“Oh, Rochester!”: A Radio Valet and His Subtle Influence on Civil Rights
By John C. Alsedek:
"Mr. Benny pays me so much a month, and then he points out the deductions: so much for insurance, so much for Social Security, an' what's left over is what they call 'take-home pay'
. . . Then he points out that I'm livin' in his home, so he takes it!"
The 1930s were a remarkable decade in the entertainment industry, as the rapid growth of radio and the invention of the "talkie" motion picture combined to expand audiences from however many would fit into an auditorium to over 125 million in the U.S. alone. The 1930s were also a decade of change in entertainment for another reason, and it pertained to how minorities (African Americans in particular) were portrayed in the business and received by the public. Yes, there would be and still is a long way to go. But there was progress. I mean, at the beginning of the 1930s, minstrel shows with performers in blackface were still common in parts of the country. By the end of it? Hattie McDaniel was winning an Oscar for Gone with the Wind. And a substantial share of that progress came in the unlikely form of a gravelly voiced valet named "Rochester."
Born Edmund Lincoln Anderson on September 18th, 1905, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson grew up in the Bay Area (first Oakland, then San Francisco). The son of a minstrel performer father ("Big Ed") and a tightrope-walker mother (Ella Mae), he dropped out of school at age 14 to work as an errand boy and a "newsie." In fact, it was while selling newspapers that he developed the gravelly voice that would serve him in such good stead in the future, as he ruptured his vocal cords from shouting at the top of his lungs.
Obsessed with show business from childhood, Anderson was an accomplished dancer by age 14, when he joined an all–African American revue troupe. He continued to add to his repertoire as he advanced through his teens, doing song, dance, and comedy with his brother Cornelius by the time he was 21. Anderson continued working the vaudeville circuit through the 1920s (even meeting his future boss, Jack Benny, in a chance encounter!), but with vaudeville on the decline, Anderson jumped over to the new kids: radio and film. For the most part, he played butlers and other servants, such as in the George Cukor picture What Price Hollywood? in 1932. But he would get his break of breaks on March 28th, 1937, when he appeared for the first time on The Jack Benny Program.
Anderson’s first appearance on Jack Benny’s hit radio show was also supposed to be his only one—just a one-off with Anderson playing a redcap who verbally sparred with Benny as he and the rest of the show’s cast boarded a train. But he had clearly made an impression with Benny, who brought him back (as different characters) twice over the next two months. Anderson also made an impression on radio audiences, who clamored for more of him. So, Benny made the fateful decision to write Anderson into the show on a full-time basis: he became "Rochester van Jones," Jack Benny’s faithful butler and valet. Rochester made his first appearance on June 20th, 1937, and in doing so became the first African American to become a regular on a national radio show.
The barbed, hilarious exchanges between Benny and Rochester (where Rochester frequently came out on top) soon became one of the highlights of the show, and Anderson quickly became second only to Benny himself in popularity on The Jack Benny Program. This led to a few interesting events, such as in 1940, when Anderson was invited to a Harvard University "smoker" (an informal social gathering), but students from the rival Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) "kidnapped" Anderson, which led to a full-on brawl between groups of students from the two schools!
Unfortunately, there were other, nastier incidents that showed just how far the U.S. had to go in terms of race relations. On multiple occasions while The Jack Benny Program was recording in different parts of the country, Anderson was denied a room at the hotel where Benny and the rest of the cast and crew were staying. Benny’s policy in these cases was simple: if Anderson couldn’t stay there, then neither would he. A famous example took place in New York City, when a southern couple raised such a stink with a hotel manager that he insisted Anderson check out the next day. Well, he did . . . and so did all 44 members of The Jack Benny Program cast and crew.
Anderson’s presence on The Jack Benny Program also had another important effect. Prior to Anderson joining the cast, the show had been very much par for the course in its depiction of African Americans as a bit shiftless and prone to weakness in terms of gambling, drinking, etc. The Jack Benny Program even did a minstrel-themed episode the year before Anderson’s arrival, which, while it would strike us as pretty damn racist today, was not at all unusual for the late 1930s. But the show began toning down those elements prior to World War II; if a racial joke was made, it was Anderson making it, and Benny eliminated racial humor almost completely following the war as the full extent of the Holocaust became clear. The interplay between Rochester and Benny from that point on wasn’t based on racial humor but rather the men’s personalities as set up on the show, such as Rochester’s fondness for going down to Central Avenue (the heart of Los Angeles’ African American community in the first half of the Twentieth Century) for drinks and Benny’s legendary cheapness.
And speaking of Central Avenue . . . away from the microphone, Anderson was an extremely civic-minded man. He ran for—and won—the unofficial title of "Mayor of Central Avenue," giving him the platform from which to speak up about affairs in L.A.’s Black community. He briefly owned a nightclub in the Central Avenue area, going out of business because of his great generosity in picking up peoples’ tabs. During World War II, he was the owner of the Pacific Parachute Company, which made chutes for the army, air force, and navy. He attempted to build the first integrated hotel in Las Vegas in 1948 but was unable to get enough financial backers. And on his death in 1977, he willed his expansive West Adams home to become The Rochester House, which provided shelter and resources for substance abusers to get off the street and eventually transition back into society.
When The Jack Benny Program moved to television in 1950, Anderson went along and stayed with the show until it went off the air in 1965. Combined with a movie career of more than 60 pictures (including starring in the all-Black musical Cabin in the Sky) and a keen eye for investments, Anderson ended up doing very well for himself financially, ending up on Ebony magazine’s list of the 100 wealthiest African Americans in 1962. And even after their show went off the air, Anderson and Benny still worked together on the occasional TV special, such as Jack Benny’s Bag and Jack Benny’s New Look, collaborating to subtly slip in dialogue that put their respective characters on equal terms. On Benny’s death in 1974, a tearful Anderson spoke of his great respect and admiration for Benny, who had started off as a boss and ended up as a lifelong friend. And between the two of them, they made a difference in the world.
A staple of first radio and then television for nearly a quarter-century, The Jack Benny Program launched numerous careers and changed the face of comedy in the process. We’ll be looking back at this pioneering show next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.