Friday, November 22, 2013

Didn't you use to be … Vaughn Meader

On 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, a look back at Vaughn Meader, a JFK impressionist who never again performed his act after Nov. 22, 1963.
Vaughn Meader holds a copy of his smash comedy LP, "The First Family." 

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
February 10, 1989

Vaughn Meader was an overnight success whose rise was made the more memorable by his rapid return to obscurity.
An unheralded singing comic from Lowell, Mass., he was performing a nightly monologue at a Greenwich Village club in the summer of 1962 when his uncanny impersonation of fellow New Englander John F. Kennedy caught the attention of a talent scout.
The scout had Mr. Meader and a troupe of actors record a parody album that poked polite fun at the foibles of the popular, young U.S. president and his family.
The album, called The First Family, was rejected by four major record labels before being accepted by Cadence Records. It was the best-selling U.S. recording to that time, more than five million copies being sold within a few months.
Its success was spurred in part by the good-humored response of the target of Mr. Meader's gentle gibes. Mr. Kennedy delighted reporters at a press conference that year when he acknowledged he had played the album.
"I have listened to Mr. Meader's record," he said with a smile. "I thought it sounded more like Teddy than me."
The singer seemed destined for a long career making light of the Kennedys. But on Nov. 22, 1963, his brand of humor went out of style.
Mr. Meader went into seclusion after the assassination. But even after purging his act of Kennedy material, he was seen only as a reminder of tragedy. A fickle public turned an overnight success into an overnight flop.
Like many of his younger compatriots, the singer spent much of the 1960s exploring North America. He lived in teepees, houseboats and log cabins.
A 1971 comedy album about a visit to Harlem by Jesus called The Second Coming proved unprophetic. Mr. Meader could not shake his reputation as an oddity from another time and the record received little attention.
His wandering ended 12 years ago, when he settled in sleepy Hallowell, Me., where he lives with his fourth wife, Sheila.
Mr. Meader, 52, plays the piano with his five-piece bluegrass band Gone Fishin'. They perform weekly at the Speakeasy bar, which he calls "the biggest new-happening joint in central Maine."
"I'm still rockin'," he says today. "Gone Fishin', that's our attitude when we all sit down to play. It's a good time, man."
Mr. Meader is considering moving toward a harder rock sound by adding a horn to his band, but he resolutely refuses to cover modern tunes.
"People request a new one, I give them a quarter and they can go play it on the jukebox," he said.
Still writing songs, he managed to pen just one last year. It's called I'm Still Rockin'.
Mr. Meader is well known among residents of Hallowell, a tourist town about three kilometres south of Augusta, the state capital. Joyce Walters, a bartender and Mr. Meader's former neighbor, said the singer is often asked by visitors about his fall from fame.
"Abbott's pretty well cool about the whole thing," she said. (Vaughn is the singer's middle name, which he used on stage.) "He won't play any Kennedy stuff, though."
For his part, Mr. Meader is content to be a major celebrity in a minor town.
"You can send a letter to me: Abbott, Hallowell, Maine, and I'll get it," he said. "If any Canadians come to Hallowell, they can walk up to the first person they meet on the street and say, 'Where can we find Abbott Meader?' They'll find me."
The barbs of The First Family are tame by today's standards, although Mr. Meader had one brush with Washington officialdom.
A Washington radio station once aired a short promotional blurb in which Mr. Meader told listeners the Kennedy clan listened to station WWDC "with great vigah." The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was so enraged by the commercial use of a presidential impersonation that he drew it to the attention of the Kennedy White House.
By the time press secretary Pierre Salinger complained, the station's owner had ordered the plug off the air.

Mr. Meader long ago abandoned any wish to return to the big time. "That's like asking Ted Williams to play for the Dodgers," he said during last fall's World Series. "He couldn't hit the ball past first base."

Friday, November 15, 2013

Happy Jack

Legendary British Columbia labour leader Jack Munro died on Nov. 15, aged 82. Here's a 1992 profile of the blustery, profane and likeable character.

The face of Jack Munro.

By Tom Hawthorn

Friday, November 8, 2013

Veterans come from all generations

Myles Mansell, KIA (1980-2006)

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
November, 2013

On Remembrance Day, the old men stand again in pressed uniforms, medals gleaming in the mid-morning sun. They snap sharp salutes, aged muscles repeating what was once so long ago part of daily routine.

The aged warriors gather at the cenotaph on the Legislative Grounds and at the war memorial in Oak Bay. The annual ritual is comforting in its familiarity — the raising of the flag, the placing of wreaths, the bugle sounding “Last Post” and “Reveille,” as though each lonesome note was calling to mind a fallen comrade.

The old men wipe tears, though if you ask them about it they will cite the wind, or a speck of dust. Their generation remains uneasy about speaking of loss.

It is natural to think only of the old-timers on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. We are such a great distance from the Great War, whose horrors were ignited a century ago, less a year. The Second World War ended 68 years ago, and the war in Korea, whose veterans never received the attention they deserved, ground to a stalemate 60 years ago.

The veterans of the First World War are all gone, the last Canadian among them, Jack Babcock, having died three years ago, aged 109. The Second World War vets are in their 80s now, so each passing year the soldiers at the ceremonies seem that much older.

They cry silently for lost friends and brothers, and it is easy to forget how young they all were at the time.
Our war dead are not all from a generation ago. We have lost peacekeepers and, more recently, we have lost 154 members of the Canadian Forces (as well as a diplomat, a reporter and two aid workers) in action in Afghanistan.

On Remembrance Day, my thoughts turn to Myles Stanley John Mansell, a bombardier killed with three comrades in 2006 when his lightly-armoured vehicle struck a roadside bomb on a dusty road outside Gumbad. He was 25.

He died with men named Turner and Dinning and Payne. Even in their sharp grief, the Mansell family sent notes of condolence to the other families.

He had been born a few months after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the beginning of a war whose outcome is still not settled. The boy, known as Smiley Myley, played soccer and lacrosse in the Victoria suburbs, but disliked swimming despite having sailors in the family. Myles came home once in tears because the teacher had said kilometres were replacing miles and he thought he'd have to change his name, too.

As a young man, he worked in the family business and joined the reservists of the 5th (British Columbia) Field Regiment, firing cannons at Ford Rodd Hill on Canada Day and at the Legislature to greet a new lieutenant-governor. When Canada agreed to fight the Taliban, Mansell volunteered for service. He was not an expert on the subject, but thought the people of Afghanistan deserved the same life and freedoms he enjoyed in Canada.

If you go to the Veteran's Cemetery off Colville Road in Esquimalt, you will find a small chapel surrounded by a squat stone fence. This is known as God's Acre, a tidy garden of grave markers. Only songbirds interrupt the silence. You will find a granite marker on which has been etched Mansell's name, rank, serial number, regiment, date of death, and age. Forever 25. He rests between plots holding his maternal grandparents and great grandparents, the men having served in the Royal Canadian Navy.

In Langford, a leafy cul-de-sac was the scene of an impressive display two years ago. A pair of 105mm howitzers flanked the entrance to the street. Artillery shells lined the roadway. A bugler played, as did a bagpiper, while a military padre intoned a prayer.

Of the 200 in attendance, only one wore a Memorial Cross. She was Nancy Mansell and it was her son after whom the quiet suburban street was being named. It was a modest gesture for so grave a sacrifice, but it meant more than one could image to a mother who wore her son's name on a medal no one ever wishes to receive.

“It's important for us to know that others think of Myles. And remember Myles. We don't want him to be forgotten,” she told me then. A mother contemplated what it would mean if her son was not remembered by name. “Just a number.” She need say no more.