Sunday 18 December 2022

A Brief Profile of Rochester and Eddie Anderson

There’s an episode of the Jack Benny radio show that opens with Rochester engaging in one of his duties—making breakfast for the boss. The problem is Rochester has eaten all the ham, eggs, bacon and waffles. His solution—pour milk over some beets and if Mr. Benny isn’t wearing his glasses, he’ll think it’s strawberries and cream.

The ruse is a success, to the delight of the studio audience (though the boss decides to skip breakfast).

Eddie Anderson’s character worked so well because he was supposedly put upon, but he always got the better of his employer. He smoked his cigars, read his diary, had parties where friends drank his booze, and could see through his BS about his age, romantic prowess and musical abilities. Listeners and viewers could identify with that, they like to think they’re superior to their boss.

There was more to it than that, as time progressed. Like the audience, Rochester liked his boss and occasionally would work in concert with him to pull off something. When television rolled around, you could see there was a friendship between the two.

Rochester was a little different than the other main characters. The very nature of the show meant it had to have a bandleader. It had to have an announcer. It had to have a vocalist. But it didn’t need to have an off-stage butler. But, as you can read in this light TV Guide profile from the edition covering the week of August 25, 1955, audiences wanted the Rochester character, so Benny found a place for one (though I’m personally sceptical Hilliard Marks played a role in it). Photos come from the article.

Jack Benny’s Man ‘Rochester’
He’s a Gravel-Voiced Comedian Who Rarely Uses His Real Name

On the Monday before five Negro actors assembled at in Hollywood to audition for a part as a Pullman porter in a Jack Benny radio broadcast. The script called for Benny, en route from New York to Los Angeles, to fret about the time the train would reach Albuquerque, N. M. For answering his fussy inquiries with the information that there was not, and never had been, an Albuquerque, the porter was to receive $50, the standard fee for reading a few jokes on one show.
Of the five aspirants, one or two actually had worked on Pullmans, and four had portrayed porters. The part, however, fell to the fifth man, a stocky, gravel-voiced 31-year-old singer and dancer named Eddie Anderson, whose only connection with trains was that occasionally—while touring in musical reviews—he overslept and missed one.
Anderson’s grunting of “Albuquerque! There you go again!” every time Benny stopped him in the aisle, drew such enthusiastic fan mail that he was brought into a later script as the waiter in a Western barroom, serving a tourist named Benny.
But Jack could not go on riding trains and dining out forever, so the writing staff (including Hilliard Marks, now associate producer of the Benny TV show) hit upon the device of moving Anderson into the Benny household. As Rochester Van Jones, a name concocted by Marks, Anderson became valet to the world-famous “miser.”
Until then, the chief feather in his cap had been the role of Noah in Warners’ 1935 version of “The Green Pastures”—“just a doll of a part,” he recalls. But “Rochester” was to turn him into an American institution.
Just how well-known Eddie has become in the past 18 years is attested by the fact that no one uses his real name. To waiters at the Hollywood Brown Derby, he is “Mr. Rochester.” When he signs an autograph, it is with a flowing “Rochester.” On the Queen Elizabeth, en route to the London Palladium with the rest of the Benny troupe four years ago, titled Englishmen vied for the privilege of getting into snapshots with “Mr. Rochester —Jack Benny’s man, y’know.” And a few months ago, in San Francisco, Anderson was approached on the street by an Oriental citizen who peered at him and asked respectfully: “Mr. Lochester?”
Anderson is in the unique and contradictory position of being a domestic servant who makes upwards of $75,000 a year, a set of circumstances he sometimes appreciates most expansively. His wardrobe for that trip abroad in 1951, according to a member of the Benny company, was a sartorial delight—a change of costume for every event in the voyager’s day. Eddie says he spent $25,000 on a custom-built sports car with which he once won a gold cup in a Chicago auto show. And, until two years ago, when his wife fell ill, he indulged a number of spectacular hobbies—a scale-model railroad in the basement of his four-bedroom-and-swimming- pool home in Los Angeles; a 36-foot cabin cruiser on which he made 500- mile fishing trips to Mexico; a private stable of nine horses which he raced at every track in the country until he sold them a few years ago.
One, Burnt Cork, ran in the 1943 Kentucky Derby, finishing last, a defeat soon avenged by another, False Clue, bought from Alfred Vanderbilt. One fine day at Del Mar, False Clue paid $239.40 for $2, a triumph that landed his owner in hot water with theatrical cronies. “I didn’t know the horse was running,” he says, “and when I walked in backstage, everybody like to cut me dead, because I didn’t tell them.”
One of four children, Anderson hawked newspapers and firewood on the streets of Oakland and San Francisco until, at 13, Fanchon and Marco discovered him singing for pennies in a hotel lobby. They put him in a vaudeville unit, but he toiled in many an obscure theatrical vineyard for the next 18 years. One road company he joined in 1924 had to pawn its scenery to meet a payroll of $1 a night for everybody, including the star.
Today Eddie shares his expansive Georgian house with his adopted son, Billy Anderson, and Billy’s wife and baby daughter. The late Mrs. Anderson’s son by a former marriage, Bill held the world’s record for high and low hurdles before he became a professional end for the Chicago Bears.
Since his wife’s death, Eddie has dropped the staff of servants he once maintained, as well as such one-time business interests as a share in a parachute factory. “With Mamie gone I’m sort of at loose ends,” he says. “About the only thing I’m interested in is producing a Western movie with a Negro cast. I’ve got a script about a colored marshal who really existed. This isn’t Gary-Cooper Western. It’s history.”

Anderson spoke for a number of years about producing but it doesn’t appear anything came about. He was still talking about it in an interview with the Copley News Service a year before he died at the Motion Picture Home in 1977, age 71, a little over two years after Benny’s death.

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