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Jack Benny & Rochester

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Jack Benny, perhaps one of true “Kings Of Comedy” was the protagonist on the show The Jack Benny Program. Every weekend night when I was young –perhaps the precursory to my film interests– I would listen to a broadcast of radio programs put on by KIRO. I was naive as a child, so I never paid much mind to Rochester’s role on the show. I just knew he remind me of depictions I had seen on television cartoons and Nick at Night. An overly eccentric, loud black man. Rochester was Benny’s valet, haven been given him a job when Benny accidentally got Rochester fired from his position as a Redcap on a train.

Edmund Lincoln Anderson, born in September 1905 was made famous by his portrayal of Rochester on the Jack Benny Program. Originally, Anderson was a performer. At 14, he started his career doing a song and dance routine with his brother. Rochester’s famous raspy voice was due to Anderson permanently damaging his vocal cords as a child (he sold newspapers).

Rochester, the popular character on The Jack Benny Show, at start was like any other black on television in the 1950′s. He played slave to Benny’s equally eccentric whims. Rochester didn’t mean to make no trouble for his ‘boss’ and even spoke with an articulation that could be compared to Uncle Remus ( Song of the South). Even though the issue of racial stereotypes were one-sided on Anderson’s behalf, the element of race was still there, and didn’t do much to deter depictions of Blacks. Even though its to be assumed that with the times, there would naturally be stereotypical, it was written so that the ‘punchline’ was delivered by Anderson himself, not Benny. The joke could be seen as offensive, but cushioned the blow, so to speak. Eventually, the relationship between Rochester and Benny changed on the show, Rochester becoming more on equal terms as Benny and less stereotypical.

Anderson’s and Benny’s off-stage relationship was along brothers, and Benny often backed Anderson when he was faced with obvious discrimination. Rochester at one point was denied a room at a hotel, yet the rest of the Benny Show cast was okayed. Benny stated that he would not stay there himself if Anderson was not allowed to. Eventually, the hotel owners were convinced and Anderson was allowed to stay. In World War II, Anderson didn’t tour with the show because he would have been required to stay in a separate quarters due to the discrimination in the armed forces at the time. Compared to many black entertainers at the time, Anderson saw himself as lucky and in an interview about Benny’s death in 1974, showed nothing but deep admiration and respect. Even though his role started out that of a form of stereotypical racial depiction, was far from it.


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Not nearly the same could be said for Ethel Waters in her role as Beulah. Ethel Waters was born as a result of a rape attack against her mother at age thirteen. Waters herself later married at the age of thirteen, but left him due to abuse. She then started working as a maid, but was discovered as a singer at a costume party. After her singing and acting career took off slightly, she was offered a role as the ‘mammy’ character in the television show Beulah. This went on for two years before she was replaced with Hattie McDaniel; the first Black actress to win an Academy Award, then in the same year by Louise Beavers; an actress in the 1920′s and 30′s who played traditional roles such as a maid or slave.

Beulah, although starring an African-American woman, met much backlash from groups such as the NAACP. They accused the show of perpetuating the overly used stereotypes, such as the ‘mammy’ character; an often crude depiction and term for a black woman who is the maid/mother figure for a white family. Beulah emitted a motherly warmth, that slightly contrasted her somewhat independent nature. Even is she was slightly acerbic with her neighbor and best friend Oriole (also a black maid for the family next door), she always showed great respect for her bosses, calling them “Mister Harry” or “Miss Alice”.

If someone were to describe what Beulah looked like, they would get the point across by just saying “Aunt Jemima. Its not hard to figure out just why Beulah was short-lived. Its also why its not hard to figure out why the original episodes have been destroyed, with one seven to survive. There were eighty-seven episodes in total.

Bill Cosby & I Spy

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Black characters were becoming more frequent, which created for more dynamic shows. I Spy, a show starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. It was clearly intended to capitalize on the popular interest in espionage dramas created by Sean Connery’s success in several James Bond features… (Wilson, 119). I Spy was the first dramatic series to co-star a black man. “Not since the demise of Harlem Detective in 1954 had television attempted to feature a black detective hero (Wilson 119).”

Bill Cosby had only acted minimally before, but even before he was given the job, he had high expectations. This was the first drama/action series to star a black man. The role as Alexander Scott could have very well been played by anyone; but there was refusal of using another white male actor. The issue of race never came up in the series. Scott was simply a partner to Robert Culp’s Kelly Robinson. Cosby was perfect for the role, winning three Emmy awards for his performances. NBC kept the show going, even though it was the twenty-ninth place in seasonal rankings. It wasn’t popular. Old-fashioned prejudices still ran rampant. It may have been groundbreaking, but that wouldn’t be realized till long after the show ended.

Since it was a show about spies, the two characters often traveled to exotic places such as Hong Kong, Kyoto, and Italy. Now, not only blacks were being shown more often, but racial minorities in general. Cosby even kissed an Asian Woman. Interracial relationships, let alone a kiss were still frowned upon, something you used to be lynched for. Cosby eventually stopped I Spy and had his own show starring him as a wealthy doctor, but undoubtedly wouldn’t have been given such an opportunity had NBC not originally cast him in I Spy.

Series Featuring Blacks as Stars or Co-Star Series with Continuing Support. Black Char.

I Spy ( 1965-1968) Sing Along With Mitch ( 1961 – 1966 )

Sammy Davis Jr. Show ( 1966-1973 ) Lawrence Welk Show ( 1964 – 1971)

Mission Impossible ( 1996 – 1973 ) Rawhide ( 1965 )

NYPD. ( 1967 – 1969) Hogan’s Heroes ( 1965 – 1970 )

Julia ( 1068 – 1971 ) Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In ( 1968 – 1973 )

The Mod Squad ( 1968- 1973) Star Trek ( 1966 – 1969 )

The Cosby Show was almost a mainstream version of Julia, an unrealistic look at black families, but comforting in the fact that it was uplifting, genuine, and harmless. Black families could be seen and socially accepted as upper class citizens, without backlash. Bill Cosby was proud of his African Heritage on the show, and often was vocal about it. Cosby didn’t act ‘black,’ but was far from being seen as an Oreo.

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