Saturday, 29 June 2013

Who Was the Real Betty Boop?

Quick, name the voice of Betty Boop. Okay, now name all the voices of Betty Boop.

The first question’s probably a breeze to any fan of old cartoons; I suspect Mae Questel came to mind. The last one may be a little trickier. During the lawsuit filed against the Fleischer and Paramount studios by Helen “boop-oop-a-oop” Kane, Max Fleischer testified that he had used five actresses to play Betty on the screen. Questel was only one of them. The other four were Little Ann Little, Margie Hines, Bonnie Poe and Harriet Lee. The trial publicity prompted the first four to get together on stage in New York City (and, appropriately, at the Paramount Theatre) where they all appeared as Betty Boop in a show starting May 14, 1934.

Lee seems to have been an unusual choice. For one thing, she was a contralto. Lee appeared on radio in New York in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s and then disappeared. Jimmy Fidler tracked her down and revealed in a 1938 column she was in Hollywood employed as Dorothy Lamour’s voice coach. Poe headed west for a time, too. The New York Sun of July 22, 1933 stated she had been the on-screen voice of Betty “for the last four months” and had been appearing in the role on a radio show. By April 1934, she was a nightclub hostess in Los Angeles and suing George Raft for $25,000 for breach of promise on top of that. Poe seems to have faded into the filmland sunset soon after. Hines, as you may know, married and then divorced Jack Mercer, the eventual voice of Popeye.

But as far as Little Ann Little was concerned, she was Betty Boop. And God help you if you said the word “Questel” to her. Well, God wouldn’t help you because He was on Ann’s side, as you shall read.

The internet is chock-full of misinformation about her, thanks to someone’s incorrect guesswork and her own obit. No, she was not born in 1910. No, she was not born “Ann Rothschild.” Her claim she was a native New Yorker appears to have been stretching the truth, like a few other things in her interviews.

The one thing Ann Little never explained—nor did anyone else on the record—is why she was replaced with Questel as the voice of Betty Boop in the cartoons. Fleischer testified at the Kane trial (August 20, 1934) that Paramount hired the actresses, not he. Little treats it like it never happened. She gave a made-up excuse about why Betty stopped appearing in cartoons and leaves the impression she was there when it happened. She seems to have identified far too much with the character, telling the St. Petersburg Evening Independent in 1950 that she preferred to be called “Betty” instead of her real name, and the paper dutifully reports in other stories about “Betty Boop” and her students.

Florida death records show that Annabelle L. Rothschild was born March 1, 1902. They don’t reveal what her birth name was or where she was born. Evidently it was not in the United States. A naturalisation petition was granted to her on August 12, 1943. She married a tax assessor named Louis Herbert Werner. He was 22 years her senior; in fact, he married his first wife before Ann was even born. They tied the knot between 1940 and 1942; Werner’s World War Two draft card from 1942 lists a Brooklyn address that was crossed out and substituted with a Florida address in 1943. Ann apparently wintered in Florida for a time; an Evening Independent story from February 1937 reveals someone performing locally “who was billed as the ‘original voice of Betty Boop’.” Little isn’t mentioned but it’s a safe assumption it’s her.

The pair now in living with other snowbirds in St. Petersburg, Little found work as a make-up and hair instructor at a local charm school. Werner died on January 8, 1948 (his obit said he had arrived in the city in 1941) and the following month, the newspaper mentions Ann had changed jobs and was teaching dance at a studio. Between 1948 and 1950 (I can’t find the exact date now), the paper reveals she had opened her own studio and named it after Betty Boop. Little married Joseph M. Rothschild in July 1960; he died in July 1969 and she remained a widow until her death on October 22, 1981.

Here are several newspaper stories where Little talks about her life and her career in cartoons. This one appeared in the Evening Independent on October 2, 1948. There are odd claims galore in the story but the oddest is the assertion that Max Fleischer stopped making Betty Boop cartoons because he was sick. He never was sick. By extention, Little implies she was around until Betty’s dying days and that certainly wasn’t the case.

St. Petersburg Postscript To Hollywood Story
Betty Boop Studying For the Ministry

Max Fleischer and Paramount Studios had the cartoon heroine Betty Boop on the screen for eight years but this was never in the script. Betty Boop is studying to be a minister.
Honest-to-pat. The little lady is devoting her life to religion.
By Betty Boop we mean, of course, Ann Little Werner, who did the animations for that cute little movie cartoon trick with the squeaky voice and the Esquire figure.
Ann, who resides at 1850 Fifth avenue north and is an instructor at the Pauline Buhner school of dance, has already completed six month of Bible study. Her goal is to be an ordained minister and preach the Gospel from a pulpit
. “I used to bring joy to the outer man and now I want to be bring joy to the inner man,” she says.
Ann started in show business in 1925 as a member of the pony chorus with the Greenwich Village Follies in her native New York city. She was also an RKO discovery and at one time had her own program over the NBC network as Singer Little Ann Little. But it was as the voice of Betty Boop that Ann became a star.
“I heard that Paramount was holding tryouts for a tiny girl with a squeaky voice for the Betty Boop role and I tried for the job and got it,” Ann recounts.
“From 1932 until 1940 we made 18 cartoons a year. Sixteen thousand drawings were made to complete one seven-minute reel. After the film was completed it was my job to fill in the dialogue with songs and chatter on the sound track. In addition I made personal appearance tours as Betty. I used to get loads of fan mail, especially from children and men. The kiddies always believed that I actually went back into the ink well after the reel had been shown.”
Present day youngsters never had the pleasure of knowing Betty Boop on the screen but in her hey-day she was as popular, if not more so, than Mickey Mouse. She was forever in trouble but always managed to dive back into the inkwell before Koko the Clown or the giant could snatch her away.
As she ran fleeing from the huge hand of the giant her tiny scream had the audience in a tizzy until good triumphed over evil.
In the 30’s Helen Kane, the singer, sued Paramount for one-quarter million dollars claiming that the boob-boop-a-doop idea was hers. The case went to the New York supreme court and the judge ruled in favor of Fleischer. Kane appealed and again lost the case. Betty Boop would still be bringing joy to the hearts of movie-goers if Fleischer had not become ill and retired from movie-making. Betty Boop was always close to his heart and he would never sell the rights to any other studio, Anne says.
Ann moved to St. Petersburg five years ago with her late husband who was a retired employe of Consolidated Edison. He died six months ago. During the war Ann entertained the patients at government hospitals and did other volunteer war work.
She is very tiny, being only four feet-ten inches and weighs 100 pounds, only five pounds more than she did when she starred in the 30s as Betty Boop.
And she still retains that boob-boop-a-doop squeaky voice that makes you want to protect her from that brute, Koko the Clown.

Koko a “brute”? I must have missed that cartoon.

Ann’s first husband had belonged to the Unity Church.

Another newspaper caught up with her in 1971. The Associated Press picked up the story and it appeared in newspapers beginning June 22nd that year.

Cartoon voice now minister

Tampa Tribune Staff Writer
FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP)- Although Ann Rothschild quit being the voice of a famous animated cartoon character to go into the ministry more than 25 years ago, she's still perfect at doing the high, childish voice most people quickly recognize as "Betty Boop."
Mrs. Rothschild did the "Betty Boop" voice and made personal appearances as Betty Boop from 1933 to 1945. Before that, she was in vaudeville as "Miss Little Ann Little."
Now that 4-foor-1l-inch tall Mrs. Rothschild lives in a condominium development, and loves it, "because the people are my age, and they knew me and want me to sing at all the parties."
She said as "Betty Boop" she made about 18 cartoons a year and traveled throughout the country making personal appearances, in which she tap-danced, sang and did comedy sketches.
Mrs. Rothschild has a collection of publicity photographs from her "Betty Boop" days.
She admitted "Betty Boop" was the only cartoon voice she could do because, although she tried to change her voice, it was so distinctive, producers told her it would have been recognized.
Mrs. Rothschild left show business in 1946 to study for the ministry and later was ordained a Christian Unity minister.
She said she quit the entertainment field also because her husband retired and they moved to Florida.
But in 1948 her first husband died. She decided to set up the "Betty Boop School of Dancing" in St. Petersburg to teach dancing, singing and elocution.
Her most famous pupil was actress Carroll Baker, whom she taught for three years. Then, in 1951, she closed her school and came to Fort Myers to set up a Christian Unity Church.
She maintains show business and the ministry are the same thing. "In show business you try to lift people up so they can forget their problems, and it's the same in religion. You try to lift their minds off their problems and put it on God."

But Little seems to have a problem separating herself from a cartoon character. She complained in a story Fort Myers News Press about Mae Questel. She forgot—conveniently or otherwise—that she and Questel had appeared on stage together after the Kane trial was over (she had testified she was 24 which was a barefaced lie). In fact, she even seems to have deluded herself into believing the trial was about her, when it was about a cartoon character. All she had to do was easily explain to the reporter that Questel was one of the other people who voiced the character but she just can’t seem to bring herself to admit any one else was Betty Boop. And just because she sang boop-oop-a-doop on stage in the mid-‘20s doesn’t make her Betty Boop. A court of law twice told that to Helen Kane.

Maureen Bashaw was a long-time reporter and a champion for people with autism but she had problems spelling Max Fleischer’s name, unless the editor screwed it up. Her story was syndicated and this version appeared in print October 6, 1975.

Identity crisis for star

Gannett News Service
FORT MYERS, Fla.—The boop-boop-a-doop gal is mad.
There she was, this 77-pound, 58-inch, orange-haired, blue-eyed ex-cartoon and vaudeville queen, sitting in her apartment here a few weeks ago crying and laughing with the soap opera games on television, when the telephone rang and a friend told her he’d heard a lady on the tube the night before claiming to be the “original Betty Boop”.
Small balls of fire started to burn in Ann Rothschild’s eyes and heart, and although she says she’s “absolutely retired from show business,” she decided to speak out.
“I’m upset. I’m tired of hearing about these ORIGINAL Betty Boops and people around here thinking I’m a fraud. I’m the original Betty Boop. I began doing the boop-boop-a-doop songs when I was on the road with the vaudeville shows (back in the 1920s.)
“Then when Max Fliescher of Paramount Studios (in New York) was looking for someone for his new Betty Boop cartoon character (in 1932), I went to the auditions and he chose me.
“There were hundreds of girls there and most of them could sing better than I could. But I don’t know. I suppose I had what he wanted. I was very tiny and very pretty, you know, and I had this high-pitched voice.
“Anyway, Mr. Fliescher always said I was the original Betty Boop. He even won a court case over me once.
“Of course, there were other boop-boop-a-doop girls (back in the late 1920s and early 1930s). Helen Kane (she died several years ago of cancer) was one of them.
When Mr. Fliescher told her she couldn’t use the name Betty Boop in her acts, she tried to sue him for a quarter of a million dollars but she lost the case.
“Yes, that was back in 1934. You can look up the case in the New York Supreme Court records.
“Yet, there are still people who think Helen Kane was the original Betty. Just a few weeks ago, on ‘Musical Chairs’ (a CBS program), someone asked a lady on the panel who the original Betty Boop was and the lady said ‘Helen Hayes,’ and she won the prize money.
“Then my friend called me ... (in late August) to tell me he’d heard this Mae Questell on television — she’s a little fat woman I met in Mr. Fliescher’s office a few times — saying she was the original Betty Boop on the Tom Snyder show (NBC).
“I’m upset. Some people around here are beginning to think I’m a fraud. They go around wisp, wisp, wisping about me. It bothers me.”
Mrs. Rothschild came to Fort Myers in 1951 from St. Petersburg, where she operated her own Betty Boop studio for five years.
She spent 20 years in show business and another 20 studying and preaching the teachings of the Unity faith.
Her show business career started in the early 1920s when she was "the baby" of the Greenwich Village Follies.
She later teamed up with another Follies performer and played in the vaudeville houses in and around New York City a number of years.
Then, of course, came the Betty Boop stint.
The name Betty Boop became a household word from 1933 to 1945 when Betty Boop cartoons and Betty Boop dolls were the rage. Mrs. Rothschild also starred in movies from Paramount during the 1930s.
But, in 1945, she gave it all up to run her studio in St. Petersburg. Among her students was Carroll Baker who has appeared in a number of Hollywood productions.
She then enrolled in the Unity Village school in Kansas City, Mo., and kept up correspondence courses. In 1951, she was sent to Fort Myers for on-the-job training. By 1954, she was an ordained minister and at one time hosted a weekly radio program on the Unity faith.

So which cartoons did Ann Little appear in? I’m not going to even try to guess. If you listen to the sound tracks you can tell Betty’s voice isn’t by the same person in all of them. It’s a shame the studio records were destroyed years ago (Richard Fleischer’s book outlines their shocking fate). Mae Questel was certainly at Fleischer’s by 1932 as that’s what one contemporary newspaper story I’ve found says. But, regardless, the cartoons were a lot of fun for a while. Flowers and chairs coming to life. Talking animals that pop up and disappear. Warped little gags out of nowhere. Some great songs by Sammy Lerner. All of it made the Fleischer cartoons, far and away, the best that came out of New York. And some say anywhere.

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