JFK Impersonator JFK Impersonator

"The First Family" came out in late 1962,
poking gentle fun at Kennedy's wealth, large family, and "vigah".
It became the fastest-selling record of its time,
racking up 7.5 million copies
and winning the Grammy for album of the year.


Even the president was said to be amused,
picking up 100 copies of the album
to give as Christmas gifts.

A few months ago [2006] I discovered the existence of the album "The First Family" by comedien Vaughn Meader and excitedly ordered a copy. I had vague memories, from when I was twelve years old, of my mother and I laughing our heads off over JFK impersonations we heard on the radio and saw on the Ed Sullivan show. But I never realized, until the album arrived in the mail, that this is what we'd been listening to.

The day the album arrived I was home alone listening to it when my husband arrived from work and caught me laughing hysterically while peeling the potatoes. I didn't explain that it was a spoof until after it was over and he, the whole time, thought he was actually listening to JFK.

I explained to him that although this album is a comic impersonation of JFK, it is really what JFK was like - the same mannerisms, the same wit, the same accent, the same laugh, the same attitudes, the same everything!

He, having now heard this album, has a greater understanding of JFK's power, personality and issues than ever before, something he was lacking, having been born and raised in England.

For the benefit of readers I have transcribed the closing skit: JFK'S BEDTIME STORY which, although minus the audio, gives a good idea of the caliber of the satire.

And below is the story of the impersonator - Vaughn Meader - and how the album, "The First Family" came to be created. ~ Jackie Jura

The Kennedy Administration, and Presidential Impersonations on Radio
by Nicholas J. Cull

The autumn of 1962 was not kind to John F. Kennedy. First came the Cuban Missile Crisis, then the trial of off-year congressional elections. By late November a fresh menace made itself known. Arthur Schlesinger Jr, special assistant to the President, first identified the new threat. While driving to work one morning he chanced to tune in his car radio to what purported to be a presidential press conference. The first question was sensible enough:

- "Now that you are in office, what do you believe the chances are of a Jewish President?"

The reply startled him. A voice, which he reported to be 'unmistakeably' that of President Kennedy, replied:

- "Well, I think they're pretty good. Now let me say I don't see why a person of the Jewish faith can't be president of the United States. I know as a Catholic I could never vote for him, but other than that ..." [laughter and applause].

The broadcast was, to Schlesinger's relief, identified as an excerpt from 'The First Family' a recently released comedy album featuring the vocal skills of a twenty-six-year old Boston-born singer and mimic named Vaughn Meader.

The Origins of 'The First Family'

...In August 1962 two experienced television writers, Bob Booker and Earle Doud, decided to record an affectionate comedy album based on the Kennedy family. The basic concept was to take the 'rather remote movie star' figure of the president and humanize him to comic effect by placing him in ordinary situations such as a family dinner or buying gas. Any one of the several Kennedy impersonators on the comedy circuit could have breathed life into the project, but after seeing Meader's stage act in New York, Booker and Doud decided that they had found their man. They signed him for the project, auditioned for a suitable Jackie Kennedy and, on 22 October, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they recorded the disk.

As a former disk jockey, Booker was careful to structure the record so as to maximize air play. The script was assembled mostly from short segments, each brief enough to fit between commercial breaks. Some segments ran but ten seconds; others for thirty or sixty seconds. Booker also included a couple of five-minute pieces, as he later recalled: 'for the late night disk jockeys who needed to put something longer on to let them run out to the bathroom.' The format soon paid real dividends.

...In the six-and-a-half weeks following its release in November 1962, The First Family sold six-and-a-half million copies. At the time it was the best selling album in history. Booker's carefully crafted snippets could be heard on every radio station in the land....

Meanwhile, the record's producers were reviewing encouraging messages from the audience and White House alike. Booker received a phone call from a man he had never met: Merriman Smith, the senior member of the White House press corps and correspondent for the New York Times. Smith reported that the President had told him that he had taken a record player into the cabinet room and, to their great amusement, played what he called 'my record' for his assembled cabinet. Booker and Merriman Smith hit it off; over the next six months they spoke regularly on the phone. Through this channel Booker was able to gauge the President's feelings about his work. Booker soon learned that Kennedy had purchased one hundred copies to send out as Christmas gifts. Such good humour impressed observers in censor-bound Britain. Vincent Mulchrone wrote of The First Family in the Daily Mail:

"It's the sort of stuff the Lord Chamberlain would laugh at--and ban. The President has laughed and bought. There's hope for humanity yet."...

At his press conference on 12 December Kennedy publicly underscored his commitment to good humour. The questioner noted the 'heavy barrage of teasing and fun-poking and satire' being directed at the White House both in book form and the 'smash hit record' and asked:

- "Can you tell us whether you read and listen to any of these things, and whether they produce annoyment or enjoyment".

Kennedy answered:

- "Annoyment? No. Yes, I have read them and listened to them and I actually listened to Mr Meader's record but I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did, me--[laughter]--so he's annoyed."

...In 1963 'The First Family' was riding high. Meader, Booker and Doud took their show on the road. They opened at Carnegie Hall on 5 January and played across the country, honing the humour according to audience reactions as they went. The stage show developed the original concept, opening (after supporting acts) with a press conference monologue before a second half of sketches which included portrayals of Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, Ghanaian Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah and Harold Macmillan.

The show did well. There was talk of a First Family movie. In early January, Roland Reed, sometime producer of the Rocky Jones, Star Ranger serials, contacted the White House to ask for permission for this project. Salinger declined to comment either way. Rigid neutrality was official White House policy in such circumstances (though it had not been followed in the case of the authorized and reverent impersonation of the young Kennedy in Warner Brother's feature film PT-109). Meanwhile Kennedy and his speech writer, Theodore Sorenson, continued to use Meader's impersonations as a springboard for the 'famous' Kennedy 'wit'. A set of informal remarks drafted by Sorenson for a Democratic National Committee gala dinner early in 1963 had Kennedy open by saying: 'Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself'. He later referred to his 'brother, Senator Ted Kennedy' as 'the one who sounds like Vaughn Meader'. The joke now had a life of its own, beyond Meader or his writers Booker and Doud....

In his monumental "A Thousand Days" Schlesinger himself mentions Meader along with Art Buchwald and another satirist of life in Camelot, Eliot Reid. In Schlesinger's account, Kennedy's attitude is benign and even indulgent; satire yet another achievement of his presidency:

"...For Kennedy wit was the natural response to platitude and pomposity. . .His whole personal bearing communicated a delight in satire; and in his wake came an exuberant revival of American irreverence. . .Like muckraking, satire forced the nation to take a fresh look at itself and prepared the ground for change..."

...This humour lay in recognizing the similarities between the Vaughn Meader parody and the real JFK, ironically possible because the audience was secure in its certainty as to the differences. So long as the President was more than a collection of catch phrases and poses, everyone knew that the institution was healthy. It should be no surprise that Meader found an eager public. Moreover, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis it must have come as a great relief to see Kennedy as human, and be able to laugh about the man who had either taken the world to the brink of oblivion or snatched it back. The astonishing sales figures for The First Family were a sure indication of the scale of America's need in the late Autumn of 1962.

No Laughing Matter: 22 November 1963

...By November of 1963 Meader had netted some $700,000 from his album and with the sequel on the shelves with an excellent review from the New York Times, he seemed ideally placed to make excellent capital out of the impending election. Each new Kennedy flourish opened a new avenue for Meader's humour, and hence, when a Milwaukee taxi driver asked him whether he'd 'heard about the President in Dallas', Meader eagerly replied 'no'. Presuming he was about to get some fresh material he added: 'how does it go'. Despite his best efforts, Meader's career was tied to Kennedy's. While his humour was a psychological necessity in November 1962 it could not be tolerated in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, 22 November 1963. No one wanted to hear an impersonation of a dead President, especially not a President who died in such a way. It was the comedian Lenny Bruce who put it best. Some four nights after the assassination, he stood before a still sombre audience at the old Fox Theatre on the lower east side of New York, shuffled through the notes that he always carried on stage, looked at audience and said: 'Boy, did Vaughn Meader get fucked'.

Bob Booker heard about the assassination over lunch with Alan Ginsberg in New York. As a devoted admirer of the President he was shocked, but the shock was compounded by the spectacle of the immediate and frenzied scramble for Kennedy memorabilia. Booker was determined not to profit from the President's death. The day after the assassination he called Archie Bleyer at Cadence Records, requesting he recall the entire pressing of The First Family--Volume Two. The record was recalled and broken up at a depot in New Jersey.

Booker and Doud went on to other things, but not Meader. In 1997 Meader spoke openly to Andrew Goldman of Boston Magazine about his life after the assassination. Goldman writes:

"When Meader walked the streets of New York, people reacted as if they'd seen a ghost. Elderly matrons walked up to him, tears streaming down their faces. Construction workers lay down their pneumatic drills and approached him, taking his hands in theirs, saying, 'I'm sorry'. The public wished to commemorate their dead President, and while Meader had been the beneficiary of the needs of 1962, he was the victim of the needs of 1963. Through him, America was getting the open casket. . . .Through him, Americans could pay their respects to their slain President live and in person. Meader's place in the record books for the fastest selling album of all time fell to a compilation of old Kennedy speeches."

The Kennedy icon sprang from the wrenching double loss of a man who was both distant enough to be idealised and intimate enough to be loved. This conjunction of distance and intimacy was complete by the autumn of 1963. It was a conjunction that lay at the heart of the humour of The First Family. The album succeeded because America needed to feel closer to Jack Kennedy. In succeeding The First Family perpetuated both distance and intimacy in the minds of its listeners, hence, it was part of a powerful legacy. Taken together the media explorations of Kennedy sharpened the sense of loss in November 1963. That loss was certainly too profound to tolerate satire....

Meader's career never recovered from the Kennedy assassination. He lurched between drink, drugs, broken marriages and comebacks. In the late 1960s he tried an album based around an imagined second coming of Christ. The piece ended with Jesus rejected afresh by his public, sitting dejected on Christmas day while a chorus of homeless people sing him 'Happy Birthday'. It did not go down well with the public. In 1975 he appeared briefly in the movie Lepke as the tabloid journalist Walter Winchell. In 1976 he was featured, naked, as a preacher in a low budget soft porn movie: Linda Lovelace for President. In 1980 his home town of Waterville, Massachusetts, elected him to the Democratic Party state convention as a delegate for Senator Edward Kennedy. On that occasion Meader quipped to The Boston Globe: 'I feel like the Rip Van Winkle of politics'. In 1994 Meader released one more album on a small New England label, entitled: The Last Word. The disk was an ironic confluence of his most popular and least popular work; a sustained satire on the Bible, in which God, Jesus, Moses and all the other characters speak with a voice that is unmistakeably that of JFK. It did not sell well.

~ end quoting The Origins of The First Family by Cull ~

The Sad Tragic Fate of JFK Impersonator Vaughn Neader, by dsiegel, Nov 22, 2013
Abbott Vaughn Meader was the Guinness World Record-holder for the fastest-selling album of all time. His album of John F Kennedy satire, "The First Family", amazingly sold a million copies during its first two weeks of release in 1962. Meader, then in his late 20s, was overwhelmed with critical accolades as well. "The First Family" won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963 -- as he appeared on national TV like Ed Sullivan Show and The Andy Williams Show while only in his late 20s...

watch Vaughn Meader, on "To Tell the Truth" (with "First Family" actress Naomi Brossart), January 7, 1963, YouTube

watch VAUGHN MEADER (as JFK), "The First Family -- Press Conference", 1962, YouTube

watch Vaughan Meader on Andy Williams Show, YouTube

watch Vaughn Meader Impersonating JFK, YouTube

listen Vaughn Meader: The First Family, Volume 1: Part 1/5 and Part 2/5 and Part 3/5 and Part 4/5 and Part 5/5, YouTube



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Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

email: orwelltoday@gmail.com
website: www.orwelltoday.com