Wednesday, November 7, 2012

EDDIE ANDERSON: MORE THAN ROCHESTER


One of the most successful shows on radio and the earlier days of television was The Jack Benny Show. Jack Benny was a talented actor and comedian, but he will even admit that he owed his success to the great comic actors and actresses he surrounded himself with. One of the best supporting players on the show was the underrated Eddie Anderson. Even though today it looks dated to portray a black man servant, Anderson was never the butt of the jokes, Jack Benny was. Eddie Anderson was so much more than the Rochester character he portrayed for decades as well.

Anderson was born Edmund Lincoln Anderson on September 15, 1908 in Oakland, California. His father, "Big Ed" Anderson, was a minstrel performer, while his mother, Ella Mae, had been a tightrope walker until her career was ended by a fall. Anderson started in show business as part of an all African-American revue at age 14, later working in vaudeville with his brother, Cornelius. Anderson's vocal cords were ruptured when he was a youngster selling newspapers in San Francisco. The newsboys believed those who were able to shout the loudest sold the most papers. The permanent damage done to his vocal cords left him with the gravel voice familiar to both radio listeners and television viewers over a course of more than twenty years.

Anderson's first appearance on The Jack Benny Program was on March 28, 1937. He was originally hired to play the one-time role of a redcap on the Benny program. The Benny show received a large amount of mail about Anderson's appearances on the radio program; Benny decided to make him part of the cast as his butler and valet, Rochester van Jones. Neither Benny nor Anderson could recall how they came up with the name of Rochester for Anderson's character. Anderson always credited Benny for the invention of the Rochester van Jones name, saying that the name was copyrighted and that Benny later on sold it to him for a dollar.When Anderson became a regular member of the Benny show cast, he became the first African-American to have a regular role on a nationwide radio program.



Among the most highly-paid performers of his time, Anderson invested wisely and became extremely wealthy. Until the 1950s, Anderson was the highest paid African-American actor, receiving an annual salary of $100,000. In 1962, Anderson was on Ebony magazine's list of the 100 wealthiest African-Americans. Despite this, he was so strongly identified with the "Rochester" role that many listeners of the radio program mistakenly persisted in the belief that he was Benny's actual valet. One such listener drove Benny to distraction when he sent him a scolding letter concerning Rochester's alleged pay, and then sent another letter to Anderson, which urged him to sue Benny. In reality, Anderson did well enough to have his own valet.  A similar letter came from a correspondent in the South who was angered that on an episode of the radio show where Benny was sparring with Anderson, Benny allowed himself to be struck by Anderson. Benny retorted in a letter that it would not have been humorous the other way around. Anderson would appear with Jack Benny even after Benny's weekly series ended in 1965. Upon Benny's death in 1974, a tearful Anderson, interviewed for television, spoke of Benny with admiration and respect.



What a lot of people didn't know is Anderson had an astute business sense; in 1948, he saw the value and potential of Las Vegas as an entertainment center. With the idea of building and operating a hotel and casino there where African-Americans would be welcome, he asked for investors to join him in the venture. Anderson failed to attract enough people willing to invest, and he was unable to complete the plan. When the Moulin Rouge Hotel, an integrated hotel and casino, opened in 1955, Anderson was brought in for its opening. He expressed regret at the thought that the hotel might have been his if he had the further financial backing.



In 1932 Anderson married Mamie Wiggins Nelson. After 22 years of marriage, Mamie died August 5, 1954, after a two-year battle with cancer. Mamie was 43. At the time of her death, her son Billy (whom Eddie had adopted) was playing professional football for the Chicago Bears. Eddie Anderson married beauty Evangela 'Eva' Simon in Kingman, Arizona on February 8, 1956; the couple had three children: daughters Stephanie and Evangela Jr. ("Eva"), and son Edmund Jr. Eva and Anderson divorced in 1973 with Anderson retaining custody of his minor son and daughter.



Eddie Anderson died of heart disease on February 28, 1977 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Los Angeles, California. He was buried in Los Angeles in historic Evergreen Cemetery, the oldest existing cemetery in the city. In one last philanthropic gesture, it was his intention to will his sizable home after his death. The house at 1932 Rochester Cir. in Los Angeles, was to be used to house at-risk substance sober-living residence for homeless substance abusers. Three decades after his death, The Eddie Rochester Anderson Foundation in Los Angeles ("The Rochester House"), helps troubled men transition into society. The Rochester House opened its doors in 1989, and is dedicated in memory of Eddie Anderson.

Many African-American entertainers during the 1930s and 1940s were treatedly horribly by the industry. I am sure Eddie Anderson had his share of bigotry and injustice, but it is nice to hear how Eddie Anderson had a good career in the business and did a lot of wonderful things in addition to making people smile...



5 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I am a pro football historian. Do you know what happened to Billy Anderson, Rochester's son from his first marriage, who played for the Bears? Is he still alive? Thank you.
      Steve Jubyna
      SRJUBYNA@hotmail.com

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  2. As I was told Billy died in jail.

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  3. No, supposedly Billy Anderson is alive as of now and is 86 years old.

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  4. You could check on Billy Anderson via the NFL Player's Association. They should have info on him.

    ReplyDelete