You’ll remember that a while back one of my articles in this series opened with a Victor recording of Betty Boop issued on a cartoon picture label. You may also recall that another post made mention of Phil Spitalny’s recording of the Betty Boop theme song (“Sweet Betty”) for Hit of the Week. This was only the beginning.
In early 1935, Mae Questel signed with the Decca record company, a newcomer to the recording industry. Decca had only been on the market for about five months, largely living off the continued glory of their main artist, Bing Crosby, and the sweet band sounds of Guy Lombardo, both brought over from Brunswick by Jack Kapp to sign with the new firm. Within the next few years, Decca would have Mae covering the plug songs from contemporary Shirley Temple features (as Fox did not like to have its own artists produce records for the take-home trade, with the exception of Alice Faye). However, Mae would also get the opportunity to record numbers which were not from Shirley Temple features. Decca routinely billed her on the labels as “The Betty Boop Girl”, and provided her with the backing of studio orchestras – groups probably shared with artists such as Connee Boswell, and Dick Robertson. (Connee referred to her group as “The Falling Down Five”, usually well lubricated, and whom she felt were unable to take a solo unless someone propped them up into standing position.) At least one session was backed by a combo Red Norvo was leading in one of the clubs on 52nd Street. The non-Temple numbers sometimes included oldies that Mae might easily have sung in Boop cartoons, had they only had Famous Music copyrights. Often, these sides sounded like a soundtrack in search of a cartoon.
The non-Shirley Temple sides included the following:
Decca 39250 (1/16/1935) – “I’ve Got a Pain In My Sawdust”. Mae’s first Decca side (unfortunately only available online in a very low-fidelity transfer). As discussed in this column’s last article, the song dates as early as 1910 on records by Kitty Cheatham on Columbia, and was incorporated into the score of Fleischer’s “Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy” featurette. It is one of only two Decca sides thus having a direct connection to a Fleischer film – though the film would be produced six years after the record. It was released as the flip side of Shirley Temple’s most remembered number, “On the Good Ship Lollipop”, so was likely a decent seller.
Decca 39484 (4/19/1935) – “The Choc’late Soldier Man”. I can’t find this one uploaded anywhere on the internet. It has no connection with the “Hot Choc’late Soldiers” number from Disney’s segment of “Hollywood Party”.
Decca 39485 (4/19/1935) – “Practicing the Piano”. A novelty tune of the period. The song was also recorded in England on Columbia by Hildegarde, an upscale British cabaret artist who would eventually achieve international fame in the states in the late 1930’s.
Decca 60280 (12/23/1935) – “The Wedding of Jack and Jill”. Transfer of this recording online is played much too fast, but it still gives a semblance of Mae’s performing charm, so it’s better than nothing. It might be how Mae would have sounded if she had ever auditioned for the role of one of the Chippettes. The song was also covered by Red Norvo on Brunswick, and in England by Jay Wilbur’s Band on Rex.
Decca 60316 (1/8/1936) – “The Music Goes ‘Round and Around”. Mae is backed on this side and the next by Red Norvo. Decca already had a best seller on this song, with the hit version by Mike Riley and Eddie Farley and their Onyx Club Boys. The song was also successfully covered by Tommy Dorsey’s Clambake 7 on Victor, with vocal by Edythe Wright. Amidst this competition, the Questel version must have seemed considerably overshadowed, and largely forgotten. The song would become a standard, and even receive reference in cartoons – including Fleischer’s own sly quote by Sneak, Snoop and Snitch in Gulliver’s Travels, as they ponder the workings of Gulliver’s “Thunder Machine.” (“You put that ball in there, and then it goes down and around. Pull that thing…and it comes out here!”).
Decca 60317 (1/8/1936) – “The Broken Record”. Flip side of “The Music Goes ‘Round and Around”, also with Norvo It was covered on Victor by Guy Lombardo on Victor. The song, refers to a common problem with shellac records, which from handling could easily crack, leading to the needle skipping out of the groove and repeating the same snippet of sound over and over again on each revolution of the turntable. Of course, CD’s have developed their own wrinkles on this problem.
Decca 62758 (11/10/1937) – “I Want You For Christmas”. The lyrics of this one may have seemed a bit too romantically outgoing for a post-code Betty Christmas cartoon. But with a little modification (as she does refer to her desired “gift” as her “pet”), she might have been able to sing it to Pudgy in a pet store window. Thus, a number with potential for a cartoon scenario. The question is, who would have played Santa to make the delivery? Fearless Fred, Grampy, or Wiffle Piffle? Russ Morgan would also record the number for Brunswick, and Dick Robertson for Decca,
Decca 67036 (1/11/1940) – “Oh! Gee, Oh! Gosh, Oh! Golly, I’m In Love”. This song dates back to a Ziegfield Follies in 1923, introduced by Eddie Cantor. He would record the number that year for Columbia.
Decca 67037 (1/11/1940) – “You’d Be Surprised”. Here, Mae falls back upon her historic past, as she had performed this number previously in truncated form in Betty Boop’s Big Boss. This time, however, she sticks to the original lyric from 1919, singing about her boyfriend instead of about her own hidden talents. It was again introduced in a Ziegfield Follies by Eddie Cantor, recorded by him at the time on Emerson. Billy Murray would have the big sales on the piece on Victor. The song was experiencing something of a revival at the time of the Questel recording, thanks to a successful comeback performance by Orrin Tucker and his Orchestra on Columbia, with vocal by another “little girl” vocalist, “Wee” Bonnie Baker (whom animation fans will remember as performing the Chilly Willy theme in Walter Lantz’s Operation Cold Feet).
Questel would perform on at least four more Decca sides (two of them anonymously) in her activities unrelated to Fleischer and Paramount as original voice of the title character on the TV series Winky Dink and You – the infamous show where kids were supposed to complete the pictures by drawing with crayon upon a “magic screen” that was supposed to adhere to the TV tube during broadcast. No doubt many a parent had their sets permanently stained by the kids neglecting to use the “screen” at all in these endeavors. The anonymous session included the theme song. Two additional sides “Huckleberry Finn” (Decca 100683) and “Bolla Walla Winkle” (Decca 100684), were recorded on 10/2/1956. All feature show host Jack Barry, who would appear liv in front of a screen containing the image of Winky Dink, to converse with the character.
Apart from her recording work in connection with later Paramount and King Features cartoons (which may be discussed at a later date), Mae would also record in non-Boop mode in the 1950‘s on Jubilee with comedian/satirist Allan “Shoyman” (as he was originally billed), including a Yiddish parody of “A Bushel and a Peck”. Another 1950’s project assigned her the voice of “Kewtie Bear”, a helper of Santa, in an attempt to develop another holiday icon in the wake of the success of Rudolph. Two records were made, at least one featuring Questel on Columbia children’s series, with Alan Reed (Fred Flintstone) providing the voice of Santa.
Mae would further have long and successful careers in advertising, not only with her own on-camera appearances as Aunt Bluebell for Scott Towels, but in the 50’s as the voice of Buffalo Bee for Nabisco Wheat Honeys (the first of the sugar-coated wheat-puff cereals, taking over the brand “Ranger Joe’s”), and its companion cereal, Rice Honeys.
The Woody Allen comedy, Zelig (1983) was a historical “mockumentary, beginning in the setting of the 1920’s, integrating archival footage amidst a tale of a psychiatric case that baffles medical science – a man so devoid of his own personality that, in order to be accepted among others, becomes a literal “human chameleon”, taking on the physical and mental characteristics of those among whom he mingles, allowing him to fit in. The discovery of this morphing phenomenon becomes front page news, and the subject of pop-culture references, including popular song. Thus, a mock-Canadian Victor label of a record is shown, fictitiously crediting Helen Kane as vocalist, but actually featuring Mae Questel, in her full-blown Betty Boop voice, performing an original number composed by Dick Hyman, “Chameleon Days”. (The title is inspired by an actual well-known tune of the day, “Crinoline Days”, known from a popular Paul Whiteman recording.) This appears to be Mae’s last formal recording performing in the Boop voice – but, as she says in her later speaking cameo as Boop in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”. “I’ve still got it.”
Next Time: Moving on to the “Famous” Popeyes.