Bronx-born Helen Clare Schroeder (the real life Betty Boop) probably never imagined how famous her face, singing style and coquettish persona would later become when she was a little girl. She was the youngest of three children. Her father, a German immigrant, was often out of work. Her Irish immigrant mother worked in a laundry.
Despite her humble origins, Helen had a passion for the theater. It cost Helen’s mother $3, a fortune, to buy her her first stage costume. By age 15, she was performing professionally, touring the Orpheum Circuit, with the Marx Brothers in On the Balcony.
In the early 1920’s, Helen Schroeder became Helen Kane, a vaudeville singer and dancer with a theater engagement called the “All Jazz Revue.” She played the New York Palace in 1921 and soon her Broadway career was launched with the Stars of the Future (1922–24, and a brief revival in early 1927). She also sang onstage with a trio, the Hamilton Sisters and Fordyce, later known as The Three X Sisters.
Kane’s career break came in 1927, when she appeared in a musical called A Night in Spain, which ran from May 3, 1927, through Nov 12, 1927, for a total of 174 performances. She was discovered by Paul Ash, a band conductor, who set up Helen for her first performance at the Paramount Theater in Times Square. Here, she sang “That’s My Weakness Now” and added in her now-famous scat lyrics “boop-boop-a-doop.”
The flapper culture immediately fell in love with Helen, and four days later, her name went up in lights.
Oscar Hammerstein’s 1928 show Good Boy was when Helen was first introduced the hit ”I Wanna Be Loved by You,” which also became the signature song for Bettie Boop. She then recorded 22 songs between 1928 and 1930. From 1930 to 1951, she recorded four singles for Columbia Records, including the “Three Little Words” soundtrack single recording of “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” She also recorded four songs for an Ep entitled “The Boop Boop a Doop Girl.”
So how did this all lead to the creation of Betty Boop?
In 1930, Fleischer Studios introduced a puppy-caricature of Helen Kane, with droopy ears and that high, piercing singing voice in the Talkartoons cartoon Dizzy Dishes. This character was later called “Betty Boop” and quickly became popular as the star of her own cartoons. In 1932, Betty Boop was changed into a human, the long dog ears were replaced with hoop earrings.
That same year, Helen filed a $250,000 suit against Paramount, charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the cartoons. The trial opened that year with Helen Kane and Betty Boop films being viewed only by one judge and no jury.
The case dragged on for more than two years before the judge ruled against Helen, claiming her testimony did not prove that her singing style was unique. The real life Betty Boop lost that lawsuit and has been immortalized ever since.