Baby Esther Lee Jones was an African-American singer from Chicago known as Lil’ Little Esther. Her career and her life were short. But there’s much more to her life than being one of the highest-paid child stars of the decade.
She started as a child entertainer when she was only 4, most likely in 1923. Her singing phrases “Boo-Boo-Boo,” “Wha-Da-Da,” “Doo-Doo-Doo,” “Do-Do-De-Do-Ho-De-Wa-Da-De-Da,” “Boo-Did-Do-Doo,” “Lo-Di-De-Do,” were used to create a well known Betty Boop.
But, unlike Betty Boop, the story of Baby Esther got lost in history. Well, that’s only partly true since the story has much more depth than any other regarding people who inspired cartoon characters.
Baby Esther meets the world
Esther was a toddler when she discovered her love for music and dancing. Her parents hired a tutor, and when she was only four, she was already a trained scat singer, dancer, acrobat. Her parents Gertrude Jones, and William Jones, were also her managers until an agent “discovered” her.
Esther started performing in nightclubs in Harlem at such young age, then all over the US in the mid-1920s. She would dance, make funny faces, and her catchy phrases “Boo-Boo-Boo,” “Wha-Da-Da,” “Doo-Doo-Doo,” & “Do-Do-De-Do-Ho-De-Wa-Da-De-Da,” “Boo-Did-Do-Doo,” “Lo-Di-De-Do,” and a “De-Do” made her the original star child.
She finally left the spotlight as a teenager, and her career lasted only somewhere from 1926 to 1934. But, her legacy lives even today through an iconic cartoon character.
It’s not documented when or how Little Esther died. But entertaining men when you’re a Black child in the 20s was defiantly not good for her growth and personal development; that much is clear.
Though Betty Boop is a sexy, grown woman, the actual person behind the cartoon wasn’t. And it took many decades to admit that Jones was actually the inspiration for the comic.
Growing up on stage
Russian-American theatrical manager Lou Walton (also known as Lou Bolton) saw Baby Esther performing when she was supposedly only six years old. She has just won the first prize at a Charleston contest in Chicago, and he decided to manage her career.
At first, Baby Esther was presented as the “Farina’s Kid Sister,” and later known as the “Miniature Florence Mills,” since Esther had started her career impersonating Florence Mills.
The nickname “Farina’s Kid Sister” comes from Allen “Farina” Hoskins, another African-American child star from this period.
Keep in mind that dates aren’t as precise as they are today. For example, we know that Esther toured Europe in 1929. Yet, it’s still unclear whether she was 7 or 10 at the time. We know for sure that this magnificent, talented girl performed in Moulin Rouge. She also had a show for King Alphonso and Queen Victoria Eugenie while she was in Spain. King Gustave and the Queen came to the theater just to see her during her stay in Sweden.
People loved her, as The London Sunday People in its review of Paris plays said:
“Thousands flock no longer to the Moulin Rouge to see Mistinguett herself or the clever American ballet girls, or the beautiful women of the chorus, but to applaud a little mite, 10-year-old, who has won fame and wealth within the space of a few weeks. We are living in an age of speed, but this amazing little child has broken every record of sudden theatrical success.”
But things behind the scenes changed for young Esther after meeting Helen Kane.
Kane, Boop, and the lawsuit
Helen Kane was a 20-something singer and actress when she met baby Esther in 1928.
In May 1932, Helen Kane sued Max Fleischer and Paramount Publix Corporation for creating a caricature that misused her personality and image through Betty Boop.
Baby Esther’s former manager, Lou Walton, proved that Kane started copying Baby Esther’s voice after seeing her performance in April 1928 at the Everglades Club on Broadway.
Supreme Court Judge ruled that Kane did not prove that Max Fleischer based Boop on Kane. The old footage of Baby Esther performing her routine helped establish that Helen Kane was not the “first” Boop-Oop-a-Doop singer in the business.
In fact, in the first few appearances, Betty Boop was Black. But, it was not about the cartoon, rather than accepting that Baby Esther was the original inspiration and driving force behind it. Luckily, there are still a few stills left.
In 1934 the Afro-American newspaper wrote:
“Baby Esther originated the Boop-a-Doop style of singing, and Helen Kane white movie and radio star barefacedly swiped it and made a fortune from it a court trial reveals as Miss Kane sues imitators, Mae Questel, Bonnie Poe, Little Ann Little, Kate Wright, Margie Hines of the Boop style. I would be logical now for Baby Esther to sue Miss Kane to even things all around.”
Despite the victory over Helen Kane, baby Esther was not credited for her originality, and it took almost one hundred years to give her back her voice. The young Esther’s singing style inspired Betty Boop’s eye-rolling, dance moves, and catchphrases. The rest came from the cartoonist’s mind.
Finally, despite that she was making big bucks, Esther didn’t get to see much of it. But, other than that, there is no information about her life outside the stage.
Ukrainian cosplayer serving as Baby Esther
Once people started to learn more about the original Baby Esther, they also wanted to see and hear her.
That’s almost impossible, since her career was short, and that’s how one Ukrainian cosplayer almost stole Esther’s identity.
The picture became a sensation once Danielle Young posted it, claiming that it’s the real Betty Boop or Baby Esther. Though the lady in the picture looks a bit like Boop, making the whole character biracial was another way to strip Esther from her identity.
To this day, people still assume that the photo is genuine, but it was actually Boop that inspired the photo, not the other way around. Hence, the woman above is not Baby Esther.
The final “De-Do”
After the trial, Baby Esther was left by her managers. She served her purpose, and people in the business were focusing on exploiting other sweet children with Esther’s background.
Esther was honored with Josephine Hall in 1930 for representing African-Americans and the USA when she toured Europe.
Jazz studies professor Robert O’Meally has suggested that Esther Jones is Betty Boop’s “black grandmother.”
Some say that Baby Esther died in 1934. There’s no proof, but the last time Esther Jones was recorded performing was in 1934 as an acrobat when she was supposedly fifteen years old. In the same year, she was declared dead in her absence.
This is one of the clearest cases of whitewashing in the entertainment industry.
No one knows what happened to her. But, her story has to live on. Not because we cannot imagine the world without Betty Boop. But because Esther was a person, rewriting or hiding her history, her existence, doesn’t make her any less real.
The fact that her manager didn’t go after Kane speaks volumes. Helen Kane had an exciting career that lasted for decades. But, Baby Esther, despite all her talents, was erased.
Baby Esther was used as a child and as a young Black woman. The original scat singer obviously enchanted the world, but it was not enough to keep her as a part of history. And it’s up to us to change that.