did only a little work for Paramount's cartoon unit during the early 1940s. However, when the studio returned to New York sans the Fleischers in 1943, Mae returned to her position as its primary female actor. Jackson Beck, Arnold Stang and Sid Raymond were added to the ensemble during the '40s and '50s and this tightly-knit vocal unit turned out some of the most satisfying voice tracks of animation's golden age. (Mercer, Questel and Beck also did a series of more than 200 Popeye cartoons made directly for television that were syndicated in the early 1960s.)
Mae had a related career in radio that included both afternoon and evenin Betty Boop broadcasts, as well as appearances on such programs as The Green Hornet and Perry Mason. Her early television work included a stint as a panelist on Stop Me If You've Heard This One and as the voice of the interactive cartoon sprite, Winky Dink. She did commercials for Bromo Seltzer, Nabisco Honey Grahams and Yuban Coffee and was the memorably helpful Aunt Bluebell in a series of Scott Towels spots during the 1970s.
She made records as Betty Boop, Olive Oyl and Little Audrey and even a novelty item called, Mrs. Portnoy's Retort. She also had a significant on-camera career in motion pictures.
During the '30s, a live-action Mae portrayed a Boop-ish character in several Paramount short subjects and was also in a Paramount feature called Wayward. The studio offered her a Hollywood contract in 1932 but typically, she turned it down and remained in New York at the request of her first husband. As with most of her ambitions, film success did ultimately come to Mae. All she had to do was live her life and wait for it.
During the '60s and '70s, she appeared in It's Only Money with Jerry Lewis, Move with Elliott Gould and Funny Girl with Gould's ex-wife Barbra Streisand. She became familiar to audiences, who may not even have known she was Betty Boop, as a quintessential Jewish mother. In the late 1980s, she played her most important Jewish mother in Woody Allen's Oedipus Wrecks segment of the film New York Stories.
In short, it was a marvelous career and, seemingly, a marvelous life. Certainly it was a quintessentially New York career stage, cartoons, commercials, radio. Feature films weren't really a factor until they began to move east in more recent times.
Furthermore, Mae retained her authenticity as a character by remaining in the east. Her later on-camera roles felt very real. Mae's most natural voices were always maternal and Jewish. Her Olive Oyl, originally styled after Zasu Pitts, ultimately became very "Aunt Bluebell." Betty Boop was also very much a "Jewish mother." It was, I think, the genuineness of her exuberant portrayals that made Mae Questel a success.
But if her humanity was her secret, it did not render her flawless. The story has oft been told about how Helen Kane sued Max Fleischer over the theft of her persona for his Betty Boop series. Many witnesses, including Mae, were trotted out by Fleischer to claim that Betty was not based on Kane.
However, Mae had to have known that Betty was based on Helen. Her entire career was built on her original impersonation of Helen Kane. On the night of that fateful contest, Kane had autographed a photo to Mae that said, "To Another Helen Kane." Mae took great pains later on to explain that Betty was drawn to look like her, but Mae wasn't even the first actress to voice Betty. Others, including Little Ann Little, had earlier played the role.
No one that I know of, in telling this tale, has ever called into question Mae's having taken part in this lawsuit, which Kane actually lost! In the final analysis, it's just one more incident in a life full of incidents both professional and personal. It demonstrates though that no story is fairy tale pure. Everyone is just a person. We often choose our heroes based not on what they've done, but because we like them. We liked Mae Questel. I have no doubt she deserved it.
The author would like to thank Leslie Cabarga for his contribution to and assistance with this article. His book, The Fleischer Story is available from DaCapo Press, or in autographed form directly from the author (contact firstname.lastname@example.org).
Andrew J. Lederer has been a writer and editor for Wild Cartoon Kingdom, Sci-Fi Universe, Film Threat and The Elmo Aardvark Newsletter. He recently contributed to an essay on the history of Paramount cartoons that accompanies a just-released CD featuring music from the films.