A generation after his polite parody of John F. Kennedy's family sold millions of records, Vaughn Meader is playing honky-tonk music in out-of-the-way bars and enjoying life in Maine's "slow lane."
"The First Family," which depicted JFK in press conferences, family settings at the White House and meetings with heads of state, sold more than 5 million copies before Nov. 22, 1963, when it became funny no longer.Meader, then commanding top billings around the country for his Kennedy impressions, got the grim news of the Dallas assassination from a cabbie in Milwaukee while en route to a gig.
"I said, `What's the punch line?' " recalled Meader, 52. "Then I heard it on the radio.
"I felt a sense of loss, that we lost something special," said Meader, then a strikingly handsome man in his late 20s. "I went into deep hibernation."
After two months in seclusion, Meader tried to renew his act, without Kennedy humor, but bookings continued to be canceled.
"I was a reminder of that tragedy," Meader, who has a gray beard and often sports a cowboy hat, recalled somberly in an interview. "It was over."
"As Lenny Bruce said, that day they dug two graves in Arlington, one for John Kennedy and one for Vaughn Meader," said the ex-comic, who after the assassination stopped using Vaughn, his middle name, and started to go by the first name he was given at birth, Abbott.
Lighthearted and respectful by today's bare-knuckled standards of political humor, "The First Family" also featured sound-alikes of Jacqueline, Caroline and Bobby Kennedy.
"It was very daring at the time," said Meader, whose performing career began in his Army days in the mid-1950s when he formed a country band. His act then was sprinkled with Elvis Presley and Hank Snow imitations.
Meader studied broadcast technique in 1959 and began a career as a piano-playing comic at small New York clubs. He grew tired of mother-in-law jokes, and about 1960, as the JFK juggernaut gained full momentum, he injected political humor into his act.
He brushed his hair into his face like Kennedy and did impressions of the charismatic Massachusetts senator "because I had a New England accent anyway," said Meader, who was born in Waterville, Maine, and lives in the small city.
The act took off when Meader closed an appearance on the "Talent Scouts" television program with a Kennedy news conference, winning Meader critical acclaim, TV appearances and billings at some of New York's top clubs.
After being turned down repeatedly by record companies that did not want to take a chance with political humor, "The First Family" finally appeared in 1962 on the Cadence Records Inc. label. It became a runaway hit.