Anderson, Eddie “Rochester” 1905
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson 1905–1977
Long before Americans recognized his face, they knew his voice. Durng the magic years of radio, Eddie Anderson played the part of Rochester, the irrepressible butler to famed comedian Jack Benny. When The Jack Benny Show moved to television in 1953, audiences matched face with voice and once again laughed and cheered at the antics of these two comedians. Anderson’s character was immensely popular and he humored his fans by signing autographs as “Rochester.”
Edmund Lincoln Anderson was born in Oakland, California, on September 18, 1905. His parents, Big Ed and Ella Mae, were circus aerialists and performers on the vaudeville circuit. When he was 12 years old, Anderson lost his voice for a time after shouting all day at his job selling newspapers on a San Francisco street corner. When he got his voice back, it had a scratchy quality that became his trademark.
Anderson began working on the vaudeville circuit in a song and dance team with his brother, Cornelius. He then joined the Three Black Aces, a vocal group, and toured with the California Collegians band, which included the then unknown movie star Fred MacMurray. He also toured with the Strut Mitchell Troupe. He worked in nightclubs for the next several years before landing a movie role in 1932’s What Price Hollywood. This story of an alcoholic movie director who helps a waitress become a movie star was the inspiration for the film classic A Star Is Born.
On Easter Sunday in 1937, the character of Rochester Van Jones, Pullman porter, first appeared on The Jack Benny Program. By the time Rochester joined Benny, his radio show had been on the air for five years. When Anderson auditioned for the part, his distinctive voice stood out. It seemed a natural introduction to have Rochester be a train porter, since the show often featured zany railroad broadcasts.
Initially, the role of Rochester was to be a one-shot appearance, but audience response was so favorable that Benny wanted the character written permanently into the script. So, the script writers had Benny hire Rochester away from the railroad to become his chauffeur and butler. Rochester’s last name was dropped and he became a regular on the show. At his high point, Anderson was so popular that his portrayal of Rochester brought in about 2,000 fan letters per week.
At a Glance…
Born Edmund Lincoln Anderson on September 18, 1905, in Oakland, CA; died February 28, 1977, in Los Angeles, CA; son of circus performers Big Ed and Ella Mae. Career: Vaudeville, 1923-33; radio: The jack Benny Program, 1937-49; television roles: The Jack Benny Show, 1953-65; The Harlem Globetrotters animated series, 1970; films: Hat Check Girl, 1932; Two in a Crowd, 1936; Three Men on a Horse, 1936; You Can’t Take It With You, 1938; Jezebel, 1938; Gone With the Wind, 1939; Buck Benny Rides Again, 1940; Kiss the Boys Goodbye, 1941; Cabin in the Sky, 1943; Stormy Weather, 1943; Brewster’s Millions, 1945; The Sailor Takes a Wife, 1945; The Show-Off, 1946; It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, 1963.
The relationship between Rochester and Benny on both the radio and television show was very much that of servant and master. However, there were few complaints from either black or white audiences on that point, possibly because Rochester always came out on top in any confrontation. Rochester invariably got the best of Benny. Despite Benny’s position in the household, it was Rochester who was really calling the shots.
In those radio and early television years, many of the jokes delivered by both Rochester and Benny, and other comedians as well, were based on stereotypes. Many listeners were particularly annoyed because Rochester addressed Benny as “boss.” Sometimes audiences objected because they felt Rochester was made to look stupid or, conversely, too much in control. Whether Anderson ever objected to the stereotyping is not known. At least, he never objected openly and continued to play such roles in films.
The last incident of racial humor on the Benny show occurred in early 1950. The cast had arrived in New York from Los Angeles via train with only a few days to prepare the next broadcast. Benny, as well as most of the writing staff, had come down with colds. Everyone was cranky and out of new ideas. By Thursday, three days before the Sunday night performance, nothing was down on paper. Then someone recalled a ten-year old script they had used in New York. A copy of the script was found and updated.
The plot involved Benny looking for Rochester, who had disappeared into Harlem as soon as their train arrived in New York. Benny made phone calls to numbers he found in Rochester’s address book. Each call was answered by a young lady. The conversations with Benny, who asked each young woman if she knew where Rochester was, invariably centered, no matter how subtly, on sexual innuendo.
When the show ended, the switchboard went crazy. Harlem residents were outraged at the innuendo and other racial references. Benny, who felt that racial humor was acceptable as long as it was performed with affection, was astonished at the audience reaction. In fact, columnist Walter Winchell had begun a campaign after World War II against comics who got laughs at the expense of minority groups. But he singled out Benny as treating all people with dignity and affection. And ten years earlier no one had objected to this same script. It was an indication of the changing times.
Anderson continued to make films while appearing on Benny’s show. He became so identified with the radio character that “Rochester” was often used in his film credits instead of his given name. In 1936 Anderson appeared in Rainbow on the River, Three Men on a Horse, and Noah in Green Pastures. He had parts in six forgettable films in 1937, but 1938 was a better year for him. Of his seven movies that year, he was seen as Gros Bat in Jezebel, for which Bette Davis won her second Oscar, You Can’t Take It With You with James Stewart, which got the best picture Oscar, and Thanks for the Memory with Bob Hope.
In 1939 Anderson appeared as Uncle Peter in the Oscar-winning classic Gone With the Wind. He was also seen that year as Rochester in Man About Town, a musical starring Jack Benny. The following year, as Rochester, he supplied a constant flow of funny dialogue in another Benny film, this time a spoof of Westerns called Buck Benny Rides Again.
Anderson continued to work in the movies through the 1940s while appearing full time in The Jack Benny Show. His notable 1941 films were Kiss the Boys Goodbye with Mary Martin and Birth of the Blues with Bing Crosby as a jazz musician in New Orleans. In 1942 he was seen in Star Spangled Rhythm, again with Bing Crosby, and Tales of Manhattan with Charles Boyer and Rita Hayworth. The following year he was the star of Cabin in the Sky, a film whose all-black cast included Lena Home. In this musical fable, Anderson played Little Joe Jackson, a man for whose soul good and evil were vying. He also appeared that year with Benny, this time as the character Shufro, in The Meanest Man in the World. The film was praised for the hilarious routines between Anderson and Benny.
Anderson appeared in only one film in 1944, as Eddie in Broadway Rhythm. Another musical, Brewster’s Millions, one of his two films in 1945, starred Dennis O’Keefe. It had originally been made in 1914 and again in 1985. Also in that year he appeared as Newton H. Newton in Love a Bandleader with Phil Harris. Anderson made two movies in 1946: The Sailor Takes a Wife with Robert Walker and Memory for Two. He appeared as Rochester in The Show-Off, starring comedian Red Skelton in 1947.
Slowly, the character of Rochester began to figure less and less in The Jack Benny Show. Then, during a rehearsal in 1958, Anderson suffered a heart attack. He never completely recovered, with both his sight and speech permanently affected. His career was nearly at an end, although he did continue to work with Benny until 1965.
Characters such as Rochester were nearing an end, too. The roles played by black Americans on radio and television were changing. The portrayal of white master and black servant, far from gaining laughs, was now far more apt to draw outraged complaints. The role of the stereotype, no matter how benign the intention, was no longer accepted as the norm.
Along with a gradual change in stereotype casting that began in the 1950s, Anderson experienced personal problems. In 1952, his son Willie was caught with marijuana and given a suspended sentence. Two years later, Willie, who played pro football with the Chicago Bears for a short time, was charged with sale and possession and sentenced to five years in prison. Anderson’s wife Mamie died of cancer in 1954.
Anderson’s last film appearance was in 1963. He was the first cab driver, part of the huge cast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. This comedy about a group of people trying to locate hidden bank money was chock full of comedians. Besides Anderson, the cast also included Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, and Jimmy Durante.
In 1956, Eddie Anderson remarried and the couple had three children. For all his work, Anderson was honored by the Black Film-Makers Hall of Fame in 1975. Anderson and his wife lived in Los Angeles until his death in 1977.
The Jack Benny Program, 1937-49.
The Jack Benny Show, 1953-65.
The Harlem Globetrotters (animated series), 1970.
Hat Check Girl, 1932.
Two in a Crowd, 1936.
Three Men on a Horse, 1936.
The Green Pastures, 1936.
Over the Goal, 1937.
One Mile from Heaven, 1937.
On Such a Night, 1937.
Reckless Living, 1938.
Gold Diggers in Paris, 1938.
You Can’t Take It With You, 1938.
Strange Faces, 1938.
Thanks for the Memory, 1938.
Going Places, 1938.
Man About Town, 1939.
Gone With the Wind, 1939.
Buck Benny Rides Again, 1940.
Kiss the Boys Goodbye, 1941.
Birth of the Blues, 1941.
Star Spangled Rhythm, 1942.
Stormy Weather, 1943.
Cabin in the Sky, 1943.
The Meanest Man in the World, 1943.
I Love a Bandleader, 1945.
Brewster’s Millions, 1945.
The Sailor Takes a Wife, 1945.
Memory for Two, 1946.
The Show-Off, 1946.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1963.
Fein, Irving A. Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography, Putnams, 1976.
Jack Benny: The Radio and Television Work, Harper, 1991.
Josefsberg, Milt. The Jack Benny Show, Arlington House, 1977.
Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became Of…? Crown, 1973.
Mapp, Edward. Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts. Scarecrows, 1990.
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com
Additional material was obtained from the Biography Resource Center.
—Corinne J. Naden and Jennifer M. York
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