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Ezra ‘Speed’ Anderson, owner of iconic hot dog trailer, dies at 94

Ezra “Speed” Anderson’s sold his award-winning hot dogs in Newmarket Square for many years.
Ezra “Speed” Anderson’s sold his award-winning hot dogs in Newmarket Square for many years.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file 2004

Customers stood patiently at Boston Speed’s Famous Hot Dog Wagon in Newmarket Square – 10, 20, sometimes 30 people in a row. The line moved slowly as Ezra Anderson stood grilling half-pound hot dogs, one after another.

He slathered each dog with sauces of his own making, made from recipes only he knew. Lunch was anything but fast, but when customers tasted one of “Speed” Anderson’s 8-inch, all-beef hot dogs the wait was worth every minute.

“People would always ask me, ‘What’s so good about your hot dog? What’s better about this dog than the one I had at the state fair?’ And then they get a look and take a taste and say, ‘I’ve never had a hot dog like a Speed Dog,’ ” Mr. Anderson told the Globe in 2003.

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A pioneering African-American DJ on Boston’s radio stations, he turned to making hot dogs full-time in his 50s and became an institution whose creations were treasured by connoisseurs and featured in national magazines. Mr. Anderson, who lived in Framingham, died Tuesday. He was 94.

His nickname had nothing to do with the pace of his work, which was precise, measured, and stately — not that customers minded. “People would have their knitting. Some people would read books,” said his wife, Audrey. “People were so patient and never rushed, and Speed never rushed. He made you feel that he made it special for you.”

“Speed” also wasn’t a sly comment on his leisurely commute along the Massachusetts Turnpike from Framingham to Newmarket Square as he towed his hot dog wagon into the city. “On the Pike he drove really slow,” his wife said. That could be infuriating for drivers behind him, but handy for fans. When Mr. Anderson set up shop, aficionados spread the word by phone, and the notification chain started early if someone spotted him on the Mass. Pike. “There was a whole communication up and down the Pike when he was working,” his wife said.

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Mr. Anderson, she said, became known as Speed in his days as a high school athlete in Virginia. “He was an avid basketball player and ran track,” his wife said. “That’s really where he got his name ‘Speed.’ He was so good and fast. He was a great athlete and that followed him.”

The nickname became Mr. Anderson’s on-air name during his years in radio in the 1950s on into the early ’70s. At a time when there were virtually no African-American announcers in Boston’s radio market, he played jazz on overnight shifts.

In the late 1950s, he was on the radio station known then as WVDA-AM with a show sponsored by White House Coffee. He also was a DJ when the station became WEZE-AM, and at one point, one of Mr. Anderson’s programs aired nationally.

When Mr. Anderson was on the air, he drew praise from critics who were puzzled when he was absent. “Wasn’t that Speed Anderson we recently heard early one morning on WHDH? It’s been about nine years since he was on Boston radio, and with his excellent taste in jazz music, I wish he were returning to the air,” the Globe’s William Buchanan wrote in 1968.

Reporters were just as fond of Mr. Anderson after he started cooking full time. In 2001, when he had been selling hot dogs for more than a quarter century, the Globe’s Tony Rosenfield described a visit to the Famous Hot Dog Wagon: “The 80-year-old Anderson cooks two dogs at a time, doing the final grilling of each to order. With a rhythmic tap, he cuts the dogs, slathers on that homemade mustard, chili, and barbecue sauce (“better than ketchup”), and two hungry people walk away with lunch. Most of the customers are men, large men, who patiently rock back and forth. They treat Speed as their Emeril, oohing and ahhing at his every move.”

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The older of two siblings, Ezra Dewey Anderson grew up in Richmond, Va.

In 1955, he married Audrey Elizabeth Crawley. “We grew up in the same town,” she said. “It was quite a love story. He was a great husband.”

Earlier in his life, Mr. Anderson considered becoming a lawyer, and he attended the University of Minnesota and Ithaca College, his wife said.

“He was such a nice guy, he really was,” she said. “He was friendly, had great sense of humor, never complained, and everyone liked him. He read his Bible every night.”

Mr. Anderson also “was a great storyteller,” his wife said. “He had a lot of experiences in his life and he shared them with people. He wrote a lot as well. He wrote about life itself. He wrote about experiences that he had and what he thought about them. He always said he was going to turn it into a book.”

The response to hot dogs he cooked for softball games and other community activities convinced Mr. Anderson to try running a stand. A friend fixed up his first trailer and he started selling his wares in Newmarket Square in 1975. His hours could vary, though usually he was open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, unless the weather was harsh.

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Over the years, he was featured in Bon Appetit and Details magazines, and Boston Magazine bestowed a “Best Of” award on his hot dogs three times. The Phantom Gourmet called Mr. Anderson a “Hidden Jewel.”

Then in early 2003, an axle broke on his hot dog trailer, which caught fire and exploded while being towed. At first, it seemed as if he was out of business, because an insurance company offered a settlement far less than the cost to replace his stand. Then donors, anonymous and otherwise, contributed enough to put him back on the road. “I won’t ask who,” he told the Globe the following year. “As they used to say, I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Anderson leaves a daughter, Marcia of Framingham.

A funeral will be held at 7 p.m. Monday in Greater Framingham Community Church in Framingham.

“I liked everything about it,” Mr. Anderson said in a 2003 Globe interview about his hot dog stand. “It was exciting. I could put everything I had in it. It was showmanship.”

And the end result was a meal that took two hands to hold. Mr. Anderson was so generous with his sauce that one customer wore surgical gloves to spare his work clothes.

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“Once you’ve had a Speed Dog,” a customer said in 2004, “everything else is second-rate.”

Mr. Anderson “never complained and everyone liked him,” his wife said.
Mr. Anderson “never complained and everyone liked him,” his wife said.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2000

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.