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November 15, 2023 49 mins

November 22, 2023, marks 60 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the end of one of the era's biggest comedy acts. During Kennedy's term, Vaughn Meader’s impersonation of the president made him a household name. The comedy album "The First Family,” in which Meader uncannily played JFK, broke sales records and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Meader's act was so convincing and edgy for the time, White House advisers actually worried about the public confusing him for the real thing. Mo tells the story of Vaughn Meader's brief and blazing time in the limelight and the long darkness that followed, alongside never-before-heard tape of Meader recorded shortly before his death. This episode originally published on January 17, 2019.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
Hi everyone, it's Moe. We'll be back with an all
new episode of the podcast next Wednesday, but this week
we're reaching into our archives all the way back to
season one to share the very first episode of Mobituaries,
Von Meeter and the Death of a Career. This November
twenty second marks sixty years since the assassination of President

John F. Kennedy. Pretty Much anyone who is alive on
that day remembers where they were when they heard the
devastating news out of Dallas, Texas. But no one experienced
that day or its aftermath in quite the same way
that von Meeter did. He was the comedian who'd skyrocketed

to fame with his uncanny impersonation of jfk In an
instant that dark day, his livelihood ended and his life
radically changed. It's an episode we're proud of. We hope
you appreciate it, and be sure to tune in again
next week for an all new deep dive into the

people and things who never got to send off they deserved.

Speaker 2 (01:15):
I think we have time for one final question.

Speaker 1 (01:18):
In the late fall of nineteen sixty two, one of
President John F. Kennedy's closest advisors Arthur Schlessinger Junior was
driving in his car when all of a sudden, he
heard the following question come over the airwaves.

Speaker 2 (01:32):
That's in office.

Speaker 3 (01:33):
What do you think the Chans offer Jewish president?

Speaker 1 (01:36):
A familiar voice answered.

Speaker 2 (01:38):
Well, I think they're pretty good.

Speaker 4 (01:40):
Now, let me say, I don't see why a president
of the Jewish faith not be President of the United States.
I know, as a Catholic I could never vote for him.

Speaker 1 (01:48):
But other than that, his confusion was cleared up when
he learned the voice belonged to Kennedy impersonator Vaughon Meeterer,
but was concerned enough that when he returned to the
White House he drafted a memorandum to the President. He
wrote the following, This raises the question of what in

hell a president of the United States ought to do
about mimicry. I'm guessing many of you have never heard
of von Meder, but for one brief shining moment, Okay,
a twelve month period between late nineteen sixty two and
late nineteen sixty three, he was a really big deal.
He had this parody album called The First Family, a

spoof of the Kennedys. In old video clips, he looks
like a distant Kennedy cousin, young, clean cut with a
thick head of hair, and his JFK impression he's uncanny.

Speaker 4 (02:44):
Just listen today will be in nuclear de Shamelin, followed
by the un bond issue and a matter of the
trade agreement. Now first, there is a most important matter
to settle, mister gall yours was the chicken, Salad and coffee.

Speaker 2 (02:56):
That's a dollar forty.

Speaker 5 (02:59):
Family well in five weeks, this album has broken all
records in the history of the recording business.

Speaker 3 (03:05):
It's sold well.

Speaker 5 (03:05):
Get this, three and a quarter million copies in five weeks.
It took My Fair Lady album five years to sell
that many copies. I had.

Speaker 1 (03:13):
That was late night King of his day, Jack Parr
marveling at the popularity of this one album. And the
star of the album, Von Meeter, was just about everywhere
until all of a sudden he wasn't.

Speaker 6 (03:28):
From Dallas, Texas. The flash apparently official President Kennedy died
at one pm Central Standard time.

Speaker 1 (03:38):
I'm Morocca and this is mobituaries. This mobent jfk impersonator
von Meeter November twenty second, nineteen sixty three. Death of
a career.

Speaker 7 (04:04):
Oh are we recording.

Speaker 8 (04:05):
Now, Okay, I've worked across the street from this building,
and I had no idea. I thought it was maybe
some NSA storage unit. I don't know how people's final
It's okay.

Speaker 1 (04:19):
The CBS News.

Speaker 3 (04:20):
Archives, O lock, Hey, it's Joe.

Speaker 1 (04:24):
N That's Joe Alessi. He's managed the CBS Archives for
twenty two years now. He's the go to guy if
you need anything that was shot by CBS News during
the twenty first, twentieth century. Even the nineteenth.

Speaker 9 (04:38):
First thing we have is eight from eighteen ninety seven,
and that's William McKinley's inauguration.

Speaker 1 (04:43):
You're kidding, Let's go to the back.

Speaker 9 (04:45):
And then when I say to the back, we're going
to the vault.

Speaker 4 (04:47):
Are the vault?

Speaker 10 (04:48):

Speaker 2 (04:48):
It's the vault.

Speaker 9 (04:49):
It sounds it sounds very mysterious.

Speaker 1 (04:52):
It smells like pastrami or something. Well, I've realis lunch.

Speaker 5 (04:56):
So you're correct on that.

Speaker 2 (04:58):
No, what that is?

Speaker 9 (04:59):
That's sometimes all right, Let's go this way.

Speaker 1 (05:05):
What are CBS's sort of greatest hits.

Speaker 9 (05:09):
Well, the thing that people ask for most is the
assassination of President Kennedy. That seems to be a story
that fascinates people from the beginning right up until today,
people ask for at least once a week.

Speaker 1 (05:22):
And for good reason. That horrible day in November nineteen
sixty three ended the president's life and changed the life
of the nation. That's what mister Oakes taught us in
high school. There was America before the assassination and America
after and before comedian Vaughan Meter was a household name,

So surely the CBS archives would have something on the man.
My friend Joe did not disappoint.

Speaker 8 (05:51):
Three tapes of a von Meter interview sounds promising, because
that's unless those tapes are super short.

Speaker 1 (05:58):
That's a significant interview.

Speaker 9 (06:00):
Yeah, I think it's a good find.

Speaker 1 (06:05):
And so I took a look. But what I saw
and heard wasn't exactly funny.

Speaker 3 (06:14):
So it looked like, you know, I could do this forever.
There was no end to the thought of gold, but
there was no rainbow either. It was had no idea
it was gonna be that months.

Speaker 1 (06:27):
This is von Meter in nineteen ninety eight. On these
tapes he looks haggard and shake him sixty two years old,
but a rough sixty two. This was all recorded for
a short lived CBS cable network called Ion people. Meter
was being profiled as part of a where Are They Now?
Type series. Little of this footage made it to air.

Speaker 2 (06:50):

Speaker 3 (06:50):
I was born in Waterville the Night of the flood.

Speaker 1 (06:54):
Abbot von Meeter was born in nineteen thirty six in Waterville, Maine,
and by all accounts, had a harrowing childhood. His father
drowned when he was one, and his young mother moved
from Maine to Boston to work as a cocktail waitress.
Meeter had to shuttle between Maine and Massachusetts for much

of his youth, spending some of that time in children's homes.
He says he started entertaining people to avoid punishment. When
he got into trouble near the end of high school,
his mother was institutionalized and Meter ran away to the army.
He ultimately was stationed in Germany, where he met the
first of his four wives and played in a band.

After his time in the service, he did a risque
piano act around the New York City area and then
moved on to Greenwich Village, where he owned a politically
themed comedy routine. It was at this point that he
dropped his first name, Abbott. He became Vaughan Meeter and

then one fateful night, a voice came out of Meter.
It was the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

Speaker 5 (08:10):
Yes, the gentleman over there, sir, When are we going
to send a man to the moon?

Speaker 3 (08:14):
Whenever, mister Goldwater wants to go right with.

Speaker 8 (08:19):
Meter started to reserve the last ten minutes of his
routine for an impression of Kennedy's live television press conferences.

Speaker 10 (08:26):
My name is Bob Booker. I've just been in the
entertainment business all my life, and I've been very lucky.
And I also forgot to turn off my phone.

Speaker 2 (08:34):
Now, that's fine.

Speaker 1 (08:35):
If it's a gig, pick it up.

Speaker 10 (08:37):
I don't even know this Bruce.

Speaker 1 (08:38):
Back in the nineteen sixties, Bob Booker was a disc
jockey who, along with his partner Earl Dowd, wanted to
capitalize on the fascination with the new president as well
as the popularity of comedy albums. These were the days
of Stan Freeberg, Shelley Berman, Nichols and May, and the
great Bob Newhart, who had just won Album of the

Year at the Gram's, a first for a comedy album.
That classic bit with Newheart as President Lincoln's press agent
still holds up.

Speaker 5 (09:08):
I sweetheart, how's jEdit Bert.

Speaker 9 (09:15):
Sort of a drag?

Speaker 10 (09:18):
So we were looking for the next thing to do, like,
you know, so we could have a meal the next day.
We said, you know, Kennedy make a great album.

Speaker 1 (09:28):
So what was your concept for this album.

Speaker 10 (09:31):
You've got this giant star. He's a movie star, he's
a political star, he's he's a world star. I got
in such a good looking man with this beautiful wife. Right.
We said, if you take this character and the family
and put them in everyday situations, that's funny.

Speaker 1 (09:54):
This was the beginning of what would become the First
Family album. The only problem was they had no idea
who could play the head of this First Family, That
is until they turned on the TV the evening of
July third, nineteen sixty two.

Speaker 11 (10:09):
No, but he's from the New school and has served
his apprenticeship in the little clubs that feature you know,
the topic of comedians, the kids with the rye offbeat
comments on life today.

Speaker 1 (10:20):
Does that voice sound familiar? It's Jim Bacchus aka mister
Magoo aka Thurston Howl, the third from Gilligan's Island. He
was hosting a summer replacement show called talent Scouts on CBS.

Speaker 11 (10:33):
And I know, I know you're going to be delighted
with the TV debut of mister Vaughan Meeter.

Speaker 1 (10:41):
Meeters started off with his take on the news headlines
of the day.

Speaker 4 (10:45):
There's one that might be a little more familiar to you.
Congressman read Write of Alabama was quoted as saying, literacy
test ain't proven nothing.

Speaker 1 (10:56):
Listen, I have no idea how funny or fresh is
topicals stuff actually was. There's that old quote from playwright
George S. Kaufman, satire is what closes on Saturday Night.
But his impression of Kennedy was and is nothing short
of sensational.

Speaker 4 (11:12):
He's doing my act, he's doing my gestures, and he's
using my lines. Do not ask what this country can
do for you.

Speaker 2 (11:19):
That's one of my original lines.

Speaker 10 (11:23):
When he did Kennedy, it was perfect, absolutely perfect.

Speaker 1 (11:28):
Bob Booker and Earl Dowd had found their man. But
there was something else striking about that performance, A kind
of disclaimer he made at the end of his starmaking routine,
something I can't imagine any comic doing today.

Speaker 4 (11:42):
Yes, I'd like to make one final statement at this time,
and I would like to make that final statement as
myself von Meta, and that is the thing. Thank you
for the United States, a country where it is possible
for a young comedian like myself to come out on
television before millions of people and kid leading citizen, thank
you good night.

Speaker 12 (12:04):
It was very interesting to me because he was to
me non controversial.

Speaker 1 (12:08):
I wanted to get the perspective of a modern day
presidential impersonator.

Speaker 12 (12:13):
I decide how big my failures are, and they're.

Speaker 1 (12:17):
The biggest way Meet Anthony Tammanik. He impersonates President Donald Trump,
most recently on Comedy Central's The President Show.

Speaker 12 (12:27):
I wonder if that caution was sort of to say, listen,
I'm making fun with him, not of him.

Speaker 8 (12:34):
This is a telegram that right after von Meter made
his television debut, he wrote a telegram of the White House.

Speaker 12 (12:42):
He wrote this to you President. Yeah, dear mister President,
I respectfully call your attention to the Talent Scouts Show,
which we taped last night for viewing on CBS Television
Tuesday night, July third, at ten pm. I impersonated you,
but I did it with great affection and respect. Hope
it with your approval, respectfully. Von Meter. Wow, that is wild.

Speaker 10 (13:05):
We actually went through eleven I think turned down.

Speaker 1 (13:11):
Booker and Dowd had their concept, their Kennedy, and a
demo of the album. No One was biting, though. Booker
remembers one meeting at ABC. In the room that day
was Jim Haggerty, who was the vice president of News
and a former White House Press secretary under Eisenhower, Kennedy's predecessor.

Speaker 10 (13:30):
He said, I think the Communists will love it. I
think Russia will love it, and every communist country in
the world will love it. And he slammed the door
behind him and going out. He was outraged, right, So
we were just insulting the president and his family. He
was not a man with a great sense of humor.

Speaker 8 (13:51):
Mister, it doesn't sound like it. But did it give
you any doubt? Did you for a moment, go, boy,
maybe this is disrespectful. Maybe we should didn't do it.
This was place number twelve that we'd been thrown in
the street. Okay, didn't discourage us at all.

Speaker 10 (14:08):
We knew we had a hit record. I would have
bet anything on it. We did bet everything on it.

Speaker 1 (14:14):
While ABC passed, the president of the network suggested they
try a smaller label called Cadence, run by Archie Blyier.

Speaker 10 (14:22):
Picked up the phone, called him set the meeting. The
next morning. We went over and they bought it instantly.

Speaker 1 (14:28):
They'd overcome one hurdle getting a record deal, but as
it turned out, recording the album before a live audience
came with its own set of challenges.

Speaker 11 (14:38):
This is a special report from CBS News the Cuban Crisis.

Speaker 10 (14:43):
Talk about an evening. Oh what an evening.

Speaker 1 (14:46):
That's the night of President Kennedy's big speech about.

Speaker 10 (14:49):
The Cuban crisis. And we had the TV sets in
the back room and we watched the speech where everybody
believed going to.

Speaker 3 (14:57):
War within the past.

Speaker 7 (14:59):
We unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series
of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that
imprisoned island.

Speaker 1 (15:10):
So the show starts.

Speaker 8 (15:12):
The audience has no idea that President Kennedy is on
TV addressing the nation about this.

Speaker 1 (15:18):
Really terrible crisis. Yes it was, And how does the
show go?

Speaker 10 (15:23):
Perfect? And I did have a fear that the cast
had heard this speech also, so we did. We did
a quick little speech right before Hey, it's showtime. We're
going out there and kill okay, and everybody did it.
Didn't affect anybody.

Speaker 1 (15:42):
After making it through that crisis within a crisis, Bob
Booker handed off the album to a DJ friend at
WIS Radio in New York, and.

Speaker 10 (15:55):
He was going on the air in ten minutes, and
I said, look what I've got and he looked at
it and he played one cut and he said, Jesus, Pob,
that's a satial. He went on the air for three hours.
He played the album continuously.

Speaker 2 (16:10):
No more Family for a while. Now, I promise, now
turn off the light.

Speaker 4 (16:15):
Good Night, Jackie, good night, jack Night, Bobby night, ethel.

Speaker 10 (16:24):
Every light in the place lit up. I mean it
was crazy. The phone calls from the other stations were
coming in, television bookings for all in three hours, broke
it wide open, wond Jockey.

Speaker 1 (16:40):
The First Family album took off like a rocket, and
Von Meeter was in for the right of his life.
Von Meeter was playing a gig in Detroit and didn't
know what hit him.

Speaker 3 (17:00):
I couldn't leave until I get back to New York.
And I walked down the street and heard my voice
being broadcast and I just couldn't keep up.

Speaker 10 (17:07):
With it, man, I mean, it was on fire.

Speaker 1 (17:08):
Can give me a sense of what that felt like?
What did you think?

Speaker 10 (17:11):
No, there's no way insanity.

Speaker 1 (17:15):
Everyone wanted von Meeterer to appear on their show, including
beloved singer Andy Williams, who was hosting a popular new
variety series on NBC.

Speaker 6 (17:25):
Welcome to our show.

Speaker 3 (17:26):
Thank you very much, Andy.

Speaker 2 (17:27):
It's a pleasure to be here. You know, I've been looking.

Speaker 11 (17:29):
Forward all week to working with Vron because I wanted
to sit right next to the guy who.

Speaker 4 (17:33):
Was sold well.

Speaker 11 (17:35):
He's had the most successful album in the history of
the recordiness, the First Family Album.

Speaker 8 (17:39):
Okay, there's a good reason The First Family was the
best selling album of its time.

Speaker 1 (17:46):
It's a total blast. It's not really a sad tire.
It's parody the kind of fun zany takeoff that I
used to love reading in Mad Magazine when I was
a kid, Like when they turned chips into chimps, or
the Godfather into the Odd Father. That kind of a thing.
It's not really meant to make you think, it's meant
to make you laugh. Okay, so some references may not

play for today's audiences.

Speaker 2 (18:10):
Eva, you drive a hard bargain.

Speaker 1 (18:13):
Like monopoly with Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirkson.

Speaker 2 (18:17):
I'll show you a boardwalk and park place, but.

Speaker 1 (18:22):
A surprising amount of it really holds up.

Speaker 10 (18:24):
I'd like to ask the following question, faultois philipp.

Speaker 2 (18:29):
Now speak English? Jackie?

Speaker 8 (18:30):
Sure, the Jackie sounds more like Marilyn Monroe, which probably
didn't make the first lady very happy. But come on,
to be fair, who didn't think the real Jackie sounded
a little like Marilyn during that famous TV tour of
the White House.

Speaker 5 (18:45):
Yes, this room is everything in it really is from
the time of President Monroe.

Speaker 1 (18:50):
Of course, the album does its own take on that.

Speaker 13 (18:52):
Tour and left at the Dai Madison Pinakorom.

Speaker 1 (18:57):
While most of the jokes are pretty gentle, there are
a few digs.

Speaker 14 (19:01):
Ask the Richard Nixon dam way.

Speaker 8 (19:05):
One of the biggest laughs comes here when the President
divvies up Caroline and John John's bath.

Speaker 4 (19:11):
Tool nine of the pet Boach, two of the Yogi
Bear of beach Balls, the Yah Ball of Hilly Putty
belonged to Caroline, nine of the pet Boach, one.

Speaker 2 (19:21):
Of the Yogi Ya bearra.

Speaker 4 (19:23):
Beach Balls, and the two Howdy Duty plastic bouncing clowns,
Ah Baby Johns.

Speaker 2 (19:29):
The rubbishwan is mine.

Speaker 1 (19:33):
I'm imagining people everywhere look at home, around the water cooler,
at work, repeating that rubber Swan line, and apparently they did.

Speaker 10 (19:41):
I thought it was pretty funny.

Speaker 1 (19:43):
Anthony A. Tamanik, who impersonates President Trump, knows the album well.
His grandfather played it for him when he was growing up.
But I also wanted his take on how Meeter looked
as Kennedy. Is it a good impression?

Speaker 10 (19:56):
Yeah, it is a good impression.

Speaker 12 (19:58):
It's a good impression, becau because a good impression doesn't
require any makeup or accoutrement. The idea should be that
the presence of the person is what you feel like.
There's a will that presents Kennedy in that moment.

Speaker 10 (20:15):
There is not, and I say this with a great pride.
There is not one ugly joke in the entire thing.
There's not even a really nasty political joke anywhere in
the album.

Speaker 1 (20:28):
Yes, it's all very safe from today's vantage point. Turns out,
and this was a surprise to me. The producers in
cast were pushing the limits of comedy.

Speaker 5 (20:38):
I had the first I must level with you, I
had some misgivings about this idea for reasons of my own.

Speaker 1 (20:47):
That's late Night host Jack Parr again he was Johnny
Carson before Johnny Carson, issuing a disclaimer before inviting von
Meeter on stage. Parr then goes on to quote famed
Anthwer apologist Margaret Meade. She too had weighed in on
the First Family album because well why not, she told
Life Magazine quote, this making fun of people in authority

is very healthy. It is the difference between democracy and tyranny.
End quote. The album continued selling like crazy. But what
was the White House thinking? Remember presidential advisor Arthur Schlessinger,
who was so concerned about that voice on the radio

that he wrote a memo about the dangers of impersonating
the president. He wrote, the radio listener twirls his dial,
comes in in the middle of things, and rarely listens
with full attention. Anyway, Schlessinger concluded on an ominous note,
remember Orson Wells and the Martian invasion. Again, this comedy

seems completely benign today. But boy, it raised an alarm
in the president's inner circle.

Speaker 10 (22:00):
Well, it got dangerous because the people around Kennedy, around
any president, are so protective the minute they heard someone
doing Kennedy on the air so accurately, Because Vaughan was
really good with it. They went screaming. They even went
to the FCC to try and stop the album.

Speaker 1 (22:20):
Clearly and thankfully, those attempts weren't successful. But I was
fascinated to learn that Schlessinger took the time to go
back to the days of FDR to seek out some
kind of precedent with regard to presidential impersonations. It turns
out Franklin Roosevelt's press secretary, Stephen Early, had directly asked
media outlets not to give airtime to Roosevelt impersonators.

Speaker 15 (22:43):
It's been a long time since a president and his
family have been subjected. It was such a heavy barrage
of teasing and fun poking and satire. And there have
been books on backstairs at the White House, and cartoon
books with clever sayings, and photo albums with balloons and
the rest.

Speaker 2 (23:03):
And now I smash hit for record.

Speaker 15 (23:07):
Can you tell us whether you read and listen to
these things and whether they produce annoyment or enjoyment.

Speaker 1 (23:15):
Annoyment, No, they yes, I have read them and listened
to them.

Speaker 7 (23:19):
Actually I listened to mister Meta record, but I thought
it sounded more like Teddy than it did me.

Speaker 1 (23:23):
But that's not von Meter as JFK. That is the
actual President of the United States talking about von Meter
in one of his live press conferences. According to many accounts,
the President did enjoy the album and even gave out
copies for Christmas.

Speaker 10 (23:41):
Do you know why he loved it? Made a human
being out of him, took him down off the pedestal.
He was one of us. He just looked a lot
better than all of us.

Speaker 1 (23:55):
Von Meter went on to win a Grammy for Best
Comedy Performance and First Family one Album of the Year.
The First Family beat out the likes of Tony Bennett
and Ray Charles. Von Meeter was living the dream, right.

Speaker 3 (24:12):
It just took over.

Speaker 1 (24:14):
The voice you're hearing now is the older Meter from
that nineteen ninety eight interview that I got from the archives.

Speaker 3 (24:21):
You know, I go on Sullivan. I'd asked him if
I could play a sing a song. I wanted to
desperately play some music, sing some songs. No no chance,
no chance, no chance. So I just sell in line,
you know, and did it. And I had to get
sued to do a volume two because I didn't want
to do a volume two. They sued me for a

million dollars.

Speaker 1 (24:44):
In early nineteen sixty three, while Meter was on a
concert tour of the album, Bob Booker and Earl Dowd
began developing fresh material for a second volume of the
first Family album.

Speaker 10 (24:56):
At twitch time, Vaughan said, I don't want to do
Kennedy anymore.

Speaker 1 (25:00):
You heard that, right? Meeter, who almost overnight went from
barely scraping buying clubs just storing in the country's most
popular album, was sick of the Kennedy act.

Speaker 3 (25:11):
But I wasn't very content with any of it, and
maybe it was the Kennedy thing that I couldn't get
out of.

Speaker 1 (25:18):
But album producer Bob Booker was having none of it.

Speaker 10 (25:21):
I said, we have a deal to do it. He said,
I don't care about that. I don't want to have
to do Kennedy the rest of my life, he said,
I want to do my act. And this is the
time I had to save on. You don't have an act,
you never had an act. If you give this up,
you not gonna be working anywhere.

Speaker 1 (25:41):
Was that hard for you to say no?

Speaker 10 (25:43):
Because it was the truth, and I wanted the album
and just do what we have contractually and then go
do anything you want in your life. If I never
see you again, that's fine, and just do what you
promised you would do.

Speaker 1 (25:58):
How did he take it when you told him you
don't have an act?

Speaker 10 (26:02):
How did he? Oh? No, he was offended by that.
He said, no, so I can go do my act.
Said there was no act. There was no act in
Talent Scouts right, it was Kennedy, that was it.

Speaker 1 (26:13):
Volume two was released in the spring of nineteen sixty
three and sold fairly well, but nowhere near the original album.
One of the sketches, which today seems pretty haunting, imagines
the Kennedy's enjoying retirement in nineteen ninety six.

Speaker 4 (26:30):
I shertinly enjoyed being president. Bobby enjoyed being president. Jeddy
enjoyed being president. Then I enjoyed being president again.

Speaker 3 (26:42):
Once I was in, I couldn't find the way out.
And yeah, I'm sorry, he found the way.

Speaker 1 (26:56):
On the morning of November twenty second, nineteen sixty three,
the Associated Press published a story by veteran Hollywood columnist
Bob Thomas, which started as follows, It's always a bit
surprising to find a new star in show business trying
to run away from the thing that made him famous.
Today's example is von Meter. Thomas then goes on to

write he also is searching for ways to destroy his
image as a jfk imitator. Meter didn't have to search
much longer.

Speaker 6 (27:41):
Here is a bulletin from CBS News in Dallas, Texas.
Three shots were fired at President Kennaday's motorcade in downtown Dallas.
The first reports say that President Kennedy.

Speaker 1 (27:53):
Yeah, that's the older Von Meter.

Speaker 3 (27:59):
Well, I just got booked at the Democratic Club and
in Wisconsin. And I flew into Wisconsin from New York.
And when I got in the cab, the cab driver said,
you hear Kennedy got shot in Dallas? And I said, no,
how does it go? Because I thought it was another
Kennedy joke because people, you know, everywhere I went, people say, oh,

do you hear about jack who did this? And Jackie
out of the punchline, you know, So I thought it
was just another being set up. Somebody recognized me, was
setting me up for another Kennedy joke, you know. I said,
how's ago? And then I heard on the taxi cab
radio that that's what happened. So I went to the hotel,
got drunk, got the next plane out and went back

to New York, and I guess they stayed drunk.

Speaker 1 (28:46):
Bob Booker was having lunch in Greenwich Village when he
heard the news.

Speaker 10 (28:50):
The phone rang and it was my secretary and she said,
Kennedy's been shot. And I just threw some money on
the table and left. It was devastating, absolutely devasating. If
I called Archie Bleyer the minute I got back, and
I said, get the albums wherever they are, because they're
out with distributors all over the gun. I said, get

your hands on all of them. We're going to chop
them up. I want no part of cashing in on
this man's death.

Speaker 1 (29:18):
And just like that, Vaughn meeters meteoric rise to fame
was over. Did you ever see Vaughan again?

Speaker 10 (29:29):
Well, I talked to him a couple of times. I
don't think I ever did see him again.

Speaker 3 (29:35):
Well, it was over. It's over over. You know, John's gune.
So I don't want to hear me playing him if
it isn't me, I don't want to, you know, I
don't want to be him. Let's say I am.

Speaker 12 (30:07):
I think his issue on this armchair analysis was that
he did not have a good division between the character
and himself.

Speaker 1 (30:14):
Trump impersonator Anthony and Tammanik. But he basically doesn't know
where he ends where Kennedy ends. And he begins, yeah.

Speaker 12 (30:22):
He might have just been a person who just didn't
think about his psyche before he got into it.

Speaker 3 (30:28):
Well, it broke my heart really at the time. But
I thought to myself, well, now I can go on
to something else. But I couldn't. It was I mean
that they didn't want nobody else. Nobody wanted nothing else
from me. That's what they wanted, and they couldn't let
go of that. I'll never forget New York City, as
cold as it is. I'm walking down Second Avenue and

a steel riveta, a riveta with a hard hat, sees
me and stops his rivet and walks over and squeezes
my hand. It's says, oh so sorry, man, And like,
you know, I was getting that, you know, like almost pity.
And I think I had to go to a great extent.
I know I did. I stayed drunk, and after that

I stayed drugged to get away from pity feeling sorry
for me, you know, so then I get to feeling
sorry for myself.

Speaker 12 (31:22):
I don't know, so imagine if like the one thing
that you were getting your momentum on just got pulled
from you, and then everyone's like, oh, that's so bad,
almost as if also it's like everyone was like, your
career is over.

Speaker 8 (31:34):
And maybe almost like he wants to shout, I'm not dead, right, yeah.

Speaker 12 (31:37):
And also I thought this, maybe I'm wrong. But they
would also be like, I don't want this. I don't
show your pity and love for him, don't don't put
it to me.

Speaker 1 (31:47):
Meeter would go on to say that he seemed to
be a living reminder of a tragedy. It's worth remembering
that in November of nineteen sixty three, he was just
twenty seven. I mean, that's usually the start of a career.
One week after the assassination, comedian Lenny Bruce was back
on stage in New York. Bob Booker saw him and

says he remembers a moment that has since become legendary.

Speaker 10 (32:11):
And he grabbed that microphone and he said, boyd did
Vaughan Meter get screwed? Not exactly that word, Okay.

Speaker 1 (32:21):
And you're free to say it if you want to say.

Speaker 10 (32:23):
Oh, he said, boy did Vaughan Meter get fucked now.
The critics took him apart for this. I have never
heard a laugh that big in a house in my life,
because Lenny had the ability to say your most inner
thought in public that you would never dare say. Everybody

in that theater had thought that. I had gotten calls
from people saying, poor Vaughn. I said, poor Vaughn. How
about poor jack Kennedy? For Christ's sake, right, I think
about poor Vaughn. One of the best presidents we ever had,
in my opinion, was dead, assassinated? Is that a sort

It's not about von Meeter guy?

Speaker 1 (33:08):
No, Von Meder hadn't died, but he was collateral damage.
Another line attributed to Lenny Bruce was that they should
put two graves in Arlington, one for Kennedy and one
for Meter. After the president's death, Meeter wrote a condolence
letter to Jackie Kennedy. Although we never met, He wrote,

I felt as though I had known him all my life.
I was given by fate the ability to impersonate his
voice and to copy his gestures. I sincerely hope that
a part of what I did found its way to
him and gave him and his family a few pleasant moments.

Speaker 14 (33:44):
Yes, beautiful letter, handwritten. It's in two different books.

Speaker 1 (33:48):
Actually did he get a response?

Speaker 14 (33:51):
She hated it.

Speaker 1 (33:52):
That's von Meeter's widow, Sheila. She holds a copy of
the letter. Missus Kennedy did hate the album when it
first came out. She referred to meet her as a
rat in a memo. And here's her conversation with Arthur
Schlessinger a few months after the assassination.

Speaker 8 (34:09):
What did you think of all these skits about himself,
like the First Family and so on?

Speaker 2 (34:16):
Do you ever listen to them?

Speaker 10 (34:19):
I think he listened.

Speaker 1 (34:20):
I'm not sure he listened to all of that record.

Speaker 8 (34:22):
I listened to one side and then I threw it
away because I didn't want my children to see it.

Speaker 1 (34:27):
And well he wasn't.

Speaker 3 (34:29):
I guess he sort of took it.

Speaker 14 (34:33):
You know.

Speaker 10 (34:33):
I thought it was so unfair of those things.

Speaker 1 (34:36):
She went on to say, I mean, I thought it
was so mean.

Speaker 14 (34:39):
I didn't care if they make fun of me or anything,
but when they make fun of little children.

Speaker 1 (34:45):
In the year after the assassination, Meter didn't disappear completely.
He popped up on television a few times in nineteen
sixty four, but never again as JFK. That same year,
he put out his own album called have Some Nut
Unts later another one called if the Shoe Fits So
pick up.

Speaker 4 (35:04):
Your phone right now and contribute, contribute the name of
a Communist and put us over the top.

Speaker 1 (35:10):
While they received some nice reviews, they just didn't sell.
He traveled the country for the next decade, but, as
Sheila Meder recalls, the man she called by his birth name, Abbot,
never found that second act.

Speaker 14 (35:23):
He insisted on writing his own stuff, and it didn't
He needed a writer, you know. That's he would never
have succeeded in something like the First Family if there
hadn't been an Earl Dowd and a Bob Booker to
write it. He was a delivery man. Abbot delivered, Abbot spoke.

Abbot had a voice that felt like warm oil was
being rubbed into your skin.

Speaker 2 (35:51):
It was beautiful.

Speaker 1 (35:52):
I mean, that sounds great. I mean there's no shame
in being, as you say, well, put it a delivery man.

Speaker 14 (35:59):
That's what he wants, right, that's what.

Speaker 1 (36:01):
But so why wasn't he okay with that?

Speaker 14 (36:04):
I don't know, I don't know.

Speaker 1 (36:06):
He turned to a variety of substances.

Speaker 14 (36:09):
Was the cocaine There was the LSD, the was a psilocybin,
there was the the rom and coke. That was the marijuana.
And they all had their effects, every one of them.
You know, he was a different person with each one.

Speaker 1 (36:26):
Why do you think he've used so many substances.

Speaker 14 (36:30):
Escape, running away, getting getting into, going toward a new life,
a new reality for him.

Speaker 10 (36:41):
I think.

Speaker 1 (36:44):
One of the characters inspired by these substances was a
blue bunny. Yes, that's correct, a blue bunny. Meeter also
had a messianic complex, which led in nineteen seventy two
to a production of a Jesus comedy album called Wait
for It, the Second Coming.

Speaker 3 (37:03):
I tell parables?

Speaker 2 (37:04):
Would you care to hear something? What I you're on?

Speaker 10 (37:06):
Make me laugh?

Speaker 2 (37:07):
I'm afraid they are.

Speaker 3 (37:09):
I'm very humorous.

Speaker 2 (37:10):
I'll be to judge and I'd run it down.

Speaker 1 (37:13):
So he's playing Jesus, Yeah, is it funny? Kind of
did it so well?

Speaker 4 (37:19):

Speaker 1 (37:20):
He pursued his passion for honky tonk music and even
appeared in a few movies in the nineteen seventies, including
the commercial flop Linda Lovelace for President. Eventually, he moved
back to his home state of Maine.

Speaker 3 (37:34):
And you know, I should apologize. I'm on television. I
really should apologize to every woman that ever knew me,
because I really didn't know how to treat women.

Speaker 1 (37:44):
Something we haven't talked much about is Meter's personal life.
As mentioned earlier, he was married four times. Sheila was
number four. They met in the early nineteen eighties in Maine.
Sheila was running away from her own addictions when she
came across a flyer advertising Von Meeter playing piano at

a nearby inn. Did you know who that was?

Speaker 14 (38:08):
I did, but you know, it didn't really register. He
was only a voice, you know, a voice, that's all.

Speaker 1 (38:14):
He was from that comedy outbum.

Speaker 14 (38:16):
Yeah, from the First Family, And I really didn't register
him as a living, being, visible, touchable person.

Speaker 1 (38:27):
They would be together for twenty years. Sheila describes a
controlling relationship with highs and lows, and a man deeply
conflicted by the thing that had once made him so famous.
Was he haunted by the whole experience?

Speaker 14 (38:41):
Awful awful, awful awful, But he also didn't let anybody
know it. At the same time he was letting everyone
know it. He was a dichotomy. I've never known anyone
who could be so many things to say time.

Speaker 8 (39:01):
And as far as how he looked back on the
first family experience, was there a dichotomy? There was he
haunted by it, but then also wanted people to know
he was vond Meter, or well he did that.

Speaker 14 (39:11):
That's he wanted to be known as von Meter. But
on the other hand, he didn't want anything to do
with von Meter. He was abbot and he wrote his music,
and he entertained people, and he played the piano, and
that's what he wanted.

Speaker 4 (39:26):
They say every man must face rejection, they say.

Speaker 2 (39:34):
Every man must fall. But I swear I've seen my reflection.

Speaker 4 (39:49):
Somewhere upon the wall.

Speaker 1 (39:55):
Coming up von Meter as Kennedy one final time. In

February nineteen ninety eight, von Meter was wintering with friends
in Florida. He seemed happy playing piano at a local bar.
He hadn't been a star for years, and then out
of the blue, he got a call from CBS producers
wanted to profile Meter for a new cable show hosted
by Paula Zah coming up on PS. He sounded like JFK,

he looked like JFK. It made him world famous. Now,
while you've been listening to von Meter speak It's important
to note that back in ninety eight, there was a
producer sitting across from him asking him the questions.

Speaker 8 (41:00):
I was struck immediately by his you know appearance. He
you know, had full head of gray hair and a
big beard.

Speaker 1 (41:08):
This is Kevin Hoffman. He was a young CBS producer
at the time.

Speaker 8 (41:12):
Wait, what do you think his self image was when
you were sitting there?

Speaker 10 (41:15):
Oh, he was one of the least confident people.

Speaker 8 (41:19):
You know, it's all this bravado like, on the one hand,
he's aggressive, and if you look at you know, the tape,
sometimes he looks at me. And I watched it just now,
and I could see the aggression on his side, like,
you know, what are you going to ask me next?
You know, I've got my story to tell and I'm
not quite confident here. But I also noticed that when

he does go into bits, his eyes darted around a
little bit, like he's looking for an audience, very much
like the camera crew you know behind me were part
of the audience. You know. When he finally kind of
shed the act, that's when I felt like I was
starting to get to the real guy.

Speaker 1 (42:00):
Sheila revealed to me the reason for her husband's weariness,
his defensiveness. What do you remember from nineteen ninety eight
when CBS came down to do an interview of him
in Florida his disappointment. Meeter had boasted to Sheila and
his friends that TV anchor Paula's On would be coming

down to do the interview. When he opened the door
to find Kevin.

Speaker 14 (42:25):
I think that broke his heart. Broke his heart, it did,
It embarrassed him, and he didn't tolerate embarrassment.

Speaker 8 (42:33):
What happened at the end of the interview, this was said,
you know we I think toward the end of the
interview is when I asked him to do the voice,
and which I felt was kind of a big moment
for him, Like him doing the voice to me was
like a really cathartic and possibly damaging thing. I don't know,

it messed him up.

Speaker 1 (42:59):
I want to play this moment in its entirety because
more than anywhere else you can hear what a struggle
it was just being von Meter.

Speaker 3 (43:09):
I wouldn't be doing my job as I didn't ask
you if you would do the voice for us, you
wouldn't be doing your job. I'd have to think of
a clever line well, I do the voice, you know,
save up that voice. All these years we did not
have a punchline, not have the line to use the
voice for no, look at the brain. The brain doesn't

react to to It just shuts off with the switch.
My on and off switch went on. I used to
do the voice. My switch went off. I can't.

Speaker 10 (43:44):
I'm not kidding.

Speaker 3 (43:52):
Two hundred years ago and conquered Massachusetts. Hey, I shot
was fired that was heard around the world. Thirty something
years ago in Dallas, Texas, another shot was fired that
was heard around the world. The first bullet fired from
the conquer bridge signaled the birth of the American Spirit.

The second bullet fired from the Texas book Depository attempted to.

Speaker 2 (44:21):
Win that spirit.

Speaker 3 (44:22):
And we have seen in the last thirty something years
how nearly successful that second bullet was. But in the
final analysis, there is no bullet, there is no bomb.
There is no power on the face of this earth
that can destroy the American Spirit. Maybe he'd say something

like that.

Speaker 10 (44:49):
I don't know.

Speaker 1 (45:00):
What he's saying here. It's a little bit dark, but
it's also thoughtful, kind of deep, even I don't know, optimistic,
A totally different JFK. Impersonation once again, Anthony Tammanik.

Speaker 12 (45:16):
It was interesting because in a weird way, I watched
it and aligned with it. I was like, oh, it's you.
You are doing the same thing. You're using this vessel
to make a greater point.

Speaker 2 (45:29):
Right, So we you know.

Speaker 8 (45:32):
We wrapped up the interview and he got up immediately
and I followed him. But he went right into the
kitchen and grabbed a cord of vodka, cracked opened the
lid and just started chugging. He said, look, I needed this.
You know I couldn't. I got through your whole interview.

I did everything, but this is you know, I have
to do this. I wasn't judging him.

Speaker 1 (46:04):
I can't help but wonder if Van Meter would have
been better off if he'd never discovered he could imitate Kennedy.
But what do I know, maybe after a very tough
childhood he was simply faded to have a rough go
of it in life. If you could get into a
time machine and you could go back to the moment

that he's approached by Bob Booker and Earl Dowd to
do the first Family album, what would you tell him
as a time traveler from the future, do.

Speaker 14 (46:32):
It, dear, and I'll be right here. I'll be in
the background. No one will see me, no one will
hear me, But I'll be here for you. I would say,
do it sure?

Speaker 1 (46:42):
Why not? That Vaughan Meter interview from nineteen ninety eight
was the last the public would hear from him. He
died six years later on a twenty ninth, two thousand
and four, just one day after my father died. Pop

always talked about the time before Kennedy was shot as
a more innocent time. He heard the news on the
car radio and pulled the late blue VW Bug he
was driving, the first car my parents ever owned, over
to the side of the road and wept. It was
a different time, one where the presidency was held in

such regard that von Meter would end his routine with
the assurance that it was all in good fun. We're
never going back to that time, and I'm not saying
we should try, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't pay
our respects, not just to von Meter, but also to
that time before that horrible day. So I want to

end this mobituary with some sound from near the end
of the first Family album, Sweet Disarmingly Innocent and Yes Funny.

Speaker 13 (48:03):
No Everybody taking it together with Viga Shop.

Speaker 1 (48:36):
Be sure to rate and review our podcast. You can
also follow Mobituaries on Facebook and Instagram, and you can
follow me on Twitter at Morocca. For more great content,
including video of the older vond meter, please visit mobituaries
dot com. You can subscribe to Mobituaries wherever you get
your podcasts. This episode Mobituaries was produced by Megan Marcus.

Our team of producers also includes Gideon Evans, Kate mccauliffe,
Meghan Detree, and me Moroka. It was edited by Kate
mccaulliffe and engineered by David Herman. Indispensable support from Genius Denesky,
Kira Wardlow, Zach Gilcrest, Richard Warrer, the team at CBS
News Radio, the JFK Presidential Library, and Joe Alessi at

the CBS News Archives. Our theme music is written by
Daniel Hart and, as always, undying thanks to Rand Morrison
and John carp without whom Obituaries couldn't live
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