(Helen Kane in 1929)
|Born||Helen Clare Schroeder
August 4, 1904
The Bronx, New York City, USA
|Died||September 26, 1966
Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City
|Spouse(s)||Joseph Kane (1924–28; divorced)
Max Hoffman, Jr. (1933–35; divorced)
Daniel Healy (1939–66; her death)
Helen Kane (August 4, 1904 – September 26, 1966) was an American popular singer; her signature song was "I Wanna Be Loved By You". Kane's voice and appearance were a likely source for Fleischer Studios animator Grim Natwick when creating Betty Boop, itself a style originating from Baby Esther.
Born as Helen Clare Schroeder, Kane attended St. Anselm's Parochial School in the Bronx. She was the youngest of three children. Her father, Louis Schroeder, the son of a German immigrant, was employed intermittently; her Irish immigrant mother, Ellen (born Dixon) Schroeder, worked in a laundry.
Kane's mother reluctantly paid $3 for her daughter's costume as a queen in Kane's first theatrical role at school. By the time she was 15 years old, Kane was onstage professionally, touring the Orpheum Circuit with the Marx Brothers in On the Balcony.
She spent the early 1920s trouping in vaudeville as a singer and kickline dancer with a theater engagement called the "All Jazz Revue". She played the New York Palace for the first time in 1921. Her Broadway days started there as well with the Stars of the Future (1922–24, and a brief revival in early 1927). She also sang onstage with an early singing trio, the Hamilton Sisters and Fordyce, later known as The Three X Sisters.
Kane's roommate in the early 1920s was Jessie Fordyce. The singing trio act might have become the Hamilton Sisters and Schroeder; however, Pearl Hamilton chose Fordyce to tour as a trio act "just to see what happens" at the end of the theatrical season.
Kane's career break came in 1927, when she appeared in a musical called A Night in Spain. It ran from May 3, 1927, through Nov 12, 1927, for a total of 174 performances, at the 44th Street Theatre in NYC. Subsequently, Paul Ash, a band conductor, put Kane's name forward for a performance at New York's Paramount Theater.
Kane's first performance at the Paramount Theater in Times Square proved to be her career's launching point. She was singing "That's My Weakness Now", when she interpolated the scat lyrics “boop-boop-a-doop”. This resonated with the flapper culture, and four days later, Helen Kane’s name went up in lights.
Oscar Hammerstein’s 1928 show Good Boy was where she first introduced the hit "I Wanna Be Loved by You". Then it was back to the Palace, as a headliner for $5,000 a week. She rejoined her friends from vaudeville, The Three X Sisters (formerly The Hamilton Sisters and Fordyce) for one night. In a 1935 live stage performance, she harmonized with their unique banter to a novelty tune "The Preacher and the Bear".
Kane had excellent diction, intonation, and timing, learned during her apprenticeship in vaudeville. Her songs have a strong word focus and capitalize on her coquettish voice. She blended several fashionable styles of the late 1920s. These included scat singing, a kind of vocal improvisation, and also blending singing and speech. Sprechgesang ("speech-song") was fashionable at this time in Germany's Weimar Republic in both nightclubs and in serious music.
Kane recorded 22 songs between 1928 and 1930. After 1930 and up to 1951, she recorded four sides for Columbia Records in addition to the "Three Little Words" soundtrack single recording of "I Wanna Be Loved by You". She also recorded four songs that comprise a 1954 MGM 45Ep entitled "The Boop Boop a Doop Girl".
In mid-1929, Paramount Pictures signed Kane to make a series of musicals at a salary as much as $8,000 a week (equivalent to over $160,000 in 2009).
Her films were:
- 1929: Nothing But the Truth, a comedy starring Richard Dix
- 1929: Sweetie, a college musical, which starred Nancy Carroll, Jack Oakie and Stanley Smith
- 1929: Pointed Heels, which starred William Powell and Fay Wray
- 1930: Paramount on Parade, an all-star extravaganza
- 1930: Dangerous Nan McGrew, with Stuart Erwin, Frank Morgan, and Victor Moore
- 1930: Heads Up!, starring Buddy Rogers and Victor Moore
- 1931: A Lesson in Love, a musical short film
It should be noted that although Helen was not the "star" of most of her pictures (with Dangerous Nan McGrew being the one exception) she was so popular that in the case of "Sweetie", her name appeared over the title on the marquee when the movie premiered at the New York Paramount (although Nancy Carroll was the true star). Helen provided all the fun and she and Jack Oakie danced to "The Prep Step", a big hit along with "He's So Unusual". They even performed this dance at the very first Hollywood Bowl fundraiser in 1929. Another hit from this picture was Nancy Carroll's "My Sweeter Than Sweet".
In the opening credits of Pointed Heels, Helen and William Powell are billed on the same line just below the title, with Fay Wray and the rest in smaller letters underneath. She had equal billing with Buddy Rogers in Heads Up! and it is their faces which appeared in all the ads. And in Dangerous Nan McGrew, Helen received top billing in the film's credits.
Fleischer v. Kane
In 1930, Fleischer Studios animator Grim Natwick introduced a caricature of Helen Kane, with droopy dog ears and a squeaky singing voice, in the Talkartoons cartoon Dizzy Dishes. "Betty Boop", as the character was later dubbed, soon became popular and the star of her own cartoons. In 1932, Betty Boop was changed into a human, the long dog ears becoming hoop earrings.
In May 1932, Kane filed a $250,000 suit against Paramount and Max Fleischer, charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the Betty Boop cartoons. The trial opened that year with Helen Kane and Betty Boop films being viewed only by the judge. No jury was called. Bonnie Poe, Kate Wright, Margie Hines, and most notably Mae Questel were all summoned to testify.
The case dragged on for more than two years before the judge ruled against Kane, claiming her testimony did not prove that her singing style was unique and not an imitation itself; an African American singer known as "Baby Esther" had been cited by the defense as "booping" in song. Theatrical manager Lou Walton testified for the defense stating that in 1925, he coached a "young negro child" named Esther, teaching her how to interpolate her songs with scat lyrics, which she later re-purposed into her trademark "boop oop a doop". Jones' manager testified that he and Kane had seen her act together in April 1928, and just a few weeks later, Kane began to "boop".
With the hardships of the Great Depression biting, the flamboyant world of the flapper was over, and Kane's style began to date rapidly. After 1931 she lost the favour of the moviemakers, who chose other singers for their films. She appeared in a stage production called Shady Lady in 1933, and made appearances at various nightclubs and theatres during the 1930s.
In 1950 she dubbed Debbie Reynolds, who performed "I Wanna Be Loved By You" in the MGM musical biopic of songwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, Three Little Words. She did not appear in the film's credits.
She appeared on several TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s, principally Toast of the Town, later known as The Ed Sullivan Show. Kane's final public appearance was on the Sullivan Show on St. Patrick's Day 1965.
In addition, she was given overdue tribute in 1958, on This is Your Life with Ralph Edwards. It brought a tearful reunion with Helen's old friend, actress Fifi D'Orsay, and a lifelong fan who once sent her money when she was down on her luck. Renewed interest in Helen brought her a one-record contract with MGM Records and appearances on I've Got a Secret and You Asked for It. She sang on all of these TV shows.
In November 1924, Helen Schroeder married department store buyer Joseph Kane and took his last name professionally. The marriage was over by 1925, ended in 1928, and Helen went to Mexico to get a final divorce in December 1932. In February 1933 she married an actor, Max Hoffman, Jr. After six months he deserted her and Helen filed for divorce. The divorce was finalized in May 1935.
In 1939 she married Dan Healy, with whom she had worked in Good Boy in 1928. They opened a restaurant in New York City, "Healy's Grill". She remained married to Healy for the rest of her life. The marriage was childless.
Helen Kane battled breast cancer for more than a decade. She had surgery in 1956 and eventually received two hundred radiation treatments as an outpatient at Memorial Hospital. She died on September 26, 1966 at age 62, in her apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens (New York City). Her husband of 27 years, Dan Healy, was at her bedside. Her remains were buried in the Long Island National Cemetery.
|1||"Get Out and Get Under the Moon"||July 16, 1928|
|2||"That's My Weakness Now"||July 16, 1928|
|3||"I Wanna Be Loved by You"||September 20, 1928||from the musical Good Boy|
|4||"Is There Anything Wrong in That?"||September 20, 1928|
|5||"Don't Be Like That"||December 20, 1928|
|6||"Me and the Man in the Moon"||December 20, 1928|
|7||"Button Up Your Overcoat"||January 30, 1929||from the musical Follow Thru|
|8||"I Want to Be Bad"||January 30, 1929||from the musical Follow Thru|
|9||"Do Something"||March 15, 1929||from the movie Nothing But the Truth|
|10||"That's Why I'm Happy"||March 15, 1929|
|11||"I'd Do Anything for You"||June 14, 1929|
|12||"He's So Unusual"||June 14, 1929||from the movie Sweetie|
|13||"Ain'tcha?"||October 29, 1929||from the movie Pointed Heels|
|14||"I Have to Have You"||October 29, 1929||from the movie Pointed Heels|
|15||"I'd Go Barefoot All Winter Long"||March 18, 1930|
|16||"Dangerous Nan McGrew"||April 12, 1930||from the movie Dangerous Nan McGrew|
|17||"Thank Your Father"||April 12, 1930||from the musical Flying High|
|18||"I Owe You"||April 12, 1930||from the movie Dangerous Nan McGrew|
|19||"Readin' Ritin' Rhythm"||July 1, 1930||from the movie Heads Up!|
|20||"I've Got It (But It Don't Do Me No Good)"||July 1, 1930||from the movie Young Man of Manhattan|
|21||"My Man Is on the Make"||July 2, 1930||from the movie Heads Up!|
|22||"If I Knew You Better"||July 2, 1930||from the movie Heads Up!|
|23||"I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat"||between 1950–51||with Jimmy Carroll & His Orchestra|
|24||"Beanbag Song"||between 1931–51||with Jimmy Carroll & His Orchestra|
|25||"Hug Me! Kiss Me! Love Me!"||between 1931–51||with George Siravo & His Orchestra|
|26||"Aba Daba Honeymoon"||between 1931–51||with George Siravo & His Orchestra|
|27||"When I Get You Alone Tonight"||1954||with Leroy Holmes and his Orchestra|
|28||"When My Sugar Walks Down The Street"||1954||with Leroy Holmes and his Orchestra|
The release dates of recordings 1 to 22 are derived from the cover notes of the CD Helen Kane - Great Original Performances - 1928 to 1930 (RPCD 323)
In 1954, MGM records issued the last Helen Kane recordings as a 45-rpm Ep X1164 called "The Boop-Boop-A-Doop Girl!", orchestra directed by Leroy Holmes, and the songs are "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street", "When I Get You Alone Tonight, Do Something" (from Nothing But the Truth) and "That's My Weakness Now".
- U.S, Census, 1910, NYC.
- Mitchell, Glenn (2003). The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia. London: Reynolds & Hearn. p. 162. ISBN 1-905287-11-9.
- LA Times
- via Associated Press. "Obituary: Helen Kane", Toledo Blade, September 27, 1966; accessed May 28, 2009.
- "He's So Unusual" was later covered by Cyndi Lauper on her album She's So Unusual
- New York Times, Helen Kane Dead; Boop-A-Doop Girl, September 27, 1966, p. 47.
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