Mae Questel

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Mae Questel was the woman behind the voice of Olive Oyl, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Little Audry, Little Lulu, and Betty Boop. Born in the Bronx in 1912, she chucked a prospective teaching career and…
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Mae Questel was the woman behind the voice of Olive Oyl, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Little Audry, Little Lulu, and Betty Boop. Born in the Bronx in 1912, she chucked a prospective teaching career and entered showbiz at the age of 17 by winning a competition that was held in the RKO Fordham Theater in order to select a young lady who could most successfully imitate Helen Kane's whiny neurotic baby talk act, already becoming famous for its tag line, "Boop-boop-be-doop." The Helen Kane impersonation contest was held immediately after a live Helen Kane performance, which Questel claimed to have watched most carefully. Triumphant and now armed with an RKO vaudeville circuit contract, she began working steadily as "Mae Questel -- Personality Singer of Personality Songs" and even appeared at the Palace Theater in 1930, impersonating Fanny Brice, Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Etting, Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallée, and Maurice Chevalier.

In 1931, not long after Max Fleischer and his team of horny animators developed a flirtatious cartoon character who gyrated across the silver screen while emitting a steady stream of "boops" and "doops," Questel was chosen to provide voice-overs for this creature's outbursts. More than 150 Betty Boop cartoons were made over the next eight years, and most of them resounded with the voice of Mae Questel. Helen Kane eventually sued the Fleischer studios for swiping her persona -- and lost. Several singers hopped on the Boop bandwagon, including Annette Hanshaw and someone billed only as "the Mystery Girl," but Mae Questel out-Booped them all with a series of cutesy, Boop-infested records made in the mid-'30s, including "On the Good Ship Lollipop" and "At the Codfish Ball." These ditsy yet immensely popular million-seller recordings soon put her in direct competition with the prepubescent Shirley Temple.

Also in the mid-'30s, Mae Questel came up with voices for the Popeye cartoons; she spoke through both the infantile Swee' Pea and gangly, elastic Olive Oyl, whose voice she said grew out of her imitation of actress Zasu Pitts. Gravel-voiced Jack Mercer started voicing Popeye around 1935. Legend has it that once during an emergency, Questel even filled in and voiced Popeye herself! For many years Questel's main occupation was providing personae for more than 450 Popeye cartoons until they stopped making 'em in 1967. Years later Questel would also provide voice-overs for Parker Brothers' Popeye video game.

In January 1936 Questel recorded with xylophonist bandleader Red Norvo, singing "The Music Goes 'Round and Around" and "The Broken Record" (see Red Norvo 1933-1936 -- Classics 1085). During the '40s and '50s she worked steadily in animation voice-overs along with Sid Raymond, Arnold "Chunky, What a Chunk of Chocolate!" Stang, and Jackson Beck. In 1948 Mae Questel was a regular panelist on NBC radio's Stop Me If You Heard This One. She perked up numerous television commercials throughout the '50s, providing voices for the Hasbro Kid, Nabisco's Buffalo Bee, and the Talking Fizzies Tablet. From 1953-1957 her voice was used in the animated CBS children's television series Winky-Dink and You.

For years Questel was active on Broadway; she appeared in Dr. Social (1948), A Majority of One (1959), Come Blow Your Horn and Enter Laughing (1961), and Bajour (1964). She now attained new levels of recognition as an increasingly colorful character actress in motion pictures, including It's Only Money (1961), the film adaptation of A Majority of One (1962), Funny Girl (1968), and Move (1970). In 1973 Questel provided voice-overs for a Betty Boop cartoon series and appeared in the television sitcom The Corner Bar. She appeared in the TV soap opera Somerset and made lots more commercials for Bromo Seltzer, Playtex, both Yuban and Folger's coffee, and the Scott Paper Company.

Questel recorded an outrageous comedy album for United Artists called Mrs. Portnoy's Retort, performed the song "Chameleon Days" in Woody Allen's Zelig (1983), joined Mel Blanc in providing voices for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and then appeared (during 1989) in both National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Oedipus Wrecks, the latter being Woody Allen's portion of the tripartite New York Stories. It was in Wrecks that Questel transcended everything else she'd ever done by portraying a meddlesome, nudging Jewish mother who materializes in the sky over New York City announcing to the world all of her son's worst shortcomings. Late in life, Mae Questel made a point of publicly supporting her favorite charity, the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. She gradually succumbed to Alzheimer's disease and passed away at her home in Manhattan in January 1998, at the age of 86. Her most memorable quote imparts sound advice for survival and longevity: "Don't make a megillah out of every little thing." [Some sources persist in citing 1908 as the year of her birth. But if Questel was 17 years old when she won the Helen Kane impersonation contest in 1929, then she was born in 1912, as stated elsewhere.]