Born as Mae Kwestel in New York City to Simon and Freida Kwestel, she studied acting at the American Theatre Wing and with the Theatre Guild. Although she wanted to be an entertainer, her parents, who were Orthodox Jews, actively discouraged her from doing so.
Nevertheless, at the age of 17, Questel won a talent contest held at the RKO Fordham Theatre in the Bronx, by imitating Helen Kane. She was signed by an agent and began performing in vaudeville as an impressionist. Billed as "Mae Questel - Personality Singer of Personality Songs," she did Marlene Dietrich, Eddie Cantor, Mae West and others, as well as animal imitations. She was seen by animator Max Fleischer, who was looking for an actress to provide the voice for his Betty Boop character. Questel's "Boop-oop-a-doop" routine, done in a style similar to that of the song's originator, Helen Kane, while at the same time evoking something of the naughty allure of film star Clara Bow, was exactly what Fleischer wanted, and he hired Questel in 1931. She began as one of a number of actresses providing the character's voice, but soon took over the role exclusively, essaying it in more than 150 animated shorts. Along with her voice work and occasional on-camera appearance in Paramount shorts, Questel also attended Columbia University, where she studied drama.
Characters voiced by Mae Questel
- Olive Oyl
- Popeye (When Mercer was temporarily drawn into war service 1945-1946)
- Betty Boop
- The Sea Hag (1960-1962)
Beginning in 1933, Questel also provided the voice for Olive Oyl and Swee'Pea in Fleischer's Popeye animated shorts. She based Olive's nasal vocal style, and expressions like "Oh, dear!" on the persona of the legendary character actress ZaSu Pitts, and ultimately played the role for more than 20 years. Questel refused to move to Miami, Florida when Fleischer Studios relocated there in 1938, so Margie Hines took over during the Miami years. Questel returned as the voice of Olive Oyl when Paramount Pictures moved the former Fleischer Studios - which became Famous Studios - back to New York. She also filled in for Jack Mercer, the voice of Popeye, for a small number of cartoons made when Mercer was temporarily drawn into war service.
When the Popeye cartoons aired on TV from 1960-1962 in syndication, Questel provided the voices of Olive Oyl, Swee'Pea, and the Sea Hag.
- When Hanna-Barbera began making new Popeye cartoons for television in 1978, Questel auditioned for the role of Olive Oyl, and lost out to Marilyn Schreffler.
- Although Mae Questel was not picked by Hanna-Barbera she still had a contract with King Features.
Questel died from complications related to Alzheimer's disease at the age of 89 in her Manhattan apartment. She was buried in West Babylon, New York's New Montefiore Cemetery. She had two sons, Robert Balkin, who pre-deceased her, and Richard, who survived her.
- Mae Questel at the Internet Movie Database