Local Obituaries

‘Popeye,’ ‘Betty Boop’ cartoonist Jean Karaty dies at 97 in Miami

ARTIST: Jean Karaty worked as an opaquer for Miami's Fleischer Studios from 1938 to 1943, the studio that produced Popeye, Betty Boop and Superman cartoons. She is seen at her home in the Roads in this July 2003 photo.
ARTIST: Jean Karaty worked as an opaquer for Miami's Fleischer Studios from 1938 to 1943, the studio that produced Popeye, Betty Boop and Superman cartoons. She is seen at her home in the Roads in this July 2003 photo. Miami Herald file

Fleischer Studios only lasted for five years in Miami but the work that came out of its single-story building on Northwest 30th Avenue continues to leave a lasting impression.

Cartoons featuring Popeye, Betty Boop and Superman came to life in this building, now a Miami Police Department Grapeland Heights neighborhood substation.

In 1938, when the Austrian Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, brought their studios to Miami from New York amid great fanfare from city leaders — officials offered tax breaks and the Miami Herald gave front-page coverage to the studio’s opening — a young Jean Karaty drew still-image cels of Popeye and Betty Boop for hours on end.

Karaty, born in Dublin, Georgia, on Feb. 22, 1917, had moved to Miami in the 1920s on the heels of the devastating 1926 hurricane. “She always talked about the big hurricanes,” her son Michael Karaty Jr. said. She lived in Miami’s Roads neighborhood the rest of her life.

Karaty, who died on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 27, at 97, started her career with the Fleischers as an opaquer, a labor-intensive position that required artists to produce 24 cels for every second of a moving picture. Opaquers filled in the character outlines left by the animators so that the cel’s background would not appear when it was photographed and displayed on screens.

Karaty was one of the best. Walt Disney Studios, home of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, eyed Fleischer Studios with a wary eye. The work coming out of Miami was hot and the Miami High School graduate was understandably proud of her drawings of the spinach-guzzling sailor man and the bodacious Boop.

“We used to go down to the Paramount Theater on Flagler Street to see the cartoons before the movie started,” Karaty recalled in a 2003 Miami Herald story. “You’d say, ‘I did that! I worked on that!’ and the people around us would say ‘Shh!’ They thought we were just a bunch of rowdies.”

But when Fleischer’s Miami operation went bust by 1943, done in by the squabbling brothers, Paramount took over and moved its operations to New York City. Karaty, who was discovered at her mother’s dress shop on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach by an employee who noticed her drawings of flowers, animals and cartoon characters and encouraged her to visit the studio, wanted to go to New York. Paramount executives had called her into the offices on the Fleischers’ last day in Miami with a job offer.

“Her mother and father said, ‘absolutely not!’” her son said.

“And that was it,” Jean Karaty told the Herald. “Families were stricter in those days.”

She kept up her drawing for a while and Disney approached her with an offer to work out of Orlando. This time she was the one who declined.

Married now, “she wasn’t going to leave my dad who had a service station in downtown Miami for about 50 years in the same spot at 638 North Miami Avenue,” their son said.

Her husband Michael, owner of that Whiteway Service Station and a lifetime member of the Knights of Columbus, died in 1984 at 73. Karaty, like her husband, was a member of the Salam Club of Miami. She was also an avid poker player who played at the Moose Lodge in South Miami twice a week into her late 90s.

One of her favorite stories was about the time in the early 1980s when she played poker with Sanford and Son star Redd Foxx at the Las Vegas Hilton.

“She said he had the filthiest mouth,” her son said. Foxx, of course, was famed for his X-rated “party records” pre-TV fame. But she was charmed by the gravel-voiced actor.

“Redd Foxx, she said, he lost his ass,” Karaty said. “He got up from the table after losing so much and said, ‘Well Jean, I hope you have better luck than I did.’”

Another story she loved to tell: the time she scared off a road-rage driver on Coral Way who pulled alongside her, apparently displeased with the slow speed with which she was driving along the oak tree-lined highway. Karaty, “80 to 90 pounds when wet” pointed her hand like a gun and motioned to the seat of her car. The other driver took off. “In Yiddish, she had chutzpah,” her son said.

But she never forgot her early days in Miami, when she helped give Popeye his pop and Betty Boop her bounce on silver screens.

“She had very good memories. She talked about it all the time. She loved to share her stories of drawing Popeye. She was one of the few colorists when they added color to Popeye,” said her son, a nurse who worked for Randle Eastern Ambulance in Miami-Dade during its rough “cocaine cowboys” period in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Karaty Jr., 59, sports a tattoo on his arm of his mother’s artwork, along with her signature.

“When she saw it I thought she’d go through the roof,” he said, with a quick chuckle. “But she loved it. ‘What a tribute,’ she’d say.”

In addition to her son and his wife, Jennifer, Karaty is survived by her grandson Michael III and great-grandson Michael IV. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 13 at Van Orsdel, 4600 SW Eighth St., Miami.

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