Spotlight on Eddie “Rochester” Anderson
Several years ago, long before I was lucky enough to have TCM, a local station started airing episodes of the The Jack Benny Program. Instantly, I was smitten with the pecunious, perpetually 39 years old Jack and his quick witted cast-mates, the snarky Mary Livingstone, the daffy Dennis Day and the sensible Rochester van Jones played so perfectly by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Little did I know that I would develop a lifelong love of Benny and his cast; so much so that when the What a Character Blogathon , hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club and Once Upon a Screen, returned I knew just who I had to write about – Mr. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was born in 1905 and entered show business at the young age of 14. A childhood job selling newspapers on the streets of San Francisco led to a vocal cord rupture causing him to a have a distinct vocal style for the rest of his life.
After years on the vaudeville circuit and bit parts in movies Anderson first appeared on the Jack Benny Radio show in 1937. Although portraying a stereotypical train porter he managed to deliver some of the biggest laughs of the show. After a second appearance as a waiter his contributions proved to be so popular that he soon became a regular cast member, portraying Benny’s butler/valet/chauffeur/confidant/right hand man and, let’s face it, BFF Rochester van Jones.
In the beginning, Anderson’s role was typical of the time and featured numerous stereotypical jokes. As a fan of the show, I must admit some of these performances are painful to listen to. Luckily, Jack Benny eventually realized this and in the 1940’s decided he would no longer allow such jokes to be performed. Although the character of Rochester remained Benny’s employee he clearly was the smarter, more sensible of the two and often delivered some of the shows best lines.
In fact, Rochester proved to be one of the popular members of the cast and regularly received the loudest cheers when he delivered his lines. Anderson and Benny’s pairing proved to be so popular that they continued in multiple films and TV’s The Jack Benny Program.
Throughout his tenure with Benny, Anderson continued his film career with appearances in numerous movies including You Can’t Take It With You, Jezebel and Gone With the Wind and in 1943 he landed the lead role in Vincent Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky.
In the film Anderson portrays Little Joe Jackson, a gambler torn between Heaven and Hell. Supported by the great Ethel Waters and Lena Horne it’s a wonderful musical filled with fantastic songs performed by the leads.
Although a box office hit, it’s a rare lead role for Anderson due to the racial politics of the time. Unfortunately, most of his roles were stereotypical members of the service trade.
Though he often portrayed porters, butlers and chauffeurs, Anderson was actually one of the most successful men in show business. Thanks to an incredible business acumen he found success in a variety of fields, most notably horse racing. He owned a number of racehorses and after retiring from the industry worked for many years as a trainer at Hollywood Park Racetrack.
As for his relationship with Jack Benny their friendship endured until the latter’s death in 1974.
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was a talented performer who managed to transcend the racial politics of the era. Whether it was singing or dancing, drama or comedy he could do it all with ease. He was a supreme talent who remains one of my favorite performers. What a Character!