by Suzanne Labry
My Betty Boop Quilt
When I was a kid, Saturday mornings were an eagerly anticipated time because that’s when cartoons were shown on television. Back then, there was no cable or satellite TV, and the internet had yet to be invented. Cartoon Network didn’t exist, and the idea of 24-hour access to animated programming for children was not even a concept.
But back in the day, in homes across the United States, Saturday mornings would find children huddled in front of the TV, watching mostly older cartoons from the 1940s and ‘50s that had been developed as shorts to be shown before a feature film in movie theatres. Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and others), produced by Warner Brothers, and Tom and Jerry, produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were played in heavy rotation on Saturday mornings.
But sometimes, the programming would include even older fare, and my favorite of these was Betty Boop.
There was just something about Betty that appealed to me. Perhaps it was because she was practically the only female to “star” or—for that matter—to even be depicted in the cartoons that we watched then, and she always managed to prevail no matter how dire the situation she confronted.
It was years later, upon getting to know a film historian, that I learned Betty started out as a poodle when she appeared in her first cartoon in 1930. Her creator, Max Fleischer, morphed her into a human in 1932, when he changed her canine ears into hoop earrings and gave her a nose job.
In the late 1970s, I was prowling through a secondhand store when I spotted a familiar figure on a small quilt for sale. Blocks of Betty Boop—her red dress and her hair (black, of course, and…surprise…an uncharacteristic blonde!) appliquéd onto the blocks, and her features (including her garter) embroidered in, all surrounded by pink and yellow sashing separated by little nine-patches.
The fabric was stained and the fabrics were worn. At some point in its history, a backing had been tacked onto the original quilt to cover a large hole, as this cloth Betty had obviously been well used and practically loved to death. There were no identifying marks on the quilt to indicate its maker, but the fabrics could have come from the 1940s. The embroidery was not uniform and there was a folk-art air to the appliquéd figures that indicated it was an original design.
The story that I conceived in my mind for it involved some mother or grandmother that created it for a Boop-loving child who had blonde hair.
As was the case with the cartoon, there was just something about this Betty that appealed to me. And I bought it, of course, for practically next to no thing. It charms me still, and I like to imagine that the story I made up about it is real…and that long ago, the little blonde girl grew up to be as independent and feisty as Betty Boop herself.