The Real Betty Boop: Esther Lee Jones

Esther Lee Jones (Baby Esther), born in 1919, was a child entertainer who lived in Chicago, Illinois. She was managed by her mother and father, Gertrude and William Jones. Esther was a trained scat singer, dancer, and acrobat who used to perform 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 interpolated words such as “Boo-Boo-Boo”, “Wha-Da-Da”, “Doo-Doo-Doo” & “Do-Do-De-Do-Ho-De-Wa-Da-De-Da,” “Boo-Did-Do-Doo,” “Lo-Di-De-Do,” and would finish off her routine with a “De-Do”.

Lou Bolton, a Russian-American theatre manager, saw her perform and booked her for performances in New York, Chicago, Toronto, and other cities before taking her to Europe. Esther Jones’ first appearance was at the Moulin Rouge. In Paris, Esther was known as the “Miniature Josephine Baker”. Audiences raved over her and the Parisian newspapers gave much space to her. Vu, leading illustrated weekly, devoted the entire front cover to her picture and a full page in the interior.

Esther continued to tour Europe and became the highest-paid child artist in the world. While touring Europe she delighted audiences including royalty. In Spain, she played for King Alphonso and Queen Victoria. In Sweden, King Gustave and the Queen came to the theater especially to see her. 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.

In 1928, Esther’s booking agent brought Helen Kane to meet Lou Bolton. Helen and the booking agent had front row seats to Esther’s performance and not too long afterward Helen was scat singing in her acts. In 1930, Fleischer Studios animator Grim Natwick introduced a caricature of Helen Kane, in the form of an anthropomorphic singing dog with droopy ears and a squeaky singing voice. The character was later called “Betty Boop”, and became popular. In 1932, Betty Boop was changed into a human, the long dog ears becoming hoop earrings. In May 1932, Helen Kane filed a $250,000 lawsuit against Max Fleischer and Paramount Publix Corporation, for “exploiting her image”, charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the Betty Boop cartoons, contending that Betty Boop’s “boop-oop-a-doop” style constituted a “deliberate caricature” that gave her “unfair competition”.

What makes this story so funny is that Kane actually stole it from Esther Jones. The defense argued that Kane had taken the idea from Baby Esther. Evidence was produced that Kane actually derived that singing style from watching Baby Esther perform at the Cotton Club several years before the creation of the Betty Boop character. Lou Boulton testified that he taught Esther how to interpolate her songs with scat lyrics, “boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo”, which Kane later reinvented as her trademark “boop oop a doop”. Jones’ booking manager testified that he and Kane had seen her act together in April 1928, and just a few weeks later, Kane began to “boop”. After a two-year legal struggle, the judge ruled, the “baby” technique of singing did not originate with Kane.

Esther Jones had disappeared around the time of the court case and no one really knows what happened to her. She is presumed dead.

Reference:
https://bettyboop.fandom.com/wiki/What_Ever_Happened_to_Baby_Esther%3F
https://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/the-amazing-story-of-harlems-esther-jones-videos/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_Esther

6 thoughts on “The Real Betty Boop: Esther Lee Jones

    1. I’ve researched and researched. Some say she went back to Europe and never surfaced again. I would certainly like to know what happened to her.

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