Jack Benny is the man who made Rochester famous.
Well, in reality, Benny made “Rochester” famous. “Rochester van Jones” was the name of Benny’s fictional Black valet for nearly 30 years on the popular radio and television show “The Jack Benny Program.”
Rochester was played by Eddie Anderson, a former Vaudeville singer-dancer-comedian. When Anderson joined the Benny program in 1937, he became the first Black actor to have a regular role on a nationally broadcast radio show. Anderson soon became so popular as Rochester that he was for years the highest-paid Black actor in Hollywood.
His Rochester was not the stereotypical submissive Black character that had so often been cast in movies, radio and television. Rochester was skilled at taking the show’s pompous Benny character down a notch or two with a well-timed zinger. He was often portrayed as more warm-hearted than Benny, and was usually one step ahead of his boss in seeing trouble and solutions up ahead.
But what, if any, was the connection to Rochester, the city?
That, ladies and gentlemen of the listening audience, remains a mystery.
Anderson claimed that it was Benny who coined the unlikely name of Rochester van Jones. A moniker comprising a British-Dutch-American conglomeration? Benny, in turn, said he had no idea where the name came from. Of course, Benny, who was born Benjamin Kubelsky into a Jewish family in Chicago, was adept at coming up with new names.
Anderson, a California native, had no known connection to either Rochester, N.Y., or Rochester, Minn., and had never used “Rochester” as a nickname.
Benny, however, was, at least later in life, quite familiar with our Rochester. Like many celebrities, he was a Mayo Clinic patient. When he started coming to Mayo is not immediately available, but he was here in 1962 for a checkup, and stayed at the Kahler Hotel, according to the Post Bulletin.
Benny’s program had moved from radio to television in 1950, giving Anderson’s Rochester an even wider audience. Anderson’s gravelly voice, the result of injured vocal chords when he was 12 years old, became a staple of the first golden age of television sitcoms.
By the mid-’60s, though, Benny’s program was losing ground in the ratings, and NBC announced that it would cancel the show at the end of the 1964-65 season.
It was about that time, April 9, 1965, that Benny arrived in Rochester to perform a benefit concert for the Rochester Symphony Orchestra. When he was still Benjamin Kubelsky, Benny’s parents had wanted him to become a concert violinist. He studied hard enough and practiced long enough to eventually become quite skilled at the instrument. But the violin often played second fiddle as a prop in his comedy sketches.
And that’s how his concert with the Rochester orchestra on April 10 that year began — with jokes and comedy routines. The crowd of 1,400 at Mayo Civic Auditorium was in stitches. Then Benny, 71, got serious and joined the orchestra for a program of classics, perhaps surprising many who witnessed the concert.
During that visit to Rochester, Benny was given a key to the city by Mayor Alex Smekta. No word on if Benny ever shared that key with the city’s most famous namesake, Rochester van Jones.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.