Vaudeville Vignettes: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (1947 - NBC promo)
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (1947 – NBC promo)

Born in California in 1905, Eddie came from a family of performers. His father was a minstrel and his mother was a tightrope walker until an accident took her out of the business. To help his family, Eddie sold newspapers as a child. Since the paperboys would yell loudly to compete for sales, Eddie permanently damaged his vocal cords, which gave him his trademark gravelly voice. Struck with the performing gene, at 14 years old he joined his older brother as part of a vaudeville group called “The Three Black Aces.” They would sing and dance in hotel lobbies for mere pennies. Eventually their hard work paid off and the troupe ended up at the famous Roxy and Apollo theaters in New York.

In 1937, Eddie went on The Jack Benny Program for what was supposed to be just a one-time role. Due to his energy with host Jack Benny and audience members writing in requesting his return, Eddie became a show regular. He took the character name of Rochester van Jones and became the first African-American to have a regular role on a nationwide radio program. When the program was picked up for television, Eddie naturally came along.

Jack Benny and Eddie had a solid friendship that extended past their performances. Jack refused to let anyone treat Eddie as a lesser person due to the color of his skin and ordered his writers to not use any racial stereotypes or slurs in their skits. Eddie broke down performance barriers by being a black man playing a black man in a time where blackface was still a common occurrence. He was respected for his talent and rewarded for his hard work. By 1942, he was earning $100,000 per year and working hard in his personal life to break down racial barriers. For his hard work, Eddie was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2001. Eddie also has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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