In the tales of the better Magi, it was assumed possible to transform, the inanimate into the animate. Thus a shrinking violet plucked from the garden might turn into a Russian duke disguised as a Savoy-Plaza doorman.
But up in New York's Bronx is a highly animated young lady who has been nationally identified as a series of pen scratches and a voice.
Mae Questel is that oop-de-yoop voice you hear when Betty sings or converses. Furthermore, Mae is today the model for Betty. When, in the Broadway offices of Max Fleischer, cartoonists go to work on the Queen of Boop, it is Mae who rolls her eyes, wiggles her hips and otherwise models the role.
From an inkwell character, Betty Boop has become a caricature of the young lady who furnishes her voice.
And, on the other hand, Mae Questel has studied hundreds of reels in an effort to develop a voice that would fit the character of the animated cartoon.
It all began a couple of years ago when a contest was being held in New York's neighborhood theaters to find the best imitator of Helen Kane, then the outstanding boop-a-doop girl.
Miss Questel was conducting an elocution class and had ambitions to get on the stage. She appeared at a Bronx movie house and won the contest by two doops and a boop. Within a few weeks she found herself making the movie house circuits with her impersonation. The radio boys heard her and she went on the air. Sound pictures were developing the while, and Betty needed a voice. Miss Questel seemed to be just what Fleischer was seeking. But there are other noises, if you recall, in the Betty Boop films—sounds so strange and inhuman that you may have wondered where they came from.
Which brings us to Cookie Barrows.
Barrows was going about the stage circuits making noises like a buzz-saw, a mosquito, a sewing machine and a political orator when sound came to the films and radio came to the air.
He was grabbed up at once as a running brook and an eruption of Kilauea. As such he appeared back stage in Holywood [sic]. only to have the ante raised by radio, which needed an imitation of Sherman's march to the sea and a plague of locusts. Barrows is claimed capable of 1000 noises, with others ready on three hours' notice.
It seems, according to Mr. Fleischer, daddy of Betty Boop, that in the screening of the animated cartoons, the human voice picks up much better than mechanical imitations. Frequently the mechanical processes are too rapid for good recording, whereas the voice can be timed to meet the requirements.
To keep up with the changing variety of sounds introduced, Barrows must practice as rigorously as a Metropolitan diva. Just about the time he can do the Four Original Hawaiians, along comes a new musical instrument which he is asked to imitate. Giving the fellow due credit, he has balked at the saxophone, and once tried to get out of being a crooner.
It is the lot of such performers that they are rarely seen on the screen, but must go through life identified as noises and voices. However, Miss Questel did appear with Rudy Vallee in a couple of shorts.
Fleischer started as a cartoonist on a Brooklyn newspaper. When animated cartoons were first appearing he spent a year turning out his first one. It required 10,000 separate drawings or more. But it clicked.