Mae Questel: The Voice Behind Betty Boop

On August 9, 1930, Betty Boop made her debut. Here's a look at the woman who voiced the beloved animated character.
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On August 9, 1930, Betty Boop made her debut. Here's a look at the woman who voiced the beloved animated character.
Mae Questel Photo

Mae Questel made her debut as the voice of Betty Boop in 1931, and continued to voice the character—and sometimes model for the animators—through the last original cartoon, in 1939.

Even more than the garter and the spit curls, it was the squeaky-sexy, innocent-provocative voice that defined the beloved Depression-era animated character Betty Boop, from Fleischer Studios. And that voice mostly belonged to Mae Questel, a diminutive girl from the Bronx whose long career included a number of stage, movie, and television appearances using the full arsenal of her being, not just the voice. But it was the voice that immortalized her—as Betty, whom she first lent her sound to in 1931, and later as Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons, also from Fleischer Studios. Looking back on some facts about her life shows that nobody ever took Mae's boop-oop-a-doop away:

1. Mae got her show business start with an impersonation. She was born in 1908, and from an early age showed a talent for singing, comic hijinks, and mimicry, but her Orthodox Jewish parents wouldn't hear of a stage career. Mae was going to be a teacher, but in 1925 she entered a Helen Kane lookalike contest. Kane was a popular singer who fashioned her dark bob with spit curls and whose signature high-pitched song "I Wanna Be Loved You" notably included the lyrical phrase "boop-oop-a-doop." Mae easily won the contest, and was hired to perform her impersonations of Kane and other celebrities (including Fanny Brice and Maurice Chevalier) in the RKO chain of theaters. Years later, when Kane's career was in decline, she took the creators of Betty Boop to court on the charge of appropriating her voice and likeness for the character, which of course they had. She lost the case, partly based on Mae's testimony.

Betty made her first appearance in the 1930 Bimbo cartoon "Dizzy Dishes" as a sexy canine with long floppy ears.

Betty made her first appearance in the 1930 Bimbo cartoon "Dizzy Dishes" as a sexy canine with long floppy ears.

2. Mae was not the first voice of Betty Boop. Designed by Fleischer Studios animator Grim Natwick, Betty made her first appearance in the 1930 Bimbo cartoon "Dizzy Dishes" as a sexy canine with long floppy ears. Tiny vaudevillian Little Ann Little supplied Betty's voice in most of the early cartoons. By 1932, Betty's ears had morphed into earrings and her species had very definitely shifted from dog to human. Mae made her vocal debut as Betty in 1931, and continued to voice the character—and sometimes model for the animators—through the last original cartoon, in 1939. By this time, Betty Boop's persona and decolletage had long been tamed by the Production Code, which was every bit as damaging to her popularity as a similar sanitization was to Mae West's. 

3. Mae not only voiced Olive Oyl, but also Swee'-Pea and occasionally Popeye himself. In 1933, Fleischer Studios released the first Popeye cartoon (appropriately titled "Popeye the Sailor"), and the new series quickly overtook the Betty Boops in popularity. Mae was in at the beginning as the voice of Olive Oyl, basing the character's fretful stream of chatter and flutterings on comedic movie actress ZaSu Pitts. For Swee'Pea, she supplied babyish goos and gurgles. When the Fleischer Studios moved from New York to Florida in 1939, Mae, by now married with two children, stayed behind. But in 1942, Paramount's Famous Studios took over and moved operations back to New York. Mae resumed her Olive Oyl duties, and when Popeye vocal talent Jack Mercer left to join the war effort, Mae used her mimicry skills to voice the strong-to-the-finish sailorman's mutterings as well.

4. Mae conquered Broadway and Hollywood. While continuing to voice Olive Oyl as well as such other characters as Little Lulu, Little Audrey, and Casper, the Friendly Ghost, Mae also performed in The Green Hornet and Perry Mason on radio, appeared on TV game shows and soaps, and, from the late 40s into the 60s, acted in the Broadway plays Doctor Social, A Majority of One, Enter Laughing, and Bajour. Later, she had great success in TV commercials, especially as the character Aunt Bluebell for Scott Towels. She went to Hollywood for the 1962 Jerry Lewis comedy It's Only Money and the 1968 film version of Funny Girl. (As the meddling Mrs. Strakosh, hers is the first voice you hear on the soundtrack album: "If a girl isn't pretty/Like a Miss Atlantic City/All she gets in life/Is pity and a pat.")

5. Betty Boop's comeback. In the early 60s, Mae once again voiced Olive Oyl for a syndicated TV series, and during the 1970s Betty Boop resurfaced, with Mae's voice, in some TV commercials. Betty made a triumphant comeback, returned to her pre-Code ways, in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the following year Mae took on two fabulous comic movie roles: as Woody Allen's all-seeing mother in the "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of New York Stories, and as addled Aunt Bethany in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Mae died from complications of Alzheimer's disease in 1998, at age 89. But Betty, with her sass and her spit curls and her squeak, lives on. 

Mae Questel Photo

Mae Questel as Woody Allen's all-seeing mother in the "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of New York Stories.