When I was a child, my mom’s clock radio was left on the 24 hour news station. Every night at I want to say nine, they would play old radio shows. Dramas, comedies—I remember catching the tail end of “A Bucketful of Air” once, and once a Tales of the Texas Rangers about botulism in home canning. And, sometimes, The Jack Benny Program. So I am familiar with the work that launched Eddie Anderson to fame, to the reason he’s credited in other movies as Rochester. Or Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Strangely, people assumed he actually was Jack Benny’s valet, even though he made enough from the show and invested it wisely enough to be incredibly wealthy.
It wasn’t always that way. He was the son of a vaudeville minstrel performer and a tightrope walker who was injured in a fall that ended her career. His voice came as the result of having damaged his vocal cords while working as a newsboy on the streets of San Francisco, across the bay from his native Oakland. He was a vaudeville performer himself, leading to one of those intriguing careers where a dancer became famous for working on the radio. His initial appearance on Jack Benny was supposed to be a one-time deal, but he was exceedingly popular with the audience, becoming the first black person to be a regular in a nationwide radio program; even Amos and Andy were voiced by two white guys at the time.
He was part of the all-star cast of Gone With the Wind. He ended his career with a cameo in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. He’s part of the inspired lunacy that is Topper Returns. He was also, along with last week’s honoree Butterfly McQueen, part of the all-black cast of Cabin in the Sky. And still there were people who assumed that he was being underpaid for working as Benny’s valet; someone even wrote and suggested that he sue.
In the real world, however, Anderson was doing quite well—and was well supported by the cast and crew of the show. When they’d tour, they would encounter hotels where Anderson was barred. When that happened, the entire cast and crew would check out unless Anderson was granted a room. As the show went on, the stereotypical nature of Rochester was reduced, to the point that a 1948 show that reused a 1941 script without editing caused outrage in some audience members for what it did to Rochester. Benny himself would refuse to have anything to do with people who mistreated Anderson because of his race.
During World War II, he owned a company that sold parachutes to the Army and Navy. After the war, he tried to get funding together to build a hotel in Las Vegas that would be integrated. In his will, he created a foundation intended to help reform substance abusers; the foundation would help at-risk homeless substance abusers. He was a horse trainer. He built his own race car. He was an accomplished sailor. He really seems to have been a fascinating guy who deserved more than just being a foil for Jack Benny. He also makes me wish Henry Louis Gates did Finding Your Roots for dead people, because I want to know if his belief that he was descended from slaves who escaped via the Underground Railroad is true.