JFK FIRST FAMILY COMEDY STORY
When asked, over the years, how he felt about his strange career.
Vaughn Meader seems just as confused as everybody else.
"It just happened", he says.
"Magic. You know, you can't explain it --
just all the pieces came together at just the right time.
I mean, how did the Beatles happen, how does anything happen?
And unfortunately, how did the other thing happen,
how did the conspiracy, or whatever it was, happen?
How did the end happen?"
A few weeks ago I had an email discussion with Bob Booker, the writer and producer of the fastest-selling record in the history of America -- the 1962 comedic album THE FIRST FAMILY starring Vaughn Meader impersonating JFK. See REMEMBERING VAUGHN MEADER AS JFK.
I asked Bob Booker if he had any anecdotes about Vaughn Meader or the making of the album that he would like to share with ORWELL TODAY readers. While waiting for his response, I discovered the existence of a 50th anniversary edition of THE FIRST FAMILY and THE FIRST FAMILY VOLUME TWO comprised of three CD's and a booklet written by Bob Booker telling the whole story. I ordered the set on-line and it arrived within a couple of weeks.
I also discovered a booklet called THE FIRST FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM comprising photos from the making of THE FIRST FAMILY and ordered that on-line too.
Below I've scanned covers and transcribed passages from the CDs and the two booklets and -- at pertinent passages -- inserted photos from other books in my JFK collection.
All the best,
Fifty years ago, in the summer of August, 1962, one year after moving to what I considered "The Mecca", Manhattan, I was working as a disc jockey on New York's #1 radio station, WINS, and occasinally as a TV spokesperson or game show host. This was my first good year of my "New York Ambitions". Also, I was writing with Earle Doud, from Mamaroneck, New York, who came into the city daily by jitney so we could work together in my second floor apartment that most accurately can be described as a dump -- a one bedroom dust heap, with a living room and an item of furniture that must have been called a sofa in some other decade, a couple of chairs, a desk and portable typewriter...
Everyone was talking about our new President, JFK. He had a tremendous sense of humour. Late night shows were filled with Teddy & Bobby & Jack & Jackie jokes. There was a Kennedy coloring book on the market. So, we thought, here is a man who was more than just a president. He was a movie star president -- handsome, glib, and, thus, a great target for humor.... I think it was my familiarity with comedy in record form that caused me one day to say, "Why don't we make a Kennedy album".
Jack Kennedy was not only a President, he was also a matinee idol -- an extremely wealthy man, and handsome. JFK was probably the biggest star in America, perhaps in the world. We took that larger than life figure and decided to put him in everyday situations, the classic "fish out of water" comedic form that had been successful for hundreds of years. That was it! We decided immediately that positively, there would not be one distasteful joke, not a single attack on him or his family, and no politics whatsoever! Neither Doud nor I were a member of either political party and that was a plus....
Within three weeks we had a least 75 to 100 pages of material.... At the same time, as luck would have it, both Doud and I happened to see an unknown, young comic that week on "Talent Scouts". His name was Vaughn Meader, who in the last few minutes of his act did a sensational impression of JFK. We talked to him after a show in the Village one evening that week. Vaughn was from Boston, so the Kennedy-esque accent came easy to him. We got in touch with his agent the next day. Not to bore you with details, we made a deal with Meader for THE FIRST FAMILY, plus an option for a second volume with the belief that the first one would work.
We then started a search for the remainder of the cast. The most difficult voice to find was that of Jackie Kennedy. A friend at CBS got me a 16mm copy of the famous documentary that Mrs Kennedy did in 1962, TOUR OF THE WHITE HOUSE. We listened at length to her voice.... We played it or part of it for any of the women who came to audition. One young girl, actually the very last one, whose only credit seemed to be that of dancer at the NY Copacabana and appearances in a few TV commercials, seemed to "get it" the quickest. Her name was Naomi Brossart. She was definitely Jackie, so we hired her.
The talent deals were an unbelivable story. We offered each performer, their choice, either $500 in cash when the album was made or 2-cents an album when (and if) it sold. Without exception each cast member chose the $500 in cash. In fact, our attorney, Richard Asher (who eventually became President & CEO of the EMI Music & Record Empire in Europe) said that he did not "gamble on client earnings", so also took the $500. To this day Asher reminds me that he gave up a quarter of a million dollars in royalties for the $500 in hand. This is true. The only person who received a 2-cent royalty was Meader because we insisted on it, knowing full well if THE FIRST FAMILY was a hit, he would cause us grave problems. Even with the royalty, though, we still had problems with him down the road....
So we booked Fine Recording Studios on 57th Street, and sent out invitations that would bring us a non-professional audience of about 250 people -- no comics, no agents, no pros who at the end of a joke say "that's funny" rather than laugh. We wanted real people.
The question of the design for the album cover came up. I believed all along that the most identifiable symbol of THE FIRST FAMILY was The White House, and that should be the background of whatever the cover should be. I borrowed a speed graphic camera from a friend who gave me four 4X5 negatives to shoot. I flew to D.C., took a cab, was dropped in the front of the White House.... I jumped out, went to the fence, stuck the lens through the slats, focused, and without even looking through the eyepiece, I pointed the camera and took my last shot.... Then I had the idea that we take a photo of the major cast members together on a large lawn in Central Park, and drop them onto the lawn of the White House. A fashion photographer friend of mine did the cast shot for me in trade for a credit on the album. I can't tell you how proud I was that the album received a Grammy nomination for Best Album Cover. We didn't win, but the nomination was honor enough as far as I was concerned....
On October 22nd, 1962 I was watching and listening to a speech on a small television in the rehearsal hall of a recording studio on 57th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in New York City. The voice was undeniably that of John Kennedy:
"Good evening my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet Military build-up on the island of Cuba".
It was 7:00pm, and JFK was making the most important speech of his life warning the American people that the presence of Soviet missiles on the island of Cuba could have dire consequences for all concerned. To those of us listening we thought this is the beginning of a war with the Soviets and Castro in Cuba.
Down the hall were 250 people who had gathered to listen to a young, unknown comedian named Vaughn Meader, supported by a cast of eleven other actors (including Doud and me) who were about to record our album, THE FIRST FAMILY. If they had heard the President's speech, our comedy album could be a disaster.
A half-hour later we were in the adjacent studio, cast on stage, tape rolling, and Meader and Naomi were earning their laughs. It was not only sensational, it was better than expected. It was live, one take, one fantastic recording. We did not have to do a second take on anything....
The first product showed up at Cadence on the 12th of November 1962. This meant we had about 43 days until Christmas.... Still a disc jockey at WINS, I took my copy #1 of the album immediately to the station located at Columbus Circle on the west side of New York. My friend, Stan Z Burns, one of the most popular disc jockeys in New York, was going on the air at 1pm. It was about 12:45 when I got there and gave him the album. He gave it a quick listen and couldn't believe what he was hearing. He hit the air following the one o'clock news with the first cut and the telphones lit up. He played the second track; every phone in the station lit up. Now Stan did something that I had never heard of in all my years in radio -- he played the album for his entire show, nothing else, just THE FIRST FAMILY, not once, but for his entire three hours! Audience reaction was overwhelming. Associated Press, other radio and television stations, even columnists were calling in. Stan Z Burns broke this album, single handedly; why not, at that moment he had the only copy in any radio station in America. By the time Doud and I got to other stations with their copies, they already knew about THE FIRST FAMILY. Every disc jockey in town -- be they Rock 'n' Roll, Top 40, Country, even news station -- were playing the album. That explosion in New York spread like wildfire throughout the radio, television and news companies from coast to coast in less than a few hours.
Lightening had struck! It was what we called "this year's Hula Hoop". THE FIRST FAMILY was that particular item you wanted to be the first in your neighborhood to own. Yes, it was funny (or so we thought), but it was our Rubik's Cube, our Angry Birds, if I may....
To make a long story short, Bob Mack had one to every single pressing plant in America. So, by the end of the week, the only album in America under production was THE FIRST FAMILY. We were selling more than a million a week, which was as many as all the pressing plants could handle....
I knew for a fact that Kennedy loved the album. Let me explain how. The album had been out less than two weeks when I received a call. The voice on the other end said, "This is Merriman Smith" (he was the Senior White House correspondent). He knew that I knew exactly who he was because I responded with, "What a pleasure to meet you over the phone"! Smith said, "I just had to tell you this; it's one of the funniest things I have ever seen in all my years as a journalist but, as we say in my business 'this is totally off the record'". I agreed, and he continued, laughing as he told me the story.
Merriman continued; "The President had a meeting with his cabinet this morning and I was there. They assesmbled, he came in and did his morning welcome, ran down his agenda and then said, 'But first, before we begin -- and he opens up a record player, picks up a copy of your album -- which, by the way, he called 'My Album'...actually what he said was, 'I'd like for you to hear my album'".
I said, "Are you kidding me?"
Merriman said, "Bob, that's not all...he plays both sides of it. We sat there for a half-hour or so, and of course every time Jack laughed, everyone else laughed! There was applause in the room when it ended!" I hope I'm not bothering you, but I just absolutely had to tell you".
I said, "Merriman, you have not only made my day, you've made my month! My God, I can't believe it!"
And he cut in with, "I know there's been some negativism from Pierre and Schlesinger and some of those guys, but Jack doesn't listen to all that. You've made a human being out of him. He loves it and I'm still laughing at it, too.
I thanked him a couple of thousand times, he gave me his number and asked that I stay in touch.
Merriman and I spoke regularly "off the record". The next call I received from him was on December 12th. I picked up the phone, he said, "Bob -- Merriman here. Get to a TV by 7pm. He's going to talk about your album at his press conference!"
"Are you kidding me, how do you know that?", I asked.
He explained that the press cannot ask a question regarding a commercial product without submitting the question and asking for permission to ask it. If it weren't that way, hell, they'd be asking him what he thinks of the new Cadillac".
That made sense. I thanked him again, and at seven o'clock, as I was recording the press conference, I waited until I heard (and I have no idea who the question came from), "It's been a long time since a President and his family have been subjected to such a heavy barrage of teasing, and fun poking and satire. There's been books on BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITEHOUSE, cartoon books with clever sayings, photo albums with balloons and the rest, and, now a smash hit record. "Can you tell us if you read and listen to these things and whether they produce annoyment or enjoyment?"
The President replied, laughing, "Yes, I have read them and listened to them. Actually I listened to Mr Meader's record, but I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me. So he's annoyed!" The laughter from the press corps was enormous.
This turned into a "runner" on TV because the next day they approached "brother Teddy" to ask if he had heard the album and he said he had...but he thought it sounded more like Bobby...whether they got to Bobby the following day, I'm not certain. But, I'm positive of this; the promotion from the President (and his brother) probably helped sell another million albums. I called Merriman to thank him for the tip on the press conference and he then tells me that he knows that Kennedy has bought a hundred copies of the album to give as Christmas Gifts; "He still calls it 'my album'".
Album sales were running in excess of a million copies a week. THE FIRST FAMILY was number one on every chart in America, and sales were brisk worldwide. Suddenly we were in every column of every newspaper in America, plus NEWSWEEK, LIFE MAGAZINE, TIME...you name it....
The album came on the market, November 13th 1962. Within three weeks we had sold three million copies. It was the fastest and largest selling album in the history of the record industry. We were going into the GUINNESS BOOK OF RECORDS and ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA YEARBOOK (the first album ever). THE FIRST FAMILY was only the eighth album ever to received a Gold Record -- when you think that the #7 Gold Record of all time was MY FAIR LADY (which had taken more than 2 years of sales to accomplish what we had accomlished in a single week) it was truthfully mind boggling....
So, what to do next? We were getting requests for live appearances of the cast -- they'd already appeared on the Jack Paar Prime-Time Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. I thought we could put together a show with material from the album starring Vaughn Meader and Naomi Brossart, and do one-nighters across the country. GAC (General Artists Corporation -- a major New York theatrical agency) jumped at that and offered to set up a countrywide tour.... THE FIRST FAMILY starring Vaughn Meader opened its national tour to a SRO audience at Carnegie Hall on the night of January 5th, 1963 amidst a three week old newspaper strike in New York City, and a major blizzard in the city. From there we went to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston...and on and on across America.
The first thing we decided was to develop new material -- the enormous exposure of the album on radio during the past six weeks (the most widely broadcast album in the history of the industry) and the fact that most members of our audience owned and listened to it dozens of times themselves, made this a necessity. We wrote and added new pieces daily. This move was doubly smart because it also gave us the opportunity to "audience test" new material, which eventually became VOLUME TWO.
During the tour we made plans to record VOLUME TWO while we still had some "heat" in the record stores. When we approached Meader he informed us that he was tired of "doing Kennedy" (he didn't want to get stuck the rest of his life doing Kennedy), and wanted to go back to "his act". I told him, quite simply, "Vaughn, you don't have an act. You never had an act. You had a couple of jokes, but you don't have an act!" Additionally, I informed him that we had a contract for a second album. Cut to the chase; we sued him while he was starring in our touring company, withheld all payments to him and reluctantly, he changed his mind. So when we were able to take a week off from the tour, everyone came back to New York to record VOLUME TWO, which was not a very pleasant experience.... I didn't expect it, but the session came off without a hitch. We threw a giant party afterwards for the entire audience and cast. But my best surprise was yet to come. I didn't expect this, but Vaughn came over to me at the party and said, "You were right; it's a better album than the first one". I said "I know. Thank you". And that possibly was the last conversation I had with him for years, maybe as long as 10 to 15 years...
The VOLUME TWO album came out a few weeks later and, naturaly, did not take off at a million copies a week, nor did we expect it to be as big as the first. We hit the charts with it, instantly selling 190,000 copies in the first week -- that's more than a half-million dollars in sales! On May 18th 1963 at the Sixth Annual Grammy Awards presentation held at the Astor Hotel in Times Square...THE FIRST FAMILY VOLUME TWO was nominated in three categories: ALBUM OF THE YEAR, BEST COMEDY ALBUM and BEST ALBUM COVER. We won two out of three.
The horrific news of Kennedy's assassination came to me over lunch with friends Alan Ginsberg and Bob Dylan while in New York. I raced back to my office on the way making the decision that we were not going to profit from the frenzied scramble for Kennedy memorabilia already afoot. I got Bleyer on the phone at Cadence and suggested we withdraw and destroy every copy of both albums so as not to "cash in". He agreed. The records were recalled and broken up at a depot in New Jersey that week....
The master tapes for THE FIRST FAMILY, both albums, have found their final home exactly where I always believed they should be. They are housed and on display at the President John F Kennedy Library in Boston with my personal thanks and gratitude to a great American, Caroline Kennedy. And with them, a Gold Album I had made for the Kennedy family.
~ end quoting from Bob Booker ~
Excerpts from THE FIRST FAMILY bonus Disc 3 (including passage at top of page):
From a BBC interview: "The relationship between Meader and Kennedy became almost symbiotic. Far from trying to suppress the record Kennedy even took a question about it at a press conference....and this is how he answered: "Actually I listened to Mr Meaders's record but I thought he sounded more like Teddy than it did me". Meader was most appreciative, the statement alone sold another million records.... In fact, Meader wrote a thank-you letter to the President. Both men's futures looked bright indeed. In a sense, they were joined at the hip."
watch The Wit of JFK (mentions Mr Meader)
TO THE WHITE HOUSE
I thank you most sincerely for your kind mention at Wednesday's press conference. Someday soon I hope I get the privilege to meet you in person and thank you in person.
All good wishes for your continued good health and that of your family.
Interview of Meader's son: "My father, son of Irish immigrants, never recovered from JFK's assassination. Years later, despite the protests of his children, he would continue to play THE FIRST FAMILY late at night. For many Irish Americans, to whom JFK's inauguration was a symbol of that ethnic group's triumph in America, he was desperately trying to recapture a moment that had been lost. It was when poking harmless fun at Jack Kennedy was still a viable option. But the moment was gone forever.
JFK FIRST FAMILY COMEDY STORY
REMEMBERING VAUGHN MEADER AS JFK
listen JACKIE JURA INTERVIEW ON JFK 50TH
JFK'S HOME LIFE AT WHITE HOUSE
JFK & JACKIE SHINING CAMELOT
JFK & JACKIE CUBAN MISSILE LOVE STORY
JFK, JACKIE & BABY PATRICK
LITTLE SOLDIER JOHN-JOHN SALUTED JFK
listen JACKIE JURA INTERVIEW MURDER OF JFK
VAUGHN MEADER MADE JFK LAUGH
JFK'S BEDTIME STORY
JFK LIKED HIS IMPERSONATOR
JACKIE'S TOUR & JFK'S FUNERAL
JFK'S CASTLE WAS CAMELOT
JFK TRUTHS & UNTRUTHS and JFK ASSASSINATION PUZZLE PIECES
JFK & RFK EMAIL FROM READERS
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