Vaughn Meader: Wikis

  
  

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Vaughn Meader (center, right) featured on the cover of The First Family, 1962

Abbott Vaughn Meader (March 20, 1936 – October 29, 2004) was an American comedian and impersonator whose achievement of fame with The First Family album spoofing President John F. Kennedy was equalled only by his obscurity after Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

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Early life

Meader was born in Waterville, Maine, during one of the worst floods ever to hit New England (he often said he was born on "the night the West Bridge washed out"). He was the only child of Charles Vaughn Meader, a millworker, and Mary Ellen Abbott. After his father broke his neck in a diving accident and drowned when Meader was only eighteen months old, his mother moved to Boston to work as a cocktail waitress, leaving Meader behind with relatives. A sometimes unruly and troubled child, Meader was sent to live with his mother in Boston at the age of five, but she had become alcohol-dependent and placed him in a children's home. After shuttling among several schools in Massachusetts and Maine, Meader eventually graduated from Brookline High School in Boston in 1953. He enlisted in the United States Army, and while stationed in Mannheim, West Germany, as a laboratory technician, he formed a country music band (the Rhine Rangers) with fellow soldiers, later adding impressions of popular singers to his repertoire. Meader married the German-born Vera Heller in 1955.[1]

Meader began his career in entertainment as a singer and piano player. Upon his return from Germany, he began a stand-up comedy act in New York City, where he discovered his skill at impersonating Kennedy. With his New England accent naturally close to Kennedy's familiar (and often parodied) Harvard accent, he needed to adjust his voice only slightly to sound almost exactly like the President. Meader also mastered the facial expressions that allowed him to bear a passable resemblance to Kennedy.

The First Family

On October 22, 1962, Meader joined writers Bob Booker and Earle Doud and a small cast of entertainers and recorded The First Family, which would become the fastest-selling record in the history of the United States. By that Christmas, one million copies of the album had been sold; by the following year, it had sold an astonishing 7.5 million copies—unprecedented for any album, let alone a comedy album.

Vaughn Meader in a publicity photo for The First Family

Still in his 20s, Meader was suddenly famous, rich, and in constant demand. He was profiled in Time and Life magazines, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and played to packed houses in Las Vegas.

At the time, many Americans could recite favorite lines from the record (including "the rubber schwan [swan] is mine," and "move ahead ... with great vigah [vigor]," the latter lampooning the President's own words). The album poked fun at Kennedy's PT-109 history; the rocking chairs he used for his back pain; the Kennedy clan's well-known athleticism, football games and family togetherness; children in the White House; and Jackie Kennedy's soft-spoken nature and her redecoration of the White House; among many other bits of knowledge that the public voraciously consumed.

The parody was fairly good-natured. Kennedy himself was said to have given copies of the album as Christmas gifts, and once greeted a Democratic National Committee group by saying, "Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself."[2] At one press conference, Kennedy was asked if the album had produced "annoyment [sic] or enjoyment." He jokingly responded, "I listened to Mr. Meader's record and, frankly, I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me. So, now he's annoyed."[3] Other sources, such as Thomas C. Reeves' A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy, state that Kennedy was upset with the parodies, and that Jacqueline Kennedy was furious, even demanding that the President keep Meader off radio and television.

Meader later revealed, "A lot of people don't know this, but we recorded The First Family on the night of October 22, 1962, the same night as John F. Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis Speech. The audience was in the studio and had no idea of the drama that was taking place. But the cast had heard the speech and our throats almost dropped to our toes, because if the audience had heard the Cuban Missile Speech, we would not have received the reaction we did."

The First Family album won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963. That March, Meader recorded a follow-up album, The First Family Volume Two, a combination of spoken comedy and songs performed by actors and comedians portraying members of the President's family and White House staff. The sequel was slated for release before Christmas, 1963.

Assassination aftermath

After John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, sales of The First Family albums plummeted, and stores removed the records from their shelves as the nation went into mourning. A JFK-related Christmas single by Meader was released by Verve Records shortly before the assassination; it was quickly withdrawn. Meader and others commented through the years that the assassin's bullet killed not only Kennedy, but also Meader (or, Meader's career). His act was no longer in demand and even appearances that were already booked—including those for the Grammy Awards show, the Joey Bishop show, and To Tell the Truth—were canceled.

According to several sources, avant-garde comedian Lenny Bruce appeared at a New York nightclub the day of Kennedy's assassination. As if testing his audience's readiness to find something funny so soon after tragedy, Bruce was silent for several moments before announcing, "Vaughn Meader is screwed!" [4] Certainly, Meader discovered that he was so completely typecast as a Kennedy impersonator that he could not find anyone willing to hire him for any of his other talents. He recorded comedy albums for Verve Records, including sketches on almost anything except the Kennedys, but sales were virtually nonexistent.

Meader sank into depression as employment was virtually non-existent, and income evaporated, and newfound friends and associates stopped calling. His non-Kennedy albums and act interested almost no one, because the public associated his face and voice with the late President. He began using his given name, Abbott, and vowed to never again do a Kennedy impersonation (a vow he kept until his death). He also began using alcohol, cocaine, and heroin.

Later life

Meader tried several times to revive his career, but achieved only moderate success, and then mostly outside of show business. He appeared briefly in the 1974 movie Linda Lovelace for President and on the 1981 Rich Little comedy album, The First Family Rides Again, which both parodied Ronald Reagan and paid homage to the original The First Family album. Both the Kennedy and Reagan First Family albums were produced by Earle Doud.

Eventually, Meader resumed a career in bluegrass and country music, becoming a popular local performer in his native Maine.

Meader was married four times, the last for 16 years to wife Sheila, until his death. The couple lived briefly in Gulfport, Florida, from 1999 to 2002, but eventually returned to Maine.

Legacy

Especially after Meader's death days before the 2004 Presidential election, he has been credited by some as having broken new ground in the area of political humor, particularly in impersonations of the President of the United States [1]. Such inspiration can be seen through comedians such as Jim Morris and Rich Little, not to mention many political sketches on Saturday Night Live and comedy CDs by impressionist Paul Shanklin.

In July 2006, nearly two years after Meader's death, the independent documentary First Impersonator premiered at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville, Maine, Meader's birth town[2]. The film chronicles Meader's life and death, his rise to fame and equally famous fall, and his influence on political impersonators today.

References

  1. ^ John A. Drobnicki, Meader, (Abbott) Vaughn," in The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s (Scribner's, 2003), Vol. 2, p. 68.
  2. ^ "washingtonpost.com". Vaughn Meader, Satirist of Kennedy Family, Dies. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14717-2004Oct31.html. Retrieved April 3 2006.  
  3. ^ Clip from JFK: As It Happened, broadcast on the A&E network November 22, 1988
  4. ^ "New York Press". http://www.nypress.com/print.cfm?content_id=11451. Retrieved 2008-10-18.  

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