Besotted with Betty Boop

Posted: October 05, 2013

Janice Adams Hall was 13 when she discovered Betty Boop, the cutesy cartoon character who charmed American audiences in the 1930s and went on to become a powerhouse brand.

"I love her. She is bee-yoo-dee-full, just like me," says Hall, now 52 and so besotted with Betty, as the doll-faced character is known to fans, that her West Mount Airy home is practically wall-to-wall Boopabilia.

In the dining room, Betty cartoons run in a continuous loop on a wide-screen TV. Her image is on the walls, her statuettes on the table, her tchotchkes in the china cabinets.

So it goes in the powder room, in the basement, and outside the house, where Hall has installed two tall cutouts of Betty, large letters spelling sexy and flirt, and a tropical garden dedicated to you-know-who.

"I am obsessed with Betty Boop," acknowledges Hall, a 30-year Amtrak train attendant, who has been collecting her idol's memorabilia for about 15 years.

Hall has lots of company. Fans in 53 countries shell out $1 billion a year for Betty Boop merchandise, a marketing juggernaut that began in 1972, more than three decades after the last of Betty's 110 or so cartoons hit the screen. That total covers not just clothing and accessories: Betty's impish face graces lottery tickets and slot machines, too.

"It's the miracle of Betty Boop," says Mark Fleischer, president of Fleischer Studios in Los Angeles and grandson of Max Fleischer, Betty Boop's creator.

She debuted in "Dizzy Dishes," a 1930 cartoon, as a humanized female dog and the love interest of Bimbo, a male pooch who runs a nightclub for animals. She soon eclipsed him in popularity and morphed into her iconic self, the animated world's first sexualized female star.

Betty was a sassy, flapperlike figure, in keeping with the times, sporting large, liquid eyes, black spit curls, pouty lips, and inviting curves. Her high-pitched signature - "boop-oop-a-doop" - managed to be both silly and risque.

Hall identifies deeply with Betty's look and personality. "Fashion is my passion, just like Betty. She looks like me," says Hall, showing off her slinky black dress and eagerly mimicking her idol's coquettish poses for a photographer.

"Look at her head. That's my head! Look at her little tiny waist and - bam! - that's me. And she'll tell you if she doesn't like something."

"Like you," says Donald, Hall's husband, 58, who humors his wife's obsession and gamely allows her to pick his clothes. Today, she has dressed him in Betty Boop-red pants, shirt, belt, and shoes.

He does not share his wife's opinion about Betty: "I think Betty Boop is sexy, but she has a big head.

"But I'm fine with it. As long as it makes her happy," he says, glancing at his wife and taking pains to explain that, for all his husbandly indulgence, he does have an escape: a man cave.

Rob Weiner, popular-culture librarian at Texas Tech University and an expert on comics, superheroes, horror films, and graphic novels, is considerably more enthusiastic about Betty, whose soundtracks featured some of the day's hottest recordings, such as Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher.

Weiner grew up watching those cartoons on Super 8 film with his dad.

"Boop had a strong, independent will that women could relate to, but she still wanted to be loved and accepted for who she was," says Weiner, who sees "a coolness factor to her that . . . transcends all generations and all American styles."

The wardrobe didn't hurt. Betty wore a trademark garter and short, sleeveless dresses that would flutter up or drop down with little provocation. She did the come-hither thing in a translucent gown or grass skirt with only a lei up top.

But Betty's adventures were not always light cartoon fare. She was sometimes embedded in dark and surreal settings. References to drugs were not unknown. And she was beset by a parade of predatory characters who, try as they might, never did take her "boop-oop-a-doop" away.

"They didn't have Betty Boop naked in bed, but there was a very explicit or erotic content that was unheard of in a cartoon. Showing some lecherous creep rubbing Betty's leg . . . even now you wouldn't expect that in a cartoon," says Paul Levinson, communication and media studies professor at Fordham University.

In the mid-1930s, Betty took a major hit with the advent of strict censorship guidelines designed to rein in what was seen as an amoral motion-picture industry. Gone was the coquettish flapper and her garter. Betty was transformed into a taller, older woman - a teacher, housewife, or babysitter, for example - with no interest in men and a closet full of dresses with demure collars, sleeves, and hemlines.

"Imposing those restrictions on Betty was the demise of her character. She kind of lost, or was deprived of, a lot of her great sensual character, which just wasn't as interesting," says Ginny Mahoney, Max Fleischer's granddaughter and member of the Fleischer Studios board.

Since her heyday, Betty has starred in animated TV specials and cartoon retrospectives. In 1988, she had a cameo role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. She has a rose named for her and several perfumes. There are fan clubs, Betty Boop festivals, even a Baby Betty Boop Look-Alike contest.

According to Mark Fleischer, there are no plans for any new Betty cartoons, but a Broadway musical has been in the works for several years and could open in fall 2014.

Meanwhile, the uncensored Betty continues to mesmerize fans like Hall, who cannot seem to buy enough Boopabilia wigs and chocolate, sailor costumes, and steering-wheel covers. Hall even has a Betty Boop toilet seat.

"Instead of crystal and china, I have this," she says, gesturing to two china cabinets filled with Boopabilia.

Outside the house, on the 300 block of West Mount Pleasant Avenue, cars often slow down to gawk at the Boop shrine Hall has created.

They laugh. They take pictures. They ask, "Is this a lounge?"

In interviews, several neighbors said they were OK with Hall's flamboyant decorations. "She loves it. I find it lots of fun," says Emma Pajil, who lives across the street.

Others, like Leshawna Coleman, do not.

"I think it's ridiculous and highly inappropriate to have Betty Boop out there with her dress flying up, showing a garter and her backside," she says. "I have to explain to my 9-year-old daughter why the neighbors have sexy written on the side of the house."

Back inside, Hall says she has heard no complaints. "Who wouldn't like Betty Boop?" she asks, as she positions a ceramic Betty on the dining room table for a visitor to admire.

"That's my girl," she says, giving the ageless flapper an affectionate pat on the back.


vsmith@phillynews.com

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