When someone says "Mae Questel" chances are that everyone well nearly everyone will say, "Who?" Mae 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 made her famous. When you (or your children) watch Betty Boop or Popeye's girlfriend, Olive Oyl, in the movies or on TV, you're listening to Mae Questel. She's also the voice of Popeye's baby Swee'pea and the Sea Hag. The success of these films (phenomenal and seemingly interminable; only recently she completed recordings for King Features of 220 new Popeye cartons) 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 sons 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 un-recognition 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 her 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 the only one of only two in the cast who were tabbed to re-create their stage roles. (This is said to have caused a definite coothess 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: "I don't want to be a caricature in this part. I want to be a warm, vibrant person like Mrs. Berg." Said Mae with a shrug. "The only way you will ever be Jewish is to eat Jewish. Come to my apartment for dinner." Roz 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, she 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 took her to the races and, "She drove me crazy. She'd play four or five horses across the board in every race. Even when she won she lost."
But those who've played poker with Mae ("I never play with women") claim she is a 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 (the family name was Kwestel) grew up in the Bronx. After high school, she enrolled in a dramatic class sponsored by the Theater Guild. Her 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 and Mae secretly urged on by her girl friends, entered a Helen Kane Contest at a local movie house. She 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 (she was , and is, 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 came calling next and she became Olive Oyl. As the cartoons took very little time, Mae made extra money making records (imitations of famous people) and working in radio shows, her most famous one being The Goldbergs, with Gertrude Berg.
But she wasn't happy. On her first trip to the Coast, this spring. 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 many 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.