“Made of pen and ink, she can win you with a wink …”
Knowing fans recognize those lyrics as the start of another great Betty Boop cartoon. Mae Questel, the face behind the voice, was made of flesh and bone and can win you over whether she’s voicing sweet Betty, Olive Oyl, Little Lulu, Little Audrey, Casper the friendly Ghost, or even Popeye’s voice in a few of his cartoons.
Back in the roaring 20s, Bronx teenager Mae “Kwestel” knew she had a gift. She could mimic all sorts of familiar sounds, animals and people. In spite of the severe disapproval of her orthodox Jewish parents, Mae's career in show business took off in earnest after she won a local talent contest at age 17.
For radio and stage, Mae created an act she called “Mae Questel – Personality Singer of Personality songs” wherein she would perform dead-on vocal impersonations of then-superstars like Mae West, Rudy Vallee, Ruth Etting, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier and Helen Kane, the flapper queen of “Boop-oop-a-doop.” .
Animator Max Fleischer was seeking an actress for the cartoon voice of Betty Boop, when he caught Mae’s act, especially her impersonation of Helen Kane. Max hired Mae for the Betty Boop role in 1931, and for the full decade Mae Questel entertained the world in over 150 appearances as everyone’s favorite cartoon vamp.
In 1933, Max Fleischer’s brother, Dave Fleischer, directed a Betty Boop cartoon titled “Popeye the Sailor,” introducing the Popeye character. A new cartoon star was born, and for the first two Popeye cartoons, Olive Oyl was voiced by Bonnie Poe. From there, Mae became the definitive Olive Oyl, after tailoring Olive’s voice to that of comedian Zasu Pitt’s whiny persona. Margie Hines was the Olive Oyl character from 1938-44, but then Mae took over again and moved with the Popeye series to television in 1960.
Paramount would have other plans for Miss Questel during the ensuing years. Though screen credit was rarely provided for voice artists, Mae Questel went on to become the voice of such cartoon stars as Little Lulu, Little Audrey, Casper the friendly Ghost, and even Popeye the Sailor Man’s voice six or seven times, according to Ms Questel, after Popeye’s voice artist, Jack Mercer, went off to WWII.
Mae Questel appeared in many movies during the 60s, 70s and 80s, notably playing the card-playing matchmaker Mrs. Strakosh opposite Barbra Steisand in Funny Girl. She voiced Betty Boop once again in Woody Allen’s Zelig, and was the Jewish mother in the Oedipus Wrecks segment of New York Stories. Her stage credits include Dr. Social, A Majority of One and Enter Laughing. She was even widely known as "Aunt Bluebell" for Scott Towels during the 1970s. Questel died in 1998, from complications related to Alzheimer's disease, at the age of 89.