Notoriety as JFK mimic still follows Vaughn Meader

Monday, May 5, 2003

GULFPORT, Fla. -- Like most Americans who were alive at the time, Vaughn Meader remembers exactly where he was when he heard President John F. Kennedy was killed.

Meader, who got rich quick impersonating the president on a wildly successful comedy record album, was climbing into a cab in Milwaukee, Wis., to go do his Kennedy spoof at a Democratic Party event on Nov. 22, 1963.

"Did you hear what happened to Kennedy in Dallas?" the cab driver asked. Meader, figuring he was about to hear yet another Kennedy joke, replied, "No, how does it go?" An instant later, he learned the president was dead.

Suddenly not funny

Inextricably linked to Kennedy, Meader would never be the same. He skyrocketed to fame in 1962 poking fun at the much-beloved president, and suddenly it wasn't funny anymore. His record -- and a just-finished sequel -- was pulled from the shelves, the bookings stopped and his show biz friends quit calling. He was 27.

"It was character assassination," the 67-year-old Meader quips today. "I got a bum rap."

For 40 years, Meader has walked an uneasy line between trying to distance himself from "the Kennedy stuff" and using his one-hit-wonder status to try mostly unsuccessful comebacks with his original music and comedy. Meader -- the musician and songwriter -- has a small following of loyal fans, but to most people he'll never be more than an answer to a trivia question.

Abbott Vaughn Meader is alive but not very well these days, living in a small, two-bedroom clapboard house with his fourth wife, Sheila, near St. Petersburg. Slowed by chronic emphysema and other ailments, he sheds his oxygen tubes just long enough to puff a Kool out on the back porch or have a few rum-and-Cokes down at his favorite beach bar.

The bar regulars know who he is, but he isn't apt to volunteer much information about it. Gray, bearded and toothless, Abbott Meader -- as is he known now -- doesn't look anything like the pop-culture phenomenon who appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and was once kissed by Judy Garland.

He still sits down at the piano to play and sing for friends sometimes when he's got enough breath, but that isn't too often anymore.

Just thrown in

Born in Maine and reared in Boston, Meader was honing his musical comedy in the clubs of New York City's Greenwich Village in the early '60s when he threw in the Kennedy impression one night at the end of his gig. People loved it immediately.

Gifted at improvisation, Meader started doing mock press conferences as Kennedy, taking questions from the audience. He had to tweak his own New England accent only slightly.

After appearing on the "Celebrity Talent Scouts" TV show, Meader was recruited to play the president on a comedy album called "The First Family," poking gentle fun at JFK's wealth, large family and "vigah." Compared with today's bare-knuckled political humor, the satire was downright tame.

"The First Family" sold 1.2 million copies in two weeks in late 1962, on its way to selling 7.5 million. The fastest-selling record of its time, it won a Grammy for Album of the Year.

"I couldn't believe what it meant to people," Meader said. "I was just doing my act. I'm a singer and piano player. I just stumbled onto a voice."

The president was said to be amused, even picking up 100 copies of the album to give as Christmas gifts. He once opened a Democratic National Committee dinner by telling delegates: "Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself."

Meader has declined periodic offers to do JFK again on stage, saying that he's closed that chapter for good. He still refuses to do the voice, and plenty of people still ask.

The requests would make him angry, said longtime friend Billy Blinkhorn. "Vaughn Meader was dead, he would say. He's Abbott. Abbott is a singer and songwriter. Those are the laurels he wants to rest on."

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