Yesterday's Magazette

7 – Radio Voices

The Radio Voices Of Our Lives

Eddie Anderson Achieved Lasting Fame

By Marshall J. Cook

His voice was unmistakable, his sparring with his boss hilarious.

We knew him as Rochester, Jack Benny’s gravel-voiced valet and butler, whose verbal bantering often got the better of the boss. He was actor Eddie Anderson and his portrayal of Rochester was way ahead of its time.

RochesterEdmund Lincoln Anderson was born in 1905 in Oakland, California to a family of performers. His dad, a minstrel, was known as Big Ed Anderson, and his mother, Ella May Anderson, was a circus tightrope walker.

Young Eddie damaged his vocal cords hawking newspapers as a kid (paralleling another radio immortal, Andy Devine), but his screechy voice didn’t prevent him from joining the family business. He began his performing career at age 14 with a song and dance act with brother Cornelius and another performer as “The Three Black Aces.”

They started out singing for pennies in hotel lobbies but soon moved up to the big time in clubs in New York and Los Angeles. Anderson landed a small roll as Noah in the 1936 movie The Green Pastures, and his career was firmly launched.

But he achieved true lasting fame beginning with his first appearance with Jack Benny, on the Easter Edition of The Jack Benny Program on March 28, 1937. In the skit, Benny and the rest of his cast are traveling by train from Chicago to California. Anderson plays an unnamed redcap. He first interacts with Benny in Chicago, as the star is boarding the train.

Benny: “Here you go, redcap. Here’s fifty cents.”

Anderson: “This is a dime!”

Benny: “Look at your script, not the coin!”

He next emerged as Benny’s valet on the June 20, 1937 broadcast, appearing intermittently in the role for several years before being mentioned by announcer Don Wilson in the lineup of regulars at the start of each show.

His part became more and more central to the show, and by the end of World War II Rochester was second only to Benny himself in popularity with audiences and had replaced Mary Livingston as Benny’s primary foil.

In the beginning, his character drew on the racial stereotypes of the day, Rochester displaying a strong penchant for gambling and chasing women. But the relationship between butler and boss grew increasingly complex and Rochester’s character less stereotypical, with Rochester frequently getting the best of Benny in their verbal jousts.

When the program toured, Anderson’s Rochester was an audience favorite. When he was denied a room at a hotel in Saint Joseph, Missouri, Benny issued an ultimatum: “If he doesn’t stay here, neither do I.” They both stayed.

When the program made a successfully transition to television, Anderson/Rochester went with it. For awhile the show appeared on both media, until the radio show finally ended its long run on May 22, 1955. Anderson wound up staying with Benny for 23 years.

The versatile Anderson also appeared in over 60 movies, including Gone With the Wind. He played lead opposite Ethel Waters in Vincente Minnelli’s all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943) and was Cosmo Topper’s valet in Topper Returns.

He was highly paid for his work, invested wisely, and became wealthy. Still, many radio listeners persisted in believing that he was really Benny’s valet. The two were in fact friends, and  a tearful Anderson spoke of his admiration and respect for his old boss when Benny died in 1974.

Before Anderson died of heart disease in 1977, he directed that his large home at 1932 Rochester Circle in Los Angeles be used as a residence for homeless substance abusers. Through The Eddie Rochester Anderson Foundation, run by Rochester’s son, Eddie, Jr., “The Rochester House” opened its doors in 1989 as a transitional living home offering vocational rehab and drug and alcohol support services.

Along with helping to launch Eddie Anderson as a star, the Benny Program featured a number of other voices who would make a lasting mark on the entertainment industry and the culture. Frank Nelson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Benny’s wife, Mary Livingston, and others comprised one of the finest radio ensemble casts ever assembled.

But one stands out above all the rest, the man responsible for giving voice to Benny’s French violin teacher, a Mexican peasant named “Sy,” the train announcer, even Benny’s parrot and his ancient Maxwell car. His name was Mel Blanc.

Vol. 39 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – 2012

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