Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sounding Presidential

Vaughn Meader was born on this day in 1936 in Waterville, Maine.

Meader was a moderately successful if obscure cabaret performer who specialized in composing song parodies and delivering humorous political monologues when, during one evening's performance, he donned his native New England accent to mimic then President John F. Kennedy. Despite the fact that the idea of portraying a sitting president in humorous vignettes was at that time unheard of, the result was a raging local stage hit, leading to a recording contract and a wildly popular humor album, The First Family (1962) -- at one time the fastest-selling record of all time. Meader effectively poked at Kennedy's mannerisms (as well as those of his brother Bobby Kennedy) and very gently satirized such topics as White House economy measures, Jackie Kennedy's White House tour and the space program (Q. Mr. President, when will you send a man to the moon? A. As soon as Senator Goldwater would like to go.).

Meader's Kennedy-esque accent had a genuine source: he had attended Brookline High School about twenty years after President Kennedy had been there. Kennedy himself once stated at a presidential press conference that he'd heard Meader's album and that he "thought he sounded more like Teddy" Kennedy, the president's youngest brother. Bobby Kennedy once had to interrupt a scheduling phone call with someone when, as Bobby recalled, "That guy thinks I'm Vaughn Meader. He's going to call me back" to make sure it was really Bobby.

When President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Vaughn Meader's successful career as Kennedy's mimic came to a screeching halt, and he publicly vowed he would never do his Kennedy impression again. Comedian Lenny Bruce wryly noted: "They put two graves in Arlington -- one for John Kennedy and one for Vaughn Meader."

Meader released a critically-admired comedy album in 1971, The Second Coming, in which he played Jesus Christ returning to 20th century America; but for the most part, Meader sank further into obscurity as an entertainer. In the 1980s, Meader was managing a restaurant and occasionally performing bluegrass music. He died on October 29, 2004 in Auburn, Maine.



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