The 50th anniversary of the world’s most nervous episode is this month, as media are recalling President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation the night of October 22, 1962, revealing the existence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, then chillingly declaring that a launch of any one would bring total war.
In a moment of unparalleled irony, an up-and-coming comic from Maine watched the televised address in a bar in New York City minutes before he entered an adjoining recording studio where he had to swallow his fear and politely parody the commander-in-chief for a comedy album that seemed doomed to an historical ultimate in ill timing.
Weeks later, the missiles were gone, Vaughn Meader’s The First Family was becoming what is still the fastest selling record of any genre in U.S. history, and the seeds of one of Louisville local government’s most quirky episodes were planted.
Among the 7.5 million people who laughed through 16 skits exposing JFK and brothers Bobby and Ted Kennedy to Meader’s dead ringer voice impressions was an ambitious 22-year-old University of Louisville Brandeis law student named Todd Hollenbach, who would serve with Kennedy-esque youthful vigor as Jefferson County Judge-Executive from 1970 to 1977.
The young Hollenbach’s reaction to the record, like that of the nation as a whole, was awe at the manner in which Meader captured and even enhanced the charisma of the president. It was an entertainment phenomenon which proved wrong the decision by many record companies to pass on producing The First Family for fear it would be seen as tasteless and unpatriotic.
“His First Family album was one of the great memories of my lifetime,” Hollenbach said Oct. 5 in an interview from his Crescent Hill-area home. “I still probably have one… somewhere.
“The president was popular, particularly with young people like me.”
Hollenbach concluded his interview by extemporaneously doing his own rendition of perhaps the most memorable First Family line, which Meader delivers while the president is doing an inventory of White House accouterment. The Trinity High School graduate and fourth-generation Kentuckian said with impressive JFK-like realism: “Two PT boats and the rubber swan.”
Fifty years ago, Meader ‘s impression was soon to become so recognized that JFK was asked about the album at a press conference, and his attorney general brother told the New York Times that a state official he telephoned to discuss civil rights hung up and called back just to be certain this wasn’t Vaughn Meader pulling a prank.
The nation’s laughter turned to gasps a year later as the assassination of John F. Kennedy ended sales and prompted a somber Meader to announce he would never again do the Kennedys as a comedy act. The tragedy preceded a decade and a half of drug problems and three divorces for Meader, who had grown up rebellious and comedic in relatives’ homes and several children’s facilities in New England.
The end of Camelot also would seem to have been the end of Hollenbach’s involvement with Vaughn Meader, but in the spring of 1972, while attending a party in Cherokee Triangle, the Judge-Executive was astounded to be introduced to the entertainer, who had married Los Angeles actress Susan Hannah before accompanying her in a move back to her hometown of Louisville.
Days later, Meader was working in the county’s Program Planning Development office, which was helping lay the groundwork for the TARC bus system, among other current-day services.
“I hired him,” Hollenbach said, explaining that he felt Meader was a good match for an opening in the office, despite a resume devoid of any government service.
Meader, who died in 2004, told me during an interview in 1990 as we strolled through his hometown of Hallowell, Me. that Louisvillians weren’t convinced the hire was anything more than JFK nostalgia overtaking Hollenbach.
“They crucified him,” Meader said of public reaction to the judge placing him in the courthouse. A newspaper story shortly after the hiring said some were questioning Meader’s qualifications and reported that Meader had recently been destitute, literally singing for his supper by performing music before vacationers at picnic tables in the Rocky Mountains.
The unattributed information, Meader said in 1990, came from a fabricated national tabloid story stemming from a tourist’s snapshot of Meader playing music at a campsite for his and friends’ enjoyment while he was, in fact, financially stable and well fed.
The reportage of the tabloid’s fiction dismayed Meader, but the man once anointed by Time magazine the “Myna bird of Camelot” decided the furor overall was justified and he resigned his county job minutes before a downtown rally in favor of his hiring was to start.
Meader said one lasting contribution during his weeks at the position was suggesting to Hollenbach that he do a radio call-in show named “Tell It To The Judge,” a program Hollenbach and successors did for decades on Louisville airwaves.
Meader stayed in Louisville until 1974, often playing honky-tonk music at clubs in the city. Music was his forte; his voice impression repertoire was limited to JFK and his brothers, an act Meader said required only slight augmentations of his own voice and an instinctive knowledge of the New England accent.
Shirley Williams, a retired Courier-Journal reporter who lived one block from Meader in the early 1970s, met the entertainer after she was asked by a national magazine to report on his county job brouhaha. Seconds after introducing herself on Meader’s porch, the two hit it off, Williams recalled.
“He guessed my sign,” she said. That immediately warmed Meader’s chilled feelings toward media over the tabloid information, Williams said, and launched two years of friendship.
Meader often stopped by her home, playing Williams’s piano for hours at a time, displaying a penchant – which was still evident in 1990 – for composing humorous short songs on the spot. Williams recalls bidding Meader farewell so she could work on a speech she was soon to deliver at Berea College.
“He sat down at the piano and started writing funny lyrics about me making a speech at Berea," she recalled. "He was very good at it.... I very much enjoyed having the house full of music."
Photo courtesy of the Penn State Special Collections Library.