benny

On The Jack Benny Program, the character of Rochester is an all-singing, all-dancing, wisecracking trope-a-palooza. He is actually Mr. Benny’s servant, or valet/chauffeur, as he was officially called, though he performed domestic duties from vacuuming to hair and makeup for Mr. Benny to making lunch and sometimes selling sandwiches to the show’s fictional crew in elaborate comedic gags. On the program, which began on radio and then expanded to television, there was no veiled subservience or implied power differential between Jack and Rochester. It’s right out there in the open, and sometimes it’s tap dancing.

Rochester speaks (and sings) in a gravelly timbre not unlike that of jazz great Louis Armstrong. He mugs for the camera as he shaves Jack with a straight razor, and yet he is also portrayed as a dear friend and confidante, as well as a worthy verbal sparring partner who often gets the better of his gobsmacked employer. He went on strike on one episode of the TV show, and on another, Rochester fell asleep and missed the show entirely.

On paper, those two scenarios sound like the creations of white writers finding lazy humor in the stereotype of black people as, well, lazy. And while it is true that early Rochester scenes operated under the cloud of racist tropes and attitudes, progress was made swiftly and significantly in making him a man first, and not a caricature.

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Eddie Anderson made his first appearance, as a train porter in a travel sketch, on The Jack Benny Program in 1937, after it had already been on the air for a few years. The conceit of the show was a meta-show-within-a-show, with Mr. Benny playing a heightened version of “Jack Benny.” The scenes and musical numbers fluctuated between what was/would be on his show, “rehearsals” for it, and what happened in his “real” (slightly fictionalized) life. Many of the relationships portrayed on the show mirrored those Mr. Benny had in real life, most notably his casting of his wife Sadie Marks in the role of Mary Livingstone, a catch-all female scene partner who was portrayed as an assistant of sorts, as well as a date for Mr. Benny, and, in one fantasy sequence, his TV wife.

Mr. Anderson bounced around in similar fashion, playing whatever role was needed, until the idea of a regular valet character was introduced. The character was named Rochester, and the rest is history. Literal history, as it turns out; Eddie Anderson became the first black actor to be a series regular on a national radio program.

When The Jack Benny Program made the leap to television in 1949, Rochester went with it and his role got even bigger. Mary Livingstone was originally intended to be the main character opposite Jack, but Sadie was a rare performer whose stage fright got worse as her career went on, and she reduced her role because of it, leaving Rochester as the standout star under Mr. Benny. An early predecessor of attitudinal black housekeepers everywhere, Rochester often had a quip for his boss, cracking on Mr. Benny’s famed persona as a cheapskate, but he still referred to him as “Mr. Benny” or “Boss” and never crossed over into vitriol.

Beyond the character’s domestic duties, Rochester was more than just a punchline partner. In one episode, Jack says that Rochester is his greatest critic, and he often emphasizes how important Rochester’s honest critique is to him.

An easy rapport was a prerequisite for the show, which included a large cast of recurring players in minor roles, as well as the actual biggest Hollywood stars visiting for guest spots. Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and Bob Hope are just a few names that come to mind, and in the midst of such luminaries Rochester always held it down. The two men shared scenes with more than ease; it was an almost familial comfort. Through the many misunderstandings they had, for all of the fine messes they got themselves into and out of and into again, theirs was a special friendship indeed.

A moment between takes with the boss and Marilyn.

The previous sentence could easily have been read in a standard Morgan Freeman voice; I know. That tone is intentional. Such is the hackneyed nature of the good ol’ black servant who is much closer to his crotchety white employer than his job title would suggest, such as when Mr. Freeman himself drove Miss Daisy. Sometimes I just get so exhausted of seeing a black person playing a domestic servant that I almost don’t care how much heart he has, but Rochester never fails to make me smile, which is why he transcends the trope.

When I watch and listen to the old Jack Benny programs, I truly adore Rochester. The jokes hold up today, at least to my old-school sensibility. And even the servile humor and the dated references are still far more humorous than they ever are cringeworthy, which is more than I can say for some of my other faves of the era.

The dignity afforded Rochester by his semi-fictional boss was an extension of the dignity afforded Eddie Anderson by Jack Benny. The duo performed together on radio, television, and on live tours for more than thirty years. When they traveled together, special care was taken to deal with our more racially segregated states, including hotel accommodations and itineraries themselves.

Driving Mr. Benny in their final TV scene together.

As was the case with so many of our performers working in mainstream entertainment in the early decades of the 1900s, you played a servant or you often didn’t get to play at all. When evaluating that time, I try to hate the game, not the player. As Rochester, Eddie Anderson went from the minstrel circuit and bit parts to being a bona fide Hollywood star. He may have played a servant, but he left behind a huge legacy. Like a boss.

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