Dedicated to the History of Maine and the People and Places That Preserve It

Vaughn Meader:
Maine’s Forgotten Comedian

By Bob Colby

Vaughn Meader with his best-selling album on Nov. 29, 1962.
Less than a year later, his career as a leading comedian was over.
About twenty years ago I found myself in the crowd at Shirley Littefield’s farm in East Benton, Maine, for the 14th annual East Benton Fiddler’s Convention, known to most as Fiddlefest, which has been held the last Sunday in July since 1972. After the competitions, and before the bluegrass band Country Choir were to close the event, a slight, gray-bearded man appeared on stage to little fanfare, and began playing Bob Dylan songs on a rickety stand-up piano. The crowd paid little attention, which didn’t seem to bother the wizened old gentleman, as he sang in a dry, cracked voice songs of protest from the early sixties. After about twenty minutes, he left the stage to scattered applause from the few who were actually paying any attention, and only when the emcee announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Vaughn Meader!” did I realize what I had just witnessed. I turned to the small group of people I was with and said, “Vaughn Meader? I don’t believe it! That’s Vaughn Meader!” I got nothing back from them but blank stares. Most of them were a few years younger than me, but I was still incredulous that the name meant nothing to them. “Vaughn Meader was huge!” I said, “He was the most famous comedian in the country for a while! You guys really don’t know who that guy is?” Abbott Vaughn Meader was born in Waterville, Maine on March 20, 1936, during one of the worst floods ever to hit New England, often referred to as “the night the West Bridge washed out.”

Vaughn Meader (center, right) featured on the cover of The First Family, 1962.

He died in Auburn at the age of 68 on October 29, 2004, although according to the man himself, his actual date of death was November 22, 1963, the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

After graduating from Brookline High School, the home of the Kennedys, Meader joined the Army and went to Germany where he met and married his first wife. Details are scant about Meader’s early life, what is known is that his father died in a swimming accident when Meader was only a year old, and he bounced around between relatives, ending up in a brutal childrens’ home in Massachusetts. He is quoted as saying “I grew up in children’s homes, got thrown out of one of them, got through high school and went in the Army.” While stationed in Germany, he joined a GI band, returned to the States, and started doing comedy between songs in the New York club circuit.

His Maine accent proved to be easily shifted to the Boston Brahmin accent peculiar to JFK, and audiences soon were clamoring for the Kennedy impression rather than music. In October of 1962, Meader recorded his act for a comedy album called The First Family.

By Christmas of that year, the record had rocketed up the charts, and was awarded a Grammy as Album of the Year. Kennedy himself enjoyed the record so much he purchased a hundred of them to give away as Christmas presents, although the President often said “He sounds more like my brother Bobby.” Tame by today’s standards, the album at the time was considered cutting-edge political humor, and Meader’s star was on the rise. Appearances in Las Vegas and on the Ed Sullivan Show, articles in the New York Times, as well as Time and Life magazines soon followed, and the 26 year old Meader was the hottest comedian in show business.

In Las Vegas his salary was $22,500 a week, quite a step up from the $7.50 an hour he was making in Greenwich Village clubs before he was discovered. He recorded The First Family Volume Two in March 1963, and was so well-known that at a press conference the President opened by saying, “Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself.”

Impressionist Rich Little said that he didn’t do an impression of Kennedy so much as “an impression of Vaughn Meader doing Kennedy.” On November 22nd, 1963, the Meader supernova came crashing to the ground.

In Meader’s own words, “November 22, 1963, the day I died. I was in a cab in Milwaukee, and the cab driver 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.

Everything got canceled, and everything stopped.” Lenny Bruce, appearing at a New York club that evening, was wondering how to make an audience laugh after such a national tragedy. According to several sources, Bruce was introduced that night, took the microphone and stood silently for several moments before opening his act with the line, “Vaughn Meader is screwed!” And Meader undoubtedly was. Appearances on the Joey Bishop Show, the Grammys, and To Tell The Truth were canceled. Record stores pulled the albums from their shelves.

Influential friends and associates stopped calling. Meader’s career, based as it was on one impression, had abruptly stopped, as quickly as it had begun. He began using his given name, Abbott, which he had spurned earlier for being “too effete” and vowed never again to do a Kennedy impression, a vow he kept until death. Vaughn Meader’s life, as he knew it, was over. He was twenty-seven years old. Meader sank into a deep depression, fueled by alcohol, cocaine and heroin. He drifted around down south. In Chicago, in 1968, he remembers being “stabbed by a cab driver,” which led to his religious conversion. “There were no marks, there was no trace, there was no nothing – but it was real! So I went back to New York and I started meditating and reading the Bible and doing things like running in Van Cortland Park with my eyes closed, saying, “Blind faith, blind faith, blind faith, blind faith.” Meader tried valiantly to revive his career, recording several comedy albums to dismal sales, even doing one with Rich Little about the Reagan administration called The First Family Revisited. He appeared in a couple of movies in 1975, Lepke, with Tony Curtis, in which he portrayed journalist Walter Winchell, and the ill-conceived Linda Lovelace For President.

He married and divorced twice more, until he met his fourth wife, the former Sheila Colbath.Vaughn and Sheila lived for a few years in Gulfport, Florida, before returning home to Maine, where Sheila still resides. Meader managed a restaurant in Hallowell, still performing bluegrass and gospel onstage to smallish crowds like that of the Fiddlefest, who were mostly unaware of his former stature.

Vaughn Meader

A few more attempts at a revival of his career fell short, some by Meader’s own refusal to compromise, including the option to the story of his life by Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone, to film a fictionalized biography of Meader’s rise and fall, possibly to star Hanks himself as the Meader character. Abbott, as he was known in Maine and Florida in the waning years of his life, was still a consummate performer, banging out his own songs in honkytonks on both ends of Route 1.

One day in Florida, a television crew followed him around on one of his afternoons at a beachfront bar. A fellow afternoon drinker wondered why Meader was being filmed, and he replied, “They’re doing one of those ‘Where Are They Now?’ things for TV.” “Did you used to be somebody?” his companion asked, to which Abbott replied, “I used to be somebody. Now I’m a nobody. I’m happy being a nobody.” Accounts of Meader at this time suggest that he was never far removed from his beloved Kools and rum & cokes, and in his Auburn home there was a yellow “Do Not Resuscitate” order taped to the refrigerator.

>He died of chronic emphysema in 2004, but by all accounts the last 41 years of his life were a life after death. To quote Meader from a 1999 interview in the New York Times magazine, “The conclusion I’ve come to is the cosmic force of timing. That’s the lesson I learned. It’s all. It’s like a Swiss watch, and we’re all working for it whether we know it or not. There’s a celestial clock with gears within gears and wheels within wheels and individuals spiraling through life. I don’t know if I can explain it, other than when it’s time, it’s time. It’s almost like the movie of our lives is already in the can and all it’s doing now is running, with the earth as our stage. So everybody’s got parts, and when each of us comes to our grand finale, then that’s that.”

Or to quote the musical that served as the symbol of the Kennedy administration, and also perhaps of the life of Abbott Vaughn Meader, “Don’t let it be forgot That once there was a spot For one brief shining moment that was known As Camelot.”