Unlike the silver voiced tenor of the airwaves Morton Downey, whose career was enhanced in the 1930s by the arrival of the radio, Helen Kane made it really big because of a spur-of-the-moment improvisation in her act.
Her show business name, changed from Helen Schroeder, may not mean much in today’s world, but mention her as the original “Boop Boop A Doop Girl” and the name may have survived all these years.
At the height of her popularity, the “Boop Boop A Doop Girl” performed in 1934 in Wildwood at William Hunt’s huge Auditorium-Plaza on the boardwalk. Downey, equally as famous during that time, also was to star there, each before audiences that were said to reach 6,000.
A few years earlier, Kane’s career suddenly soared at the Paramount in the heart of Times Square, which was to be a key venue for performances by big bands like Glenn Miller’s, Benny Goodman’s and Tommy Dorsey’s as well as a young Frank Sinatra. In the 1950s, Al Alberts and The Four Aces were to share the billing with the Charlie Barnett Big Band at the theater. Alberts was later to reside in this area and perform here regularly as well as star in his own nationally syndicated radio program and TV show in Philadelphia.
A native New Yorker from the Bronx, Kane was to start her show business career when she was 15, appearing on the same bill as a singer and Rockette-like dancer with the Marx Brothers at the prestigious Orpheum vaudeville circuit. In 1921, then 18, she played the Palace, no modest show business accomplishment for anyone, let alone for someone of her age.
She made it to Broadway in 1927, when she performed in the short lived musical “A Night in Spain,” and band conductor Paul Ash recognized her talents and arranged for her to perform at the Paramount. She was singing a popular song “That’s My Weakness Now” by Sam H. Stept and Bud Greene, their first big hit, when she adlibbed the scat lyrics of “boop boop a doop.”
In contrast to some of today’s explicit lyrics, “That’s My Weakness Now” was coyly seductive and Kane’s offering made it more so. Some of the lyrics went this way, “He loves to bill and coo, and I never cared to bill and coo. But he loves to bill and coo. So that’s my weakness now.”
As soon as she improvised her “boop boop a doop” she suddenly advanced from a good supporting act to star billing.
Hollywood was to beckon and soon she appeared in three films, “Nothing But The Truth,” “Sweetie” -for which she and Jack Oakie received critical acclaim, and “Pointed Heels” with William Powell and Fay Wray, who was to gain more fame when she was shown in the clutches of a gorilla named King Kong.
Kane was to receive her only star billing later in the film “Dangerous Nan McGrew.” She portrayed a singer in a traveling medicine show. Her leading man was Victor Moore, usually a character actor on the stage and in the movies.
Controversy was to enter her career when Paramount Pictures and Max Fleischer made Betty Boop, an animated cartoon caricature Kane believed was made in her image. In 1934, the year that she was to perform in Wildwood, Kane filed a $250,000 law suit against the two defendants, alleging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the Betty Boop cartoons.
The defense produced a witness with the show business name Baby Esther, who testified that she was “booping” long before Kane was. The judge ruled in favor of the defendants, deciding that there was no evidence that Kane’s singing and booping style was unique or that there was an imitation of it.
By the time she came to Wildwood, the Kane’s fame was beginning to fade, although the box office did well at Hunt’s theater. She returned to Broadway in a play called “Shady Lady” and after that to vaudeville, radio and nightclubs.
She left show business in 1935, the year following her Wildwood performance, but not entirely. She moved to California and then traveled to England, where she made a command performance before the queen and king.
Kane, married three times, returned to New York for some TV appearances, one of which honored her on “This Is Your Life” hosted by Ralph Edwards. She died of breast cancer on Sept. 26, 1966 at the age of 62 and is buried at the Veterans Cemetery in Farmingdale, Long Island. Her husband of 27 years, actor Dan Healy, was at her bedside when she died.