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Eddie "Rochester" Anderson

Eddie Anderson.jpg
Portrait of Eddie Anderson
as Rochester circa 1940

Birth name Edmund Lincoln Anderson
Born September 18, 1905(1905-09-18)
Oakland, California, U.S.
Died February 28, 1977 (aged 71)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Show The Jack Benny Program
Station(s) NBC, CBS
Style Comedian
Country United States
Jack Benny, camel, and Eddie Anderson disembarking train in Los Angeles, 1943

Edmund Lincoln Anderson (September 18, 1905 – February 28, 1977), often known as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, was an American comic actor who became famous playing "Rochester van Jones" (usually known simply as "Rochester"), the valet to Jack Benny's eponymous title character on the long-running radio and television series The Jack Benny Program. Anderson also owned Burnt Cork, a Thoroughbred racehorse that ran in the 1943 Kentucky Derby.

Contents

Birth and early career

He was born in Oakland, California, USA on September 18, 1905, into a family of performers. Anderson began his show business career at age 14 in a song-and-dance act with his brother Cornelius and another performer. They billed themselves as the Three Black Aces. At a young age, Anderson permanently damaged his vocal cords (he had to yell loudly for his job selling newspapers), leading to his trademark "raspy" voice.

Benny's ordering of his "butler" and Anderson's responses (sometimes a resigned "Yes, Boss," but just as often a snappy joke at Benny's expense) were among the weekly highlights of the long-running show.

Anderson's role as a servant was common for black leads in the popular media of that era, such as Ethel Waters in Beulah. The stereotyping of blacks (or any ethnic group) had been standard practice in the entertainment business for generations. The relationship between Anderson and Benny became more complex and intimate as the years went by, with Rochester's role becoming both less stereotypical (in early episodes he carried a switchblade and shot craps) and less subservient (though he remained a butler), reflecting changing social attitudes toward blacks. According to Jack Benny's posthumous autobiography, Sunday Nights at Seven, the tone of racial humor surrounding Rochester declined as a conscious decision between Benny and the writing staff during World War II, once the enormity of the Holocaust was revealed. In short, Benny didn't find such humor funny anymore and he made an effort to erase it from the character of Rochester. The high esteem in which the two actors held each other was evident upon Benny's death in 1974, in which a tearful Anderson, interviewed for television, spoke of Benny with admiration and respect.

Benny was often protective of Anderson, and this led to conflict. For instance, in World War II, Benny toured with his show, but Rochester did not, because discrimination in the armed forces would have required separate living quarters. Interestingly, though, during performances of the radio program staged before armed forces audiences at bases and military hospitals, the appearance of Rochester routinely drew enthusiastic applause that arguably often outstripped that received by other members of the cast. Stateside, a similar incident was defused by Benny when, according to reporter Fredric W. Slater, Rochester was denied a room at the hotel that Benny and his staff were planning to staying in Saint Joseph, Missouri. When it was announced that Anderson could not stay there, Benny replied "If he doesn't stay here, neither do I." The hotel eventually allowed Anderson to remain as a guest.

Even though some of the humor was stereotypical, it was always done so that the racial element of the joke came from Anderson and no one else. For instance, when Jack takes a vacation, he takes Rochester along; but as a guest, not a servant, because Jack drives just as often as Rochester does. When they get to Yosemite to go skiing, Jack says "Don't wander off now, you're not used to being in the woods, you'll get lost in all the snow." Rochester replies "Who me?" Thus the race element of the joke was provided by Anderson.

Among the most highly-paid performers of his time, Anderson invested wisely and became extremely wealthy. Despite this, he was so strongly identified with the "Rochester" role that many listeners of the radio program mistakenly persisted in the belief that he was Benny's actual valet. One such listener drove Benny to distraction when he sent a scolding letter to Benny concerning Rochester's alleged pay, and then sent another letter to Anderson, which urged him to sue Benny. A similar letter came from a correspondent in the South who was angered that on an episode of the radio show where Benny was sparring with Anderson, that Benny allowed himself to be struck by Anderson. Benny retorted in a letter that it would not have been humorous the other way around.

How Rochester became Jack Benny's valet

Anderson's first appearance on the Jack Benny Show was on March 28, 1937. In this episode, Benny and his cast were traveling by train from Chicago back to California and Anderson (unnamed) was cast as a redcap. Anderson's first interaction with Benny was at the station in Chicago while they were boarding the train. On one of their two jokes, Benny said, "Here you are, redcap, here's fifty cents." Anderson replied, "This is a dime!" and Benny replied, "Look at your script, not the coin!" Benny later had an interaction with a different actor on the train, who laughed when Jack asked about when they would arrive in Albuquerque (indicating he had never heard of the place). In later years, Benny and Anderson referenced this conversation as having been between the two of them, and Anderson quipped, "Now if you'll give me my tip, I'll go home to my family."

Anderson appeared acting as Benny's valet on the June 20, 1937, show and, from that point onward, he appeared intermittently in that role; however, it would be several years before he would be mentioned at the start of the program as part of the cast.

Subsequent episodes gave different "origin stories" for Rochester. One radio show guest starred Amos n Andy and had them introduce Rochester to Benny as a valet in order to get out of trouble; a television show had Benny meeting Rochester when the latter was a porter on a railroad train; Benny is responsible for Rochester being fired and then hires him as a valet to make it up to him.

Personal life

In June 1939, Anderson married Mamie Wiggins Nelson, but after 15 years of marriage, Mamie died August 5, 1954, after a 2-year battle with cancer. Mamie was 42. At the time of her death, her son Billy (whom Eddie had adopted) was playing professional football for the Chicago Bears. Eddie Anderson remarried in 1955, to beauty Evangela 'Eva', the couple had two daughters Stephanie and Evangela Jr. ("Eva"), and son Edmund Jr.

Films

Anderson's film career debuted with George Cukor's "What Price Hollywood?" (1932), as 'James, Max's Butler', and appeared in dozens of Hollywood films through the 1930s & 1940's. In July 1939, Anderson appeared on screen for the first time with Radio boss Jack Benny, in the film, "Man About Town". The duo appeared in another few feature films, thereafter. In addition to his role with Benny, Anderson appeared in over 60 motion pictures, including "Jezebel" (1938) as 'Gros Bat', Capra's "You Can't Take It with You" (1938) as 'Donald', and 'Uncle Peter' in 1939's Gone with the Wind, among many others. He reprised his 'Rochester' role in Topper Returns, this time as Cosmo Topper's valet (though he jokes about 'Mr. Benny' in the film). Eddie Anderson's lead role in the all-star black Hollywood musical film, Vincent Minneli's debut film, Cabin in the Sky in his memorable performance as 'Joseph 'Little Joe' Jackson '.

Anderson, Benny, and the remaining cast members of The Jack Benny Show (Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson, and Mel Blanc) also provided their voices to the 1959 Warner Bros. cartoon The Mouse that Jack Built, directed by Robert McKimson. This cartoon portrays rodent versions of the show's characters. The real Jack Benny appears as himself at the end. Anderson's last feature film performance was as one of the taxi drivers in Stanley Kramer's 1963 classic comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

By 1972, he attempted a comeback with nightclub act in Houston which led to being cast in Broadway revival of "Good News" but was forced to resign due to bad health.

Death and legacy

Edmund Lincoln Anderson died of heart disease on February 28, 1977 at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Los Angeles, California.[1][2]

Anderson was buried in the historic Evergreen Cemetery (the oldest existing cemetery in the city), in Los Angeles, CA., among other entertainment notables Our Gang former child star Matthew "Stymie" Beard, actress Louise Beavers, the great balladeer Jesse Belvin, Animation pioneer Frank Braxton Jr., Blues musician Willie Egan, bass vocalist for The Coasters Bobby Nunn, activist/author/actor H. T. Tsiang, Silent film actress Ruth Hiatt, and Singer/songwriter Robert Nelson who teamed up with singer Earl Nelson as the duo, Bob & Earl ("Don't Ever Leave Me," "Baby It's Over," "I Can't Get Away", "Harlem Shuffle"), among others.

In a last philanthropic gesture, it was his intention to 'will' his sizable home after his passing. The house at 3553 South Western Ave. in Los Angeles, was to be used to house 'at-risk' substance sober-living residence for homeless substance abusers. Three decades after his death, The Eddie Rochester Anderson Foundation in Los Angeles ("The Rochester House"), helps troubled men transition into society.

The Rochester House opened its doors in 1989. It was dedicated in memory of the late Eddie Anderson, a true humanitarian, who knew what it was like to beat the odds when the mere dream of having a future, as an African American actor, was a chased rainbow rather than a “pot-of-gold’. His endeavor to succeed with much hard work and dedication enabled him to hurdle such obstacles in his path, branding him the pioneer in opening doors for minorities and others to follow.

Continuing in the direction of his father, “Eddie Anderson Jr.” established The Eddie “Rochester” Anderson Foundation. He has embraced the spirit of his father by impacting lives with a commitment of purpose as a soul existence. Since its inception, The Rochester House has had the pleasure of leading thousands of men and women to a life free from mind altering substances. Through direct involvement, clients have obtained employment, Mothers have regained custody of their children, and countless others have gone on to their rightful place in society. The participants have been able to step out into the world with a new found freedom and experience life with access, gratitude, and pride.

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson earned a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Radio, at 6513 Hollywood Blvd, in Hollywood, and in 2001 Anderson was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.

References

  1. ^ "Eddie Anderson, 71, Benny's Rochester. Gravel-Voiced Comedian Noted for 'What's That, Boss?' Line Played Valet for More Than 30 Years.". New York Times. March 1, 1977. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F50E1EFB3D5F137B93C3A91788D85F438785F9. Retrieved 2008-05-24. "Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, the gravel voiced comedian who played Jack Benny's valet for more than 30 years, died yesterday at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 71 years old and had been under treatment for a heart ailment since December."  
  2. ^ "Died". Time (magazine). March 14, 1977. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,947282,00.html. Retrieved 2008-05-24. "Eddie Anderson, 71, who played the late Jack Benny's hoarse, heckling valet Rochester on radio, TV, and film for more than 30 years; of heart disease; in Los Angeles. In 1937, Anderson made what was supposed to be a one-shot appearance on the Benny broadcast; the audience loved his drollery and he became a member of the cast. Anderson constantly deflated Benny's pomposity with a high-pitched, incredulous, "What's that, boss?""  

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