Saturday 26 July 2014

The Merry Voice of Mae

Is there any doubt the premier cartoon voice actress based in New York City was Mae Questel? If not, she’s certainly the most beloved.

Questel wasn’t the only voice—or first, for that matter—of Olive Oyl or Betty Boop, but she’s really the only one almost anyone remembers. Questel turned Olive from a whiney Zasu Pitts clone into a unique personality, and she imbued Betty with a cheerful, tuneful enthusiasm. During the 1960s, when the Popeye cartoons stiffened for television, Questel, Jack Mercer and Jackson Beck turned in top performances.

The New York Sun of January 4, 1930 reported Questel “first came to public notice when she won the recent R-K-O Greater Manhattan Helen Kane contest,” had been appearing at the Franklin Theatre in the Bronx and was about to open at the Eighty-First Street Theatre. The same paper 18 days later revealed she was appearing unbilled at the Palace in the Waite Hoyt and Freddie Coots act. It also pointed out Helen Kane herself set up the contest that Questel won and then predicted she would appear on Broadway. One must wonder how Kane felt about Questel when she sued the Fleischer cartoon studio for expropriating her act and infusing it into Betty Boop—with Questel as Betty’s voice.

Questel’s first radio performance was apparently on the Radio Keith-Orpheum Program on WEAF (and the NBC Red Network) on Thursday, December 19, 1929, not long after she won the contest. She then appeared on the Camel Pleasure Hour on WJZ (NBC Blue) on Wednesday, March 18, 1931 where she did impressions of Maurice Chevalier, Irene Bordoni and (are you surprised?) Helen Kane and sang “There’s Danger in Your Eyes Cherie,” “Ain’t Cha” and “Valentine.” She also occasionally sang on a 15-minute Wednesday night show on NBC Red called RCA Radiotron Varities, and replaced it on May 27th for a mere six weeks. Later in the year, she appeared on Rudy Vallee’s top-rated show for Fleischmann’s Yeast.

When was her first appearance in cartoons? This 1932 feature story by the National Enterprise Association doesn’t say but she obviously was voicing the character by the time it was published. The photo accompanied the story.

Boop-a-doop! Here's a Movie Star Never Seen on the Screen

NEW YORK, July 14.—In the tales of the better Magi, it was assumed possible to transform, the inanimate into the animate. Thus a shrinking violet plucked from the garden might turn into a Russian duke disguised as a Savoy-Plaza doorman.
But up in New York's Bronx is a highly animated young lady who has been nationally identified as a series of pen scratches and a voice.
Almost anyone who attends the movies has made the acquaintance of Betty Boop. But have you heard of Mae Questel?
Mae Questel is that oop-de-yoop voice you hear when Betty sings or converses. Furthermore, Mae is today the model for Betty. When, in the Broadway offices of Max Fleischer, cartoonists go to work on the Queen of Boop, it is Mae who rolls her eyes, wiggles her hips and otherwise models the role.
From an inkwell character, Betty Boop has become a caricature of the young lady who furnishes her voice.
And, on the other hand, Mae Questel has studied hundreds of reels in an effort to develop a voice that would fit the character of the animated cartoon.
It all began a couple of years ago when a contest was being held in New York's neighborhood theaters to find the best imitator of Helen Kane, then the outstanding boop-a-doop girl.
Miss Questel was conducting an elocution class and had ambitions to get on the stage. She appeared at a Bronx movie house and won the contest by two doops and a boop. Within a few weeks she found herself making the movie house circuits with her impersonation. The radio boys heard her and she went on the air. Sound pictures were developing the while, and Betty needed a voice. Miss Questel seemed to be just what Fleischer was seeking. But there are other noises, if you recall, in the Betty Boop films—sounds so strange and inhuman that you may have wondered where they came from.
Which brings us to Cookie Barrows.
Barrows was going about the stage circuits making noises like a buzz-saw, a mosquito, a sewing machine and a political orator when sound came to the films and radio came to the air.
He was grabbed up at once as a running brook and an eruption of Kilauea. As such he appeared back stage in Holywood [sic]. only to have the ante raised by radio, which needed an imitation of Sherman's march to the sea and a plague of locusts. Barrows is claimed capable of 1000 noises, with others ready on three hours' notice.
• • •
It seems, according to Mr. Fleischer, daddy of Betty Boop, that in the screening of the animated cartoons, the human voice picks up much better than mechanical imitations. Frequently the mechanical processes are too rapid for good recording, whereas the voice can be timed to meet the requirements.
To keep up with the changing variety of sounds introduced, Barrows must practice as rigorously as a Metropolitan diva. Just about the time he can do the Four Original Hawaiians, along comes a new musical instrument which he is asked to imitate. Giving the fellow due credit, he has balked at the saxophone, and once tried to get out of being a crooner.
It is the lot of such performers that they are rarely seen on the screen, but must go through life identified as noises and voices. However, Miss Questel did appear with Rudy Vallee in a couple of shorts.
• • •
Fleischer started as a cartoonist on a Brooklyn newspaper. When animated cartoons were first appearing he spent a year turning out his first one. It required 10,000 separate drawings or more. But it clicked.

Let’s fast forward about 30 years. There were no more big singing shows on what was left of network radio. Popeye cartoons weren’t being made for theatres any more. But that isn’t what bothered Mae Questel. Something had been eating at her for years. Here’s a feature story from the Buffalo Courier-Express of December 10, 1961.

The Voice Is Familiar, But—
After 30 years, “Betty Boop” and “Olive Oyl” wears her own face in a movie

When someone says “Mae Questel” chances are that everyone — well, nearly everyone — will say, “Who?”
Mae has starred in 1,800 films during the past 30 years—more than anybody else in movie history. She has received more than 1,500,000 fan letters, written in every civilized language, over the years. But she can walk down the street in any city and nobody recognizes her face.
It's her voice that made her famous. When you (or your children) watch Betty Boop or Popeye's girl friend, Olive Oyl, in movies or on TV, you're listening to Mae Questel. She's also the voice of Popeye's baby Swee'pea, and the Sea Hag.
The success of these films (phenomenal and seemingly interminable; only recently she completed recordings for King Features of 220 new Popeye cartoons) has made her rich
[Tralfaz note: Questel claimed in other interviews to have made $75,000 voicing them]. She owns two apartment buildings in New York's Bronx, where Mae was born some 50 years ago, a large batch of annuities, and a safety deposit box full of blue chip stocks. But she’ll swap all her golden anonymity for a living, breathing role that would let her be recognized for herself alone.
“I guess my real frustration first started,” says Mae, “when my two sons used to brag to the neighborhood kids that their mother was a movie star. The kids didn't believe them, of course, as they had never seen my face on the screen. The boys would come home with black eyes and bloody noses.
“The closest I ever came to recognition was during the heyday of Betty Boop. I was having an argument with my landlord over re-painting the kitchen. ‘If I didn't know you,’ he said, ‘I'd think you were the little flapper in the movies.’ When I told him I was Betty Boop, he raised my rent and charged me for re-painting.”
This unrecognition problem became so deep-rooted with Mae that she even consulted a psychiatrist. “It was bugging me,” she says.
She did finally get a real live role in the Broadway play, A Majority of One. Gertrude Berg was signed for the lead and Mae, who had been working with Mrs. Berg in a radio series, was given the part of the flighty Brooklyn neighbor. The sound of applause perked her up no end. But Broadway audiences are small compared to the millions who go to movies.
The old frustrations set in again—until Warner Bros, decided to film the play. Mae was one of only two in the cast who were tabbed to re-create their stage roles. (This is said to have caused a definite coolness between Gertrude Berg and Mae Questel. Both of them, friends of many years, deny it.) Mae almost fainted with joy. At last —a chance to sign autographs!
Mae and Roz Russell, who plays the Berg role in the movie, hit it off from the beginning. During rehearsal the first day Roz confided her worries to Mae: “I don't want to be a caricature in this part. I want to be a warm, vibrant person like Mrs. Berg.” Said Mae with a shrug, “The only way you will ever be Jewish is to eat Jewish. Come to my apartment for dinner.”
Roz spent a week of evenings at Mae's apartment, while that dynamo cooked matzoh ball soup, kreplach, gefilte fish, etc.
“Mae Questel,” says Roz, “is a hazard to dieting.”
On set, she made a hit, too. Her store of funny-but-clean jokes, in a heavy Bronx accent, kept everybody in stitches. When director Mervyn LeRoy discovered that she liked to bet on horses he took her to the races and, “She drove me crazy. She'd play four or five horses across the board in every race. Even when she won she lost. But those who've played poker with Mae (“I never play with women”) claim she is a most astute player and you're lucky to come home with your shirt. Wall Street and its manipulations she knows better than any broker.
Mae (the family name was Kwestel) grew up in the Bronx. After high school, she enrolled in a dramatic class sponsored by the Theater Guild. Her grandparents, who were very orthodox, discovered what she was up to, and yanked her out. She should be a good housewife, that's all.
Those were the days of singer Helen Kane, the “boop-boop-a-doop” girl and Mae, secretly urged on by her girl friends, entered a Helen Kane Contest at a local movie house. She won $150 and a week's booking at the theater and, grandparents or no, promptly signed for a career in vaudeville. Her act became so successful (she was, and is, a superb mimic) that she was booked into the Palace and given her own radio show.
About this time cartoonist Max Fleischer signed her for his new Betty Boop series and changed her name to Questel. Paramount and King came calling next—and she became Olive Oyl.
As the cartoons took very little time, Mae made extra money making records (imitations of famous people) and working in radio shows, her most famous one being The Goldbergs, with Gertrude Berg. But she wasn't happy. On her first trip to the Coast, this spring, Mae took to Hollywood like a duck to water. She promptly bought herself a huge white Thunderbird convertible. She rented an expensive apartment and, a divorcee of many, many years, announced she would not mind marrying again. When Jack Warner, president of Warner Bros., came on the set one day she said, “Why, you are exactly the kind of man I want to marry.”
At nights she often drops by Schwab's drug store for an ice-cream soda which “I need like a hole in the head.” But she has read that this is the place where movie stars mingle with columnists, so she mingles.
Just trying it on for rise, she keeps telling herself.

Questel went on to do something that would assure her of instant recognition on the street—she starred as a character in TV commercials. In 1972, she became Aunt Bluebell, pushing paper towels. And she appeared in films with Woody Allen, which resulted in more “You know Mae Questel” newspaper articles.

The story ends sadly. The woman who wanted recognition increasingly could not recognise things herself. Alzheimer’s claimed Mae Questel at the age of 89 in 1998. You can read more about her life HERE.

Here’s Questel as Betty Boop performing “Ain’t Cha” from “The Betty Boop Limited” (1932). It was originally from the 1929 Paramount Technicolor short “Pointed Heels” and sung by Kane.


  1. Here's one I've been puzzled about for a couple of years -- It's a YouTube clip of Jack Benny from 1929 (apparently from an MGM short) introducing song lyricists and composers, including, in this excerpt a female singer performing "Mean to Me".

    She's identified in the short as Babe Blake, but no one seems to have heard of that name before or since, and to me, she does look and sound a lot like the early Mae Questel (and also has great comedy timing with Benny at the end of the scene). If the short was done in Los Angeles it's unlikely to have been Mae, but the similarities are interesting.

  2. I gather it's from "The Song Writers Revue" (1929). I haven't seen the film so I don't know what the credits say. I don't know where "Babe Blake" comes from. IMDB calls her "Babe Click." Her name isn't mentioned in the Film Daily review. In any event, the only "Babe" I can find shooting films in 1929-30 was Marjorie "Babe" Kane.
    It doesn't sound like Questel at all to me.
    Judging by the Film Daily, I presume Benny was still on the West Coast when this was shot in late '29.

  3. Trivia: Our familiar friend Jerry Hausner often told the story of how he was the emcee of the Helen Kane contest Mae won. Obviously he wasn't mentioned by name in any of these articles, but it's hard to believe he would have concocted such an obscure tidbit out of thin air!

    1. Tim, I didn't realise Jerry performing that early, but I found a review from Jan. 1930 of a stage show he was in (in Schenectady).