Thursday, February 2, 2017

African Americans on Old Time Radio: Eddie Anderson's First Appearance on the Jack Benny Program (1937)

In my second entry in my African Americans on Old Time Radio, I am featuring Eddie Anderson, the great comic actor who was one of the key members of Jack Benny's show from 1937 until the end of its run.  He was known as Rochester, Jack Benny's valet.  However, he did not start that way.  This episode features his first appearance on the show in 1937 when there were almost no African Americans in national programs over the radio.

This year to celebrate National African American History Month in February, I am going highlight a new series on my blog.  This year, I will feature African Americans during the Golden Age of Radio - or Old Time Radio - during the 1930s through the 1950s.  I wanted to start this blog last year, but alas...better late than never.  I hope to have a great assortment of programs that showcase the great contributions of African Americans in mainstream radio when Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination were regular obstacles facing artists of color.

National Museum of American History (Washington DC) - July 29, 2015

National Museum of American History (Washington DC) - July 29, 2015

The Jack Benny Program was a national treasure and it is great that we have so many recordings.  Staring in the show was Jack Benny, a vaudeville performer who seemed to hit it big over the airways.  Mary Livingstone played second fiddle (no pun intended) to her real life husband.  She apparently had horrible stage fright, but hardly shows it as the straight person to many of Jack Benny's jokes.  Eddie Anderson played Rochester, Jack's valet and chauffeur.  He was one of the earliest African-Americans on mainstream radio and was one of the most loved characters on the show.  Don Wilson was the show announcer and did the commercials.  He was the constant butt of jokes, primarily about his weight.  Irish Tenor Dennis Day (who was on the 1948 show) also had a show of his own.  Besides being a 'dim bulb' in all the skits, he also sang a song on every episode.  Phil Harris (who also had a show of his own) was the bandleader and the joker on the show.  His real wife, Alice Faye would join him on the show as well.  The last big name was Mel Blanc (of Bugs Bunny fame).  Blanc (who ALSO had his own show) was one of the most famous character actors to play on the Jack Benny Show.  He is very commonly the floorwalkers for the Christmas episodes.  The shows are chock full of laughs, funny stories, corny jokes and great music.

Eddie Anderson (1905-1977) was a vaudeville actor, turned movie actor in the 1930s.  It was believed that his raspy voice was caused by yelling as a newspaper boy in San Francisco.  He was able to turn it a great characteristic that made him memorable on the silver screen and over the radio. While he started on the Jack Benny Program on this episode in a non-recurring role, his popularity got Jack Benny to think about another role.  Just a few months later on June 20, 1937, Eddie Anderson played his now famous role of Rochester the valet.

On March 28, 1937, Anderson played a train porter on his first appearance on the Jack Benny Show.  While his part was not that big, it was historic given the role that he would play in years to come.  Joining Anderson on the program were Jack Benny (of course), Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker and Andy Devine.  Anderson's first line is "Yes, Mr. Bunny." which makes sense, because it was broadcast on Easter Sunday.

One year later, the Associated Negro Press story about Eddie Anderson was published in the Pittsburgh Courier (excerpts below):

Radio's Famous "Rochester"
Eddie Anderson owes his present position as Jack Benny's "air valet" to his ability to leave the dinner table.  The bewildering Rochester, who exasperates his boss with his laziness and larceny each Sunday night over the NBC-Red network, might have been a jockey rather than a radio and screen comedian with a string of his own thoroughbreds if he'd practiced a little more restraint at mealtimes as a boy. Because Eddie decided that he preferred second helpings to spurs and saddle, he deserted the paddocks for the footlights at the age of 13.

It was during his vaudeville days in the East that Eddie firsts met Jack Benny.  They just shook hands - nothing more.  But Jack remembered Eddie's name as well as his act, a fact which was to pave the way to Anderson's eventual selection as "Rochester."
A born complement to the Benny type of comedy, Rochester never has to rehearse a line twice.  He is one actor on whom Jack can depend for sure-fire laughs, and is never caught off balance by any of the boss' "ad lib" cracke.  Possessed of a remarkable memory, Eddie usually knows his lines by heart at broadcast time and seldom refers to his script.
A rehearsals and script sessions, Eddie is usually very quiet, pays rapt attention to Benny, whom he idolizes.  If Jack smokes a cigar, Eddie lights one, too.  If jack tooks perturbed, Eddie's brow wrinkles also.  During the rest periods, he can usually be found in the vicinity of Phil Harris' orchestra "truckin" on down.
 Radio's Famous "Rochester" - The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950), City Edition; Pittsburgh, Pa. (From the Associated Negro Press) - November 12, 1938, page 6

And about that first role on the show - here is an account from a few years later.

Rochester Van Jones Rides High
Radio and Television Mirror (January 1940, p49)

He wasn't "Rochester" on that show, - just an unnamed porter.  But Eddie Anderson got laughs.  And like all people who get laughs the first time in radio, he came back.  Once as an elevator boy; once as "Pierre," the western waiter in Jack's "Buck Benny" series.  Then Jack decided to build a house in Beverly Hills.  If you know the Benny show, you know right away that every halfway important act in Jack Benny's personal life is gagged to the limit for the air.  The house was too good for [writers] Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin to pass up.  "What would certainly make you look funny as a householder," mused Bill, "is a butler."
I hope you enjoy this great episode from Jack Benny .

The Train Porter (The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny - March 28, 1937)

Here are some links to programs relating to Old Time Radio and Jack Benny:
African Americans on Old Time Radio:

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