On Eddie Anderson, a Groundbreaking 1930s Star

By Kathy Fuller-Seeley

Eighty-one years ago, history was made in Harlem when the first elaborate Hollywood film premiere was held in the cultural capital of Black America. Paramount touted “Hollywood goes to Harlem!” as the studio sponsored twin world premieres of the film Buck Benny Rides Again — one at its flagship Paramount Theater in Manhattan (breaking all previous box office records), and the other held on the night before, on April 23, 1940, at the Loew’s Victoria Theater, a 2,400 seat picture palace located on 125th Street in Harlem, adjacent to the Apollo.

A conquering hero

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Jack Benny’s co-star in everything but actual billing, was given the “hail the conquering hero” treatment—an estimated 150,000 people lined the streets as Anderson and dignitaries paraded to the theater. Jack Benny, radio cast members, film director Mark Sandrich and Benny’s comic nemesis Fred Allen all appeared on stage to praise him. Anderson was honored with receptions at the Savoy Ballroom and the Theresa Hotel, and lauded by the nation’s black press.

Anderson’s role in the film as Jack’s valet “Rochester” carried over from radio, featuring witty retorts to the Boss’s egotistical vanities, croaked out in his distinctive, raspy voice. The role positioned him as one of the most prominent African-American performers of the era, despite—and because of—racial attitudes of the day.

Buck Benny was among the highest grossing movies of the year at the American box office in 1940. Throughout the nation, movie theaters billed the film on marquees as co-starring Benny and “Rochester.” In many theaters, especially African-American theaters in the South and across the nation, the billing put “Rochester’s” name first above the title. Anderson and Benny were named to the Schomburg Center Honor Roll for Race Relations for their public efforts to foster interracial understanding.

A new civil rights struggle

This moment before World War II  further raised the consciousness of a young generation of African-Americans to fight for civil rights, while racist white backlash coalesced to further limit black entertainers in American popular media. Anderson’s success caused him to be hailed as being a harbinger of a “new day” in interracial amity and new possibilities for black artistic, social, and economic achievement.

Recent commemorations of the 80th anniversaries of the release of several of classical Hollywood’s most iconic films include an exhibit at the University of Texas’s Ransom Center Archives on “The Making of Gone with the Wind.” Inescapable in discussion of GWTW’s impact is analysis of the shameful prohibitions in Atlanta, the South, and much of the nation against honoring the performance of actress Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy.

Depictions of black characters in the novel and film were the subject of continuing sharp criticism in the black community. Complicating the story of racism, racial attitudes and restrictive limits on representations of African-Americans in film and popular entertainment media in this era, however, is Anderson’s radio-fueled stardom.

A middle-aged dancer, singer, and comic who’d forged a regional career in West Coast vaudeville and mostly un-credited servant roles in Hollywood films, Anderson rocketed to stardom due to his role on Jack Benny’s Jell-O program, one of the top-rated comedy-variety programs on radio. It took the “inter-media” mixture of the two rival entertainment forms of film and broadcasting, along with the input of different decision makers (NBC, sponsor Jell-O, show creator and star Benny, Paramount director Mark Sandrich) to create this interstitial space to foster Anderson’s fame.

“Rochester” Speaks Truth to Power

Anderson’s “Rochester” role in his first years on Jack Benny’s radio program (1937-1938) had contained heavy doses of minstrel stereotypes—stealing, dice-playing, superstitions—but from the beginning the denigratory characteristics were counterbalanced by the character’s quick wit and irreverence for Benny’s authority, accentuated by his inimitable voice and the wonderful timing of his pert retorts and disgruntled, disbelieving “Come now!”  Rochester critiqued Benny’s every order and decision, with an informality of interracial interaction unusual in radio or film depictions of the day.

The radio show writers gave Rochester all the punchlines in his interactions with Benny. His lively bumptiousness raised his character above other, more stereotypical black characters. Rochester could appeal to a wide variety of listeners, as Mel Ely suggests of Amos n Andy. He always remained a loyal servant and had to follow Benny’s orders, so he was palatable to those listeners most resistant to social change. Yet, in a small way, Rochester spoke truth to power, and he was portrayed by an actual African-American actor, so he gained sympathy and affection among many black listeners.

Paramount had sought to translate Jack Benny’s radio popularity into film success for several years, but it was the creative ideas of Mark Sandrich that finally brought success. During the production of his first Benny movie, Man About Town (1939), Sandrich increasingly expanded Anderson’s small role to showcase the strong comic chemistry between Jack and Rochester. Its June 1939 premiere in Benny’s hometown, Waukegan, IL, drew 100,000 spectators to parades and radio broadcasts, and reviewers unanimously praised Anderson for “stealing the film” from Benny. While high-brow critics ranted that both these films were uncinematic, no more than filmed radio broadcasts, the public delighted in seeing the popular characters interact on screen.

Destroying the old myths

The success of Eddie Anderson’s co-starred films with Jack Benny fueled optimistic hopes in the black press that prejudiced racial attitudes could be softening in the white South. Rochester was hopefully opening a wedge to destroy the old myths that racist Southern whites refused to watch black performers, the myths to which film and radio producers so stubbornly clung. The Pittsburgh Courier lauded Anderson as a “goodwill ambassador” bringing a message of respectability and equality to whites in Hollywood and across the nation.

Eddie Anderson was perfectly positioned in 1940, through a stardom that merged radio and film, to represent that optimistic hope that perhaps race relations and opportunities for blacks were improving. The hurtful representations of blacks in the mass media of the past could finally be put aside, The California Eagle optimistically argued in an editorial:

    …two years ago American became conscious of a new thought in Negro comedy. It was really a revolution, for Jack Benny’s impudent butler-valet-chauffer, “Rochester Van Jones” said all the things which a fifty year tradition of the stage proclaimed that American audiences will not accept from a black man. Time and again, “Rochester” outwitted his employer, and the nation’s radio audiences rocked with mirth. Finally, “Rochester’ appeared with [Benny] in a motion picture – a picture in which he consumed just as footage as the star. The nation’s movie audiences rocked with mirth. So, it may well be that “Rochester” has given colored entertainers a new day and a new dignity on screen and radio.

Eddie Anderson’s cross-media and cross-racial stardom was very real in the U.S. popular media between 1940 and 1943. Unfortunately, a series of unforeseen events, and the growing political and social racial strife in the nation during the war, curtailed Anderson’s film career.

The later backlash

Paramount director Sandrich tired of the Benny-Anderson series, while Benny was lured to Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox studios to appear in adaptations of recent Broadway comic plays. MGM attempted to build Anderson into a more prominent star, featuring him in its all-star black cast dramatic­-musical production of Cabin in the Sky (Minnelli) with Lena Horne. Cabin was released in Summer 1943, just as race riots erupted in Detroit and other manufacturing and military base cities over labor strife. Timid film exhibitors did not promote Anderson’s film or his stardom for fear of sparking violence in their theatres.

Racist white backlash against blacks gaining footholds of integration and prominence in American public life began spreading across the South, and Anderson’s subsequent appearance in Brewster’s Millions (Dwan 1945) caused the film to be banned in Memphis for its portrayal of pleasant interracial interactions. Film producers no longer were willing to take a chance on him.

Anderson remained a major supporting character on the Jack Benny radio show in the postwar period and on Benny’s subsequent television program, and he remained beloved by white audiences. However, by war’s end, a new generation of vocal African­ American media critics increasingly called the entertainment media to task for their narrow depictions of African-African characters as servants and buffoons, Aunt Jemimas and Uncle Toms.

Despite his popularity, the black press considered Eddie Anderson a symbol of outmoded representations, and it reduced coverage of him to a minimum in the latter half of the 1940s.

Health problems dogged Anderson in the 1950s, and he ceased making the personal appearance tours to black theatre and nightclubs which had cemented his stardom in the African-American community. Although he remained the highest paid black performer on radio and television through the late 1950s, and a key member of the Jack Benny ensemble, the bright hopes of Eddie Anderson’s 1940 stardom were eclipsed.


Kathy Fuller-Seeley teaches media history at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s the author of “Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy” (University of California Press) and a new series “Jack Benny’s Lost Radio Broadcasts” (BearManor Media). Portions of this article have appeared in other forms, including in The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal.