Helen Kane was one of those figures — like Josephine Baker, Eddie Cantor, and Texas Guinan – -who defined the spirit of the 1920s. With her squeaky, baby doll voice, simultaneously child-like and sexually suggestive, the five foot tall, curvaceous Kane popularized the phrase “boop-boop-a-doop” in such songs as “I Want to Be Loved By You” (written by my favorite songwriters Kalmar and Ruby!) and “Don’t Be Like That”, setting off one of those ’20s fads of the kind Woody Allen parodied so excellently in Zelig. There were Helen Kane dolls, look-a-like contests…and a copy cat who superseded her in popularity whom we’ll get to in a minute.
Born Helen Schroeder on this day in 1904 in the Bronx, she ran off and went into show business when still a teenager by joining the Marx Brothers tab show On the Balcony. The early 20s was her principle hour in vaudeville, her naughty, cutey-pie act making a big hit with the flappers and taking her as far as the Palace. Her big breakthrough was the 1927 Broadway show A Night in Spain, and that’s when her vogue really began in earnest. From 1929 through the early 30s she was featured in several movies, but then something happened. A cartoon character that was clearly inspired by Kane, both visually and vocally, began to eclipse her in popularity. This was of course Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop. Kane tried to sue the company for ripping off her character in 1932 and lost. She continued to work in show business over the decades, like so many, with ever diminishing popularity. She passed away in 1966.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.