Mae Questel's Own Face In A Movie[1]

When someone says "Mae Questel chances are that everyone - well nearly everyone will say who?"

Questel has starred in 1,800 films during the past 30 years, more than anybody else in movie history. She has received more than 1,500,000 fan letters, written in every civilized language, over the years.

But she can walk down the street in any city and nobody recognizes her face. It's her voice that mad her famous. When you or your children watch Betty Boop or Popeye's girlfriend Olive Oyl in movies or on TV, you're listening to Mae Questel. She's also the voice of Swee'Pea and the Sea Hag.

The success of these films phenomenal and seemingly interminable, only recently she completed recordings for King Features Syndicate of 220 new Popeye cartoons has made her rich.

She owns two apartment buildings in New York's Bronx, where Mae was born some 50 years ago, a large batch of annuities, and a safety deposit box full of blue chip stocks. But she'll swap all her golden anonymity for a living breathing role that would let her be recognized for herself alone.

"I guess my real frustration first started," says Mae, "when my two songs used to brag to the neighborhood kids that their mother was a movie star."

"The kids didn't believe them, of course, as they had never seen my face on the screen. The boys would come home with black eyes and bloody noses."

"The closest I ever came to recognition was during the heyday of Betty Boop."

"I was having an argument with my landlord over re-painting the kitchen. 'If I didn't know you,' he said, 'I'd think you were the little flapper in the movies.' When I told him I was Betty Boop, he raised my rent and charged me for re-painting."

This unrecognition problem became so deep-rooted with Mae that she even consulted a psychiatrist. "It was bugging me," she says.

She did finally get a real live role in the Broadway play, A Majority of One. Gertrude Berg was signed for the lead and Mae, who had been working with Mrs. Berg in a radio series, was given the part of the flighty Brooklyn neighbor. The sound of applause perked Mae up no end.

But Broadway audiences are small compared to the millions who go to the movies.

The old frustrations set in again until Warner Bros. decided to film the play. Mae was one of the only two in the cast who were tabbed to re-create their stage roles. This is said to have caused a definite coolness between Gertrude Berg and Mae Questel.

Both of them, friends of many years, deny it. Mae almost fainted with joy. At last, a chance to sign autographs!

Mae and Roz Russell, who plays the Berg role in the movie, hit it off from the beginning. During rehearsal the first day Roz confided her worries to Mae.

Roz said, "I don't want to be a caricature in this part. I want to be a warm vibrant person like Mrs. Berg."

Mae said with a shrug, "The only way you will ever be Jewish is to eat Jewish. Come to my apartment for dinner."

Roz Russell spent a week of evenings at Mae's apartment, while that dynamo cooked matzoh ball soup, kreplach, gefilte fish, etc.

"Mae Questel," says Roz, "is a hazard to dieting."

On set, Mae made a hit too. Her store of funny-but-clean jokes, in a heavy Bronx accent, kept everybody in stitches.

When director Mervyn LeRoy discovered that she liked to bet on horses he tool her to the races and, "She drove me crazy. She'd play four of five horses across the board in every race. Even when she won she lost."

But those who've played poker with Mae claim she is the most astute player and you're lucky to come home with your shirt.

Wall Street and its manipulations she knows better than any broker. Mae's family name was Kwestel, she grew up in the Bronx. After high school, she enrolled in a dramatic class sponsored by the Theater Guild.

Mae's grandparents, who were very orthodox, discovered what she was up to, and yanked her out. She should be a good housewife, that's all.

Those were the days of singer Helen Kane, the "Boop-Boop-a-Doop" girl an Mae, secretly urged on by her girlfriends, entered a Helen Kane Impersonation Contest at a local movie house.

Mae won $150 and a week's booking at the theater and, grandparents or no, promptly signed for a career in vaudeville. Her act became so successful as she was a superb mimic that she was booked into the Palace and given her own radio show.

About this time cartoonist Max Fleischer signed her for his new "Betty Boop" series and changed her name to Questel.

Paramount and King Features came calling next and she became Olive Oyl. As the cartoons took very little time, Mae made extra money making records, which were imitations of famous people.

And working in radio shows, her most famous one being "The Goldbergs," with Gertrude Berg. But Mae wasn't happy.

On her first trip to the Coast, Mae took to Hollywood like a duck to water. She promptly bought herself a huge white Thunderbird convertible. She rented an expensive apartment and, a divorcee of many, many years, announced she would not mind marrying again.

When Jack Warner, president of Warner Bros., came on the set one day she said, "Why, you are exactly the kind of man I want to marry."

"At nights she often drops by Schwab's drug store for an ice cream soda which, "I need like a hole in the head." But she has read that this is the place where movie stars mingle with columnists, so she mingles.

Just trying it on for size, she keeps telling herself.

For years, Mae Questel made a good living from her voice alone. Until she finally got a chance to be herself with Roz Russell in A Majority of One.