How Rochester Helped Win The War

Eddie Anderson

Eddie Anderson was incredibly well suited for his role as second banana. This is reflected in the long term success of the Jack Benny Program, and the fact that Eddie was one of the best paid second bananas in Hollywood Radio. Although there were a few listeners who objected to someone of Eddie’s race achieving so much success, few could argue the fact that Eddie’s success, even beyond his Rochester character, was well earned. And well enjoyed.

Eddie was born into show business. His mother was a tightrope performer and his father performed in minstrel shows. His brother Cornelius was a song and dance man, a path Eddie probably would have followed if he had not ruptured his vocal cords as a boy. He could and did still dance, and he developed a terrific sense of comic timing to go with his gravel voice.

Rochester became one of the most recognizable and well loved characters on radio, and Eddie Anderson enjoyed the fruits of his success. He bought a large home for his family and became a leader in the Los Angeles area African American Community. When America became involved in WWII, Anderson was desperate to contribute whatever he could to the War Effort. He was unable to serve directly like some younger Hollywood and Radio stars. Whenever asked, he made himself available to entertain the troops, often along with the rest of Jack Benny‘s company. He invested his own money in War Bonds and worked tirelessly on Bond Drives, as well.

Early in the War, an opportunity came to Anderson which was of strategic and material import in winning the conflict. Aviation was always a dangerous business, especially military aviation. Nonetheless, it was of vital importance to America’s military effort. Eddie took flying lessons himself, and his was one of the voices that helped to establish the training program for the Tuskegee Airmen.

Rochester 1949

That would not be the end of Eddie’s involvement in aviation safety. Eddie had become friends with Howard “Skippy” Smith, a Daredevil and one of the rare African Americans, at the time, to hold a pilot’s certificate. Death defying skydiving performances were a prominent part of Skippy’s act, and over the years, he had learned “everything there is to know about parachutes”. With the expansion of military aviation, that knowledge took on strategic value.

Skippy approached Eddie with the idea of opening a parachute factory, and Anderson saw the potential in the enterprise. The newly formed business was located in San Diego, the hub of West Coast Aviation (the original building is still standing at 627 8th Ave, just a few blocks away from Petco Park.) Pacific started as a subcontractor for Standard Parachutes, but soon won government contracts of its own.

Skippy Smith oversaw the operations of the factory, but the used a mostly female, racially balanced, workforce. Most of the white and African American girls came to California to work in the aviation industry. From a start with twenty “White and colored girls” the workforce soon swelled to more than 200, approximately 1/3 white, 1/3 black, and 1/3 Mexican. Most of the girls received seamstress training under New Deal training programs.

Eddie Anderson, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Benny

It would be hard to determine just how many aviators and paratroops floated to safety under a canopy of Pacific Parachute Company silk. When the War ended, demand for their product evaporated, and the company closed its doors. During its existence, it was profitable for everyone involved, perhaps mostly for those airmen who had to put the parachutes to use.

Eddie Anderson‘s leadership in the African American community dwindled somewhat as younger voices came into their own. Eddie continued to enjoy the trappings of a successful Southern California businessman and media figure. He was an enthusiastic, if less than successful, with a stable of racing horses. He also owned and sailed a yacht from Long Beach Harbor.

One of his most notable engineering feats was the “Rochester Special”, a custom built sports car created in 1950. Perhaps as an extension of the aviation industry, Southern California was a hotbed for hotrod and race car design in the early fifties. The Rochester Special was one of the first cars to use a twin-tube frame. Powered by a 331 c.i. Cadillac engine, the car was in many ways a street-legal, two passenger Indy Car.

The car took two years to build, and campaigned successfully in SCCA events. Anderson enjoyed the car and drove it hard. So hard, that after 10 years, it was in need of a complete restoration. Work began in 1960, but with typical Rochester van Jones forgetfulness, Anderson defaulted on the bill. A mechanic’s lien was placed against the car, and it was traded for a Model A pick-up. The current owner of the car began a ground-up, no expense spared restoration in 2002.

Jack and Rochester
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