Movie lovers might remember American singer and actor Mae Questel (1908–1998) best as the dotty old woman who wrapped the family cat as a gift in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation , or as Woody Allen's omnipresent nagging mother in "Oedipus Wrecks" included in the 1989 film New York Stories . However, she achieved lasting pop culture fame as the voice of animated cartoon characters Betty Boop and Olive Oyl.
Questel, a singer, comedienne, and character actress, paved the way for such modern day voice actors as June Foray, Tress MacNeill, and Nancy Cartwright. Never exactly a household name, the diminutive actress consistently made a solid living in vaudeville, on network radio, television, playing memorable character parts in films, and on the Broadway stage. Moreover, she provided voices for literally hundreds of cartoons that are still seen and heard around the world today.
Born Mae Kwestel September 13, 1908, in New York City, she was raised in the Bronx by parents Simon Kwestel and Frieda Glauberman, where she honed her abilities as a mimic and dialect comic at local charitable functions. Although her parents demanded she quit her dramatic studies and latch on to a steady career in teaching, the youngster's love of performance determined her fate. By the time she graduated high school at age 17, young Mae was already working in vaudeville, doing her spot-on singing impersonations of such contemporary stars as Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Etting, and Maurice Chevalier. When her impersonation of singer Helen Kane—the Madonna of the flapper era—helped her win a talent contest at the RKO Fordham Theater in 1925, her career kicked into a higher gear. Now billed as "Mae Questel, Personality Singer of Personality Songs," she began performing regularly on radio and took steady work with the RKO vaudeville circuit, culminating in a much-prized gig at the prestigious Palace Theater in New York in 1930.
Cartoon filmmaker Max Fleischer saw Questel's impersonation of Helen Kane in 1931 and asked her to use it for his cartoon creation Betty Boop. The character, which began life as a cartoon dog with Kane-like affectations, had already been voiced by various actresses, most notably Margie Hines, Little Ann Little, Bonnie Poe, and Kate Wright. Each of these actresses utilized Kane's flirty, babydoll voice and catchphrase "boop-oop-a-doop," but it was Questel who made Betty Boop a media phenomenon. A better singer and improviser than her predecessors, she also modeled for Fleischer's animators who based many of the character's emerging physical quirks on Questel's own mannerisms. Indeed, Questel told Leslie Cabarga, author of The Fleischer Story , "I actually lived the part of Betty Boop; walked, talked, everything! It took me a long time to sort of lower my voice and get away from the character."
During that era, cartoons were part of a movie package shown to as many adults as children. As a result, the early on-screen antics of Betty Boop were considered somewhat risque for the times. Pre-1935 cartoon gags show the character losing her dress, revealing a nude silhouette, and dancing suggestively to hot Cab Calloway jazz. (Later the character's skirts were lengthened, and her dialogue was written with less suggestive overtones.) The saucy cartoons,
Kane's career reached its height during the late 1920s when her cutie-pie renditions of "Button Up Your Overcoat" and "I Wanna Be Loved By You," replete with her signature "boop-oop-a-doop" interjections, made her the toast of Broadway. She had made a few singing short subject films at the beginning of the sound era, but her career was clearly in decline by 1934 when she filed a $250,000 suit against the Fleischer Brothers. Kane claimed that the cartoons had subverted her popularity by appropriating her singing style and especially her catchphrase "boop-oop-a-doop."
Fleischer testified that Betty Boop came from his own imagination and had five women who had voiced the character, including Questel, take the stand and testify they did not base their performances on Kane. Nevertheless, it is generally held that Questel's characterization was based on Kane. To quote Andrew J. Lederer of Animation World Magazine , "However, Mae had to have known that Betty was based on Helen. Her entire career was based on her original impersonation of Helen Kane. On the night of the fateful contest, Kane had autographed a photo to Mae that said, 'To another Helen Kane.'"
Questel, who voiced Betty Boop until the cartoon ceased production in 1939, was always grateful to the Fleischer Brothers and never publicly admitted that she copied Kane for the cartoons. Ironically, when she sang the 1920s knockoff "Chameleon Days" in Woody Allen's 1983 faux documentary Zelig , a close-up of the mock 78 rpm record reveals that the song is falsely credited to Helen Kane.
When she wasn't providing Betty Boop's voice, Questel was also supplying the voice for Olive Oyl in Fleischer's Popeye the Sailor cartoons. Olive Oyl's voice was based on the fluttering utterances of 1930s and 1940s film comedienne Zasu Pitts, but Questel added her own little touches. "The character of Olive Oyl … I saw the storyboard and Max Fleischer showed it to me," she recalled in a 1986 interview at the Sons of the Desert Convention. "I said, 'There is an actress that sort of reminds me of a scrawny old lady that's always using her hands.'… And I thought, 'That should sound like Olive Oyl' and it was a crackly kind of voice, Yoo-hoo, here I ah-am! It's Olive Oyl! ' And, of course Max seemed to like the voice and he used it."
Popeye was originally voiced by William Costello, better known as Red Pepper Sam, who also worked with Questel on her Betty Boop's Frolics radio show as Gus Gorilla. He was later replaced by former animator Jack Mercer, who would supply the spinach-eating sailor's voice for the next three decades. Mercer also voiced Wimpy, Poopdeck Pappy, and Popeye's four nephews. In addition to Olive Oyl, Questel voiced the infant Swee'pea, the Sea Hag, and when Mercer was in the service during World War II, she even stepped in and did Popeye's voice.
Many Popeye aficionados prefer the early to mid-1930s run because of its mix of well-planned slapstick and verbal spontaneity. Working with director and gagman Dave Fleischer, Questel and Mercer were allowed to improvise reactions and snappy patter whether the animated characters were speaking or not. Often this somewhat surreal technique provided the illusion that Popeye and Olive were humorously complaining under their breath.
The Fleischers moved their operation to Florida in 1939, and Questel chose not to go with them, although she did provide voices for their ill-fated feature-length cartoon Mr. Bug Goes to Town in 1941. When Paramount foreclosed on Fleischer's loan for the Miami studio in 1942, the Popeye cartoons began being produced by their own company Famous Studios, and Questel returned to voice acting full time. Working with Seymour Kneitel, who had directed many of the Fleischer cartoons, Questel began voicing the role of popular Saturday Evening Post cartoon Little Lulu in 1944. The quintessential curious little girl, Lulu was an immediate hit with moviegoers, but Paramount, hoping to avoid paying royalties to the character's creator Marge, ceased production on the cartoon in 1948. The following year, they had Questel providing the voice for their Little Lulu knockoff Little Audrey, another bright, curious little girl who often got into comedic trouble. Equally successful was her uncredited role as the voice of Caspar, the Friendly Ghost, which also enjoyed a successful run in movie theaters.
Although married (first to Leo Balkin, later Jack Shelby), the mother of two, and grandmother of three, Questel worked constantly and found no reason to ever leave New York. Besides appearing in a series of short subject pictures during the 1930s and 1940s, she played character roles and provided animal sound effects for various network radio programs, including The Green Hornet and Perry Mason . When not starring in radio incarnations of Betty Boop (1933) and Popeye (1935–1938), she was a regular performer on Jack Pearl's (also known as Baron Munchausen) many radio shows, and the comic book spin-off Land of the Lost . Frequently recording as Olive Oyl, Betty Boop, and Little Audrey for Decca until 1940, she achieved a true novelty classic with the effusive skittering contained on "The Broken Record," which still receives airplay on YouTube and Dr. Demento's wacky radio show.
Staying in New York also allowed Questel to tackle roles in Broadway plays such as Dr. Social (1948) and Carl Reiner's autobiographical Enter Laughing (1963). During the early years of network television, she was a regular on the popular game show Stop Me If You've Heard This One (1948–1949). The consummate character actress also appeared in the daytime drama Somerset (1970) and in dozens of television commercials, in which she is best remembered as Aunt Bluebell for the Scott Paper Company.
A major figure in early television animation, Questel provided the voice of the starring character on the first interactive television show for children Winky Dink and You (1953, 1957), which sold kits that allowed viewers to draw on washable clear plastic draped over the screen whenever host Jack Barry prompted them. Questel also wrote and supplied voices for ABC's Saturday morning cartoon show Matty's Funday Funnies (1959–1961), where she reprised her roles as Little Audrey and Caspar, the Friendly Ghost.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, when Popeye cartoons became a staple of local children's television programming, Questel found herself in demand as Olive Oyl once again. Besides re-teaming with Jack Mercer for 200 Popeye cartoons for syndicated television (1959–1963), she did voice-overs for the CBS Saturday morning series The All New Popeye Hour (1978–1983). When the nostalgia boom hit, she even voiced Betty Boop again for a series of commercials during the 1970s, an ill-fated TV pilot, and the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit , wherein she demonstrated her trademark flirty zest.
After decades of turning down offers, Questel finally deigned to work in Hollywood in 1961. Typed as the wacky aunt, mother, or even grandmother, the actress provided much needed spunk to Jerry Lewis' film It's Only Money (1961), Barbara Streisand's debut Funny Girl (1968), and the Elliot Gould vehicle Move (1970). Her final two film roles proved particularly memorable. She demonstrated comedic perfection as the Jewish mother who disappears in a magician's act and then celestially reappears to relentlessly nag her son in Woody Allen's segment of New York Stories titled "Oedipus Wrecks." She also garnered big laughs as the forgetful Aunt Bethany, who, when asked to say grace recited the Pledge of Allegiance, in the John Hughes-directed National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989).
However, Questel's final screen appearance proved close to the truth. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, she soon retired from the screen. She died on January 4, 1998.
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Fleischer, Richard, Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution , University Press of Kentucky, 2005.
McNeil, Alex, Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present , 4th ed., Penguin Books, 1996.
Lederer, Andrew J., "Mae Questel: A Reminiscence, History, and Perspective," Animation World Magazine , http://www.awn.com/mag/issue2.12/2.12pages/2.12ledererquestel.html (December 17, 2006).
"Mae Questel Interview from 1986 Sons of the Desert Convention," Cartoon Brew.com , http://www.cartoonbrew.com/archives/2006_01.html#001570 (December 17, 2006).
"Mae Questel," Internet Movie Database , http://www.imdb.com (November 9, 2006).
"Mae Questel," The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives , Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center , http://www.galenet.galegroup.com.servlet/BioRC (November 17, 2006).