JFK’s Death Lives On

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November 2, 2013 by genelup

Fifty years ago this month on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while traveling in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.  It was also the day Vaughn Meader died.

Meader impersonated Kennedy.  In the early 1960s he and his troupe of impersonators and actors traveled the country staging concerts to enthusiastic crowds.  His 1962 comedy record, The First Family that spoofed President Kennedy and his family and staff, went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963.  The album sold 1.2 million copies during the first two weeks of its release, and ultimately sold 7.5 million copies.

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I will never forget the day Kennedy was killed.  Vaughn Meader was in town to put on his show that day.  I was the federal beat reporter for The Milwaukee Journal and when the news hit the federal building we all walked around stunned and acted like zombies.  I went into the chamber of a federal judge and he was talking to friend about something other than Kennedy’s death.  He laughed at something.  How could anyone laugh about anything this day, I thought.

That evening I walked into the Journal’s newsroom to use a typewriter to write a story.  I found an empty desk, actually the entertainment writer’s desk.  In his wastebasket were four tickets to that night’s Vaughn Meader concert in Milwaukee.  The concert had been canceled.  I took the tickets from the wastebasket and stuck them in my coat pocket.  I still have them today.

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In an autobiography, Vaughn wrote: “I was in a cab in Milwaukee, and the cabdriver said, ‘Hey, did you hear about Kennedy in Dallas?’  And I said, ‘No, how does it go?’ because I thought it was another Kennedy joke.

“But it wasn’t.  So, I went to my hotel, grabbed a bottle of booze, went back to New York and just kind of drowned myself…Nov. 22, 1963, the day I died.”

Meader’s impersonation career was over.  All his scheduled concerts were canceled.

“Everything stopped.  Most of my show-business friends dropped me — I was no longer a commodity to them.  So, I got barroom heavy.  I got into cocaine, heroin. And I went down South and drifted from place to place.”

Meader tried other comedy routines by had little success. He was typecast. He eventually returned to his native Maine where he sang and played bluegrass, country and honky-tonk music on the piano.   He also managed a pub in Maine.  Meader died  in October 2004 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  He was 68.

Two years after his death, an independent documentary titled First Impersonator was released.  The film chronicled Meader’s life and death, his rise to fame and equally famous fall, and his influence on today’s political impersonators.

President John F. Kenndey and Vaughn Meader. RIP.  You both died 50 years ago.

 

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