Late 1920s singing sensation and actress Helen Kane is one of my favourites. With her coquettish vocals, a distinct Bronx dialect and risqué lyrics, she gave the flappers a voice. One look at those big, expressive brown eyes and bee-stung lips, it is no wonder why the original “The Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl” inspired the legend that is Betty Boop. Helen Kane was like an all singing, all dancing kewpie doll come to life – armed with sass a plenty. “If it’s naughty to vamp the men / sleep each morning till after ten / then the answer is yes, I want to be bad!”, she sang in 1929.
Born Helen Schroeder on August 4, 1903 in the Bronx, Kane was starstruck from an early age. By the time she was 15-years old, Helen was performing onstage professionally, touring the Orpheum Circuit with the Marx Brothers. Kane spent the early and mid-1920’s trouping in vaudeville as a singer and played the New York Palace for the first time in 1921.
In 1928 Helen Kane was appearing at the Paramount Theater in Times Square. She was singing the popular song “That’s My Weakness Now,” when she interpolated the scat lyrics “Boop-Boop-a-Doop.” “I just put it in at one of the rehearsals,” she later said. “A sort of interlude. It’s hard to explain – I haven’t explained it to myself yet. It’s like vo-de-o-do, Crosby with boo-boo-boo and Durante with cha-cha-cha.”
The audience went crazy and only four days later, Helen Kane’s name went up in lights. Seemingly overnight, she came out a star. “One day I had fifty cents,” Helen laughed, “and the next day I had $50,000.”
At the height of her fame in late 1928 and early 1929, there were Helen Kane dolls and Helen Kane look-alike contests, appearances on radio and in nightclubs. “Money was falling off trees,” the singer said of her big success in 1928.
In 1929, Paramount Pictures signed Helen Kane to appear in a series of early musicals. Her first of three 1929 films was a comedy titled Nothing But the Truth, in which Helen has a small role but she got to sing “Do Something”. She next went into a cute college musical, Sweetie, starring Nancy Carroll. Kane was teamed with Jack Oakie – and the comedy couple handily stole the film.