11 March: Rochester’s enduring stand

Eddie Anderson, the irrepressible Rochester. (Photo: NBC.)

Eddie Anderson, the irrepressible Rochester. (Photo: NBC.)

Eddie Anderson was the son of a minstrel performer and one of the extremely few black high-wire artists. His father objected to his traveling up and down the west coast as a teenage entertainer. But he eventually became the first black performer hired for a permanent radio cast spot and almost as much of a radio institution as the man who hired him in the first place.

The legend has it that Anderson was the second man to audition for the role of a Pullman train porter for a 1937 Jack Benny show, but that he was so impressive in his audition that the show staff didn’t bother with the remaining candidates. Intended as a one-time appearance, Anderson proved enough of a hit that Benny hired Anderson soon enough as a full-time cast member.

And in very short order, Benny would think nothing of nudging Rochester Van Jones, Anderson’s full-time character, into a fellow who used racial stereotypes to smash them to pieces while becoming just as effective—and often more so—as the rest of the Benny cast at deflating Benny’s on-air persona as a vain skinflint.

In fact, Benny was so fond and solicitous of Anderson that he thought nothing of leading his entire company out of hotels and restaurants whose personnel gave them trouble over Anderson joining them. In Jack Benny: A Biography, Mary Livingstone would remember the entire Benny company checking out of the old Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York because one Southern couple staying there objected to Anderson staying among them—during the show’s first trip East following Anderson becoming a full-time cast member.

Standing up to his on-air boss firmly enough but without necessarily disrespecting him (though many of the zaps at the Benny character’s cheapo side came nonchalantly from Rochester’s lips), Anderson’s Rochester began chipping away at the wall of separation that stood between black performers and their eventual graduation to just . . . people, performers, in an era where blacks remained objects of suspicion at least and bigotry at most.

Anderson (center, at microphone) rehearsing with (from left) Dennis Day, conductor Mahlon Merrick, and Don Wilson. (Photo: NBC.)

Anderson (center, at microphone) rehearsing with (from left) Dennis Day, conductor Mahlon Merrick, and Don Wilson. (Photo: NBC.)

Benny’s faith in paid off handsomely and then some. By 1962, when network radio was about to be lowered into its grave and Benny had long since transitioned to television, Anderson became America’s highest-paid black actor of his time—pulling down a cool $100,000 a year. Anderson himself proved as clever as his radio and television alter ego, becoming wealthy thanks to smart investing and prudence (not flintiness!) with his money.

His life wasn’t without its sorrows, of course. His first wife died after a battle with cancer in 1954 (her funeral was said to be as crowded as that for Hattie McDaniel, an indication of how well regarded Anderson was in Hollywood); his second marriage ended in divorce.

Anderson’s comic timing, of course, was as impeccable as his employer’s. He’d need it, too, by the final half-decade of Benny’s radio life, considering Mary Livingstone’s diminishing role and presence (she was finally unable to turn her once-notorious stage and mike fright aside) and Phil Harris (a hit in his own right with The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show) departing in favour of Bob Crosby.

His famous gravelly voice, acquired as an after-effect from shouting it out loud as a newspaper boy in his native Oakland area, matched his timing to make Anderson one of radio’s most beloved sidekicks. In another time and place he might have carried his own program with the same offbeat dignity. And a job that grew out of a planned one-shot also turned into a lifelong friendship that endured until Benny’s death in 1974.

Anderson also enjoyed a respectable film career—including an unforgettable performance in his Rochester role in Topper Returns (in 1941) and in Vincente Minelli’s directorial debut, Cabin in the Sky (1943)—but not even his election to the Black Filmmakers’ Hall of Fame could diminish his timeless performances as the valet who pinpricked Jack Benny’s balloon several times a night for over two and a half decades.

He also transcended one of the earliest Rochester-played stereotypes in another way: Though the character hinted at a taste for gambling early in his radio lifetime, Anderson in real life had a passion for racehorses . . . as a trainer at Hollywood Park, a job he worked from the end of Benny’s television program until his death in 1977.

The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny: How Jack Found Rochester (NBC, 1945)

Jack (Benny) recalls his first meeting with valet Rochester (Eddie Anderson), who was working a few years earlier as a cab driver—for Amos ‘n’ Andy‘s (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in guest roles) Fresh Aire Taxi Company, in one of whose cabs Rochester plowed the front of Benny’s ancient Maxwell. You’ll have to bear with a badly damaged surviving transcription recording to get to the sketch, but it’s worth it.

Cast: Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Larry Stevens (filling in for Dennis Day, who’s still in the Navy in World War II), Don Wilson (announcer). Reporter: Joseph Kearns. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris Orchestra. Writers: George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.


News: From Montgomery’s Headquarters (BBC, 1945)

A report on the wipeout of a key German bridge west of the Rhine, in the middle of the Allied forces’ plunge across Europe and into the heart of Germany, from the headquarters of British commander Gen. Bernard Montgomery, by now the field commander of the British 21st Army. Correspondent: Chester Wilmot.


World News Today: The Third Army’s Plunge and the Finishing of Iwo Jima (CBS, 1945)

The top stories: Gen. George Patton’s Third Army continues its plunge through central and western Europe and into the heart of Germany, while supreme Allied headquarters ponders whether current successes aren’t anticlimactic. Meanwhile, the Marines make their final Iwo Jima plunge through Japanese cave defenses and night warfare tactics, while fires rage in Tokyo in the aftermath of a heavy B-29 raid launched from the Marianas.

Also: Successes crossing the Rhine; the 9th Air Force’s continuing softening of critical German war industry in Hamburg; a “Heroes’ Day” ceremony involving top Nazi leaders including a communique from Hitler calling for Germans to “go down fighting”; the Soviet Red Army’s progress in and around Danzig; and, the acceleration of Burmese operations, plus reputed top-secret conferencing among commanders and diplomats in the Far East addressing a rumoured Japanese political blowup.

Anchor: Douglas Edwards, New York. Correspondents: Bill Shadel, Larry LeSueur, Farnsworth Fowell, Maj. George Fielding Eliot, Chris Coffin. Announcer: Warren Sweeney.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Chevrolet Program Starring Jack Benny: Haunted House (comedy; NBC, 1934)
The Old Gold Comedy Theater: The Magnificent Dope (anthology; NBC, 1945)
Joanie’s Tea Room: Joan Has Insomnia (comedy; CBS, 1946)
The Whistler: Boomerang (crime drama; CBS, 1946)
Fort Laramie: Hattie Pelfrey (Western; CBS, 1956)
Gunsmoke: Bringing Down Father (Western; CBS, 1956)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: The Clarinet Comic (improvisational comedy; The First Two Guesses Don’t Count, 1960)

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