A Look Back: THE FIRST FAMILY record album with Vaughn Meader

Jack Goblin By Jack Goblin, 6th Mar 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

Late in 1962 a record album was released that sold more than most albums had in history. And made America laugh.

Return With Us Now, To those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear...

Recently at a second hand store I ran across something I hadn't seen for almost 50 years: The First Family phonograph album. I bought it, took it home and played it... and was once again in the halcyon year 1963. And laughing.

To explain this for anyone younger than fifty: In 1962 two men, Bob Booker and Earle Doud, had an idea for a novelty comedy record that would play off the great popularity of new President John F. Kennedy, his family, and some of the already well known hallmarks and foibles of his administration.

Booker and Doud were skilled and experienced comedy writers and actors, among other things, and knew when they had a subject that could be spoofed to great effect. And JFK and Camelot were perfect targets.

Meet the Press

The key to their plan was Vaughn Meader, a stand up comedian, musician, and vocal impersonator who could do a spot-on imitation of John F. Kennedy. He had JFK's vocal tones and mannerisms down pat, and he even looked somewhat like the President. The three of them made up several skits and routines that poked affectionate fun at things Kennedy.

For instance, media savvy JFK was having regular televised news conferences; and he requested as part of this that reporters chosen to ask him questions first stand up and for the television audience identify themselves and the organization they represented before making their inquiries. Which Kennedy, known for his great skill in dealing with the press, would usually handle with aplomb and humor.

Booker, Doud, and Meader kept the aplomb, cranked up the humor, and devised a news conference in which the antics of the reporters, and Kennedy's responses, produced laughs not headlines. They got double mileage out of this gimmick in a later skit by envisioning a Kennedy family meeting in which JFK used the same tactics as in his news conference; leading to a situation in which at one point Jacqueline Kennedy had to stand up and and in somewhat befuddled tones identify herself as "I'm your wife" before she could ask her question.

This, of course, got laughs as well. As did her question - why the President hadn't been eating his salad at dinner? - and the President's rambling, politic response where, after saying he had nothing against the salad, it was the dressing he hadn't liked while nevertheless expressing his support for the dairy industry that had made the salad dressing, he admitted he'd rather have cole slaw.

And speaking of laugh lines, this skit also had what would be one of the album's great ones. The White House nurse, in charge of young Caroline and toddler John-John Kennedy, complained that bath times were getting confusing and she needed a breakdown of who owned which bath toys.

Kennedy listed the toys - model PT-boats, beach balls, silly putty, and a few other items, included a rubber swan - then did a Solomon like division of them between the children before concluding, in his Harvard accent, "The rubbah shwan, is mine!"

America Holds Its Breath... Then LAUGHS

Booker and Doud began peddling the idea of a comedy record album to the various record companies. And hit a road block. The problem was, the Cold War was still raging. The demanded conformity of the 50's, the insistence that absolute respect had to be shown to figures of government and authority, that it was only by these and confining ourselves to innocuous humor - or no humor at all - that we could beat the Commies: Such ideas were prevalent in the recording industry, and much of the power structure of the time. Booker and Doud at first couldn't get anywhere.

Fortunately a small record company, Cadence, decided to take a chance. Additional actors were hired, lines rehearsed, and finally, before a live studio audience (in those days when recorded laugh tracks were frowned on), the various skits were performed and recorded. As the audience responded with rollicking laughter.

Coincidentally the taping was done on October 22, 1962, the same day that Kennedy announced on nationwide TV that there were missiles in Cuba, that island was under a US naval blockade, and the world was on the brink of WWIII. The audience might not have laughed at all had they been aware of what was going on outside the studio.

By the time the records were pressed and out in stores, though, the Cuban Missile Crisis had been resolved and people felt like laughing again. And when they played the record, they did. News about the album spread by newspaper article, radio airplay, and word of mouth, and sales of the First Family were enormous. Even JFK went along with the fun, giving copies of the album to friends; and, at gatherings he attended, joking that Vaughn Meader had been unavailable and they'd have to settle for him.

International Relations Can Be Funny, too!

One large and popular skit featured all the males in the cast and revolved around a fictional luncheon at the White house. The luncheon participants played by various actors were Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev (head of the USSR) and Fidel Castro (the bearded Communist who had taken over Cuba), Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and Israeli's David Ben-Gurion, French President Charles de Galle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Nationalist Chinese President Chaing Kai-shek, and Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana and a man known for the idea of Pan-Africanism and his own version of socialism, as well as balancing between the USSR and the USA and their allies.

This incendiary - explosive! - mix had been called together to discuss various international problems. But first Kennedy, under fire for the cost of his White House entertaining, proposed a businessman's lunch; getting food from the local deli instead of having an expensive banquet prepared by the White House kitchens. There was grumbling, but the participants went along, giving orders for what they wanted.

This resulted in lots of laughs, much of it based on humor centered around these men and their previous actions. For instance, once during a UN debate Khrushchev had pounded his shoe on his desk when delegates said things he didn't want to hear.

When in the skit Nkumah ordered a lunch that seemed too western for his liking, Khrushchev began beating his shoe on the table until Nkumah added a bowl of borscht to his order. Also, when Adenauer - leader of part of divided Germany - asked for a Western sandwich, Khrushchev demanded the eastern portion of his Western sandwich.

A humorous - and a bit poignant - exchange had Nasser, kingpin of the Arab world at the time, solemnly ordering a hot pastrami sandwich on white toast with the comment that he seldom was able to get such at home. Ben-Gurion broke in, asking Nassar to PLEASE take his advice despite all their differences, pastrami and white bread did not go together, what he wanted was pastrami on rye with a little mustard.

Nassar somewhat hesitantly decided to take Ben-Gurion's suggestion, and the President of Israel indicated that if the President of Egypt liked food he couldn't get at home and were ever in Ben-Gurion's neighborhood, he should stop by and have some gefilte fish. The exchange ended with Nasser calling Ben-Gurion "Ben", and Ben-Gurion calling Nasser "Abe".

If only such a friendlier relationship could have been in real life.

Wide Ranging Humor

There were a variety of other skits, some long, some short. One involved a Presidential motorcade - more than 70 cars and motorcycles - stopping at a gas station for a fill up, only to have Kennedy call it off when he found out they didn't give out green stamps. In another, there was the sound of a silent figure walking towards the White House, being challenged and then passed by the various guards, then a knock on the door and, when Kennedy answered, a childish voice asking "Can Caroline come out to play?".

The longest skit was based on a real life event. When the Kennedys had moved into the White House Jackie - member of the upper crust and High Society, familiar with the ornateness and historical decoration of the palaces and governmental offices of European nations and the homes of the rich - had been startled by how bland and lacking in appeal the interior of the Presidential Mansion was. Previous Presidents had given away, or taken with them when they left office, many of the works of art and furnishings gifted to the White House by citizens or other nations. The place had the charm and historical depth of a Holiday Inn. She decided to change that, and make the White House something special.

Rather than trying to get a hostile Congress to provide the money for her ideas, Jackie launched a private campaign to internally remodel the place. As part of this, she asked for contributions. Money, yes, for the carpenters and construction she envisioned. But more than that, for people to donate the historical and artistic treasures they possessed that had once been part of the White House.

Furniture, paintings, carved doors and panels, artifacts: These came flooding in in response to her plea, and with them she set about making the White House a living museum and showplace. As she said, the White House wasn't just where the President lived and worked, it was AMERICA'S house. And it should look like it.

Jackie, and the White House

When her efforts were well along, she invited a TV camera crew and announcer Charles Collingwood to come on a tour of the White House, to show America what she was doing. This was nationally televised on all three of the major networks, and millions watched as Jackie - soft voiced and a bit nervous and awkward, but still charming - acted as tour guide for Collingwood and huge, heavy TV cameras mounted on mobile platforms.

They visited various rooms named for historical figures, Jackie identified the numerous items which had been contributed, naming the givers. As the cameras examined the new, much more impressive White House and the ongoing construction she was directing, the tour and Jackie's performance put the shine on Camelot.

On the album Naomi Brossart, doing a very good vocal imitation of Jacqueline Kennedy, conducted a similar but much stranger tour, wandering about the White House in a slightly daffy manner with the TV crew in pursuit, getting lost amidst all the corridors, pointing out such things as the White House lawn ("That lawn was a gift, from Mrs. W.C. Ridgeway, of Hollyhock, Virginia") and various portraits ("There's one over there. And one there. And that big one there...").

During the tour they ran into a half naked, dripping wet JFK, who after a shower was himself lost in the new construction and trying to find the bedroom so he could get dressed. Jackie kept trying to conduct the tour while Kennedy declaimed on his predicament on the background, lamenting that he had a news conference in 15 minutes and to make it he would have to move forward with great vigor.

Jackie finally took pity on him and gave him a series of directions that made fun of the naming of White House rooms ("past the Dolly Madison Pinochle Room, turn at the Richard Nixon Dumbwaiter...") and that you just knew would get him more lost than ever. The tour ended with Doud as Collingwood hurriedly switching control back to the studio before things went completely pear-shaped. As the audience roared.

And That's The Way Things Are...

First Family was so successful, a second album was quickly produced and released. America laughed; and Booker and Doud did too, all the way to the bank.

Then, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The laughter stopped.

Cadence Records hurriedly withdrew the First Family records from stores and destroyed most of them; both because they didn't want to be seen trying to profit from such a tragedy, and because demand was suddenly almost non-existent. Those who had First Family records could play them at home, but it wasn't fun anymore.

Time heals, however. Many of the skits and routines on the records WERE funny, even if the subjects were somewhat topical; and as time went on the desire to enjoy them again grew. The record was remembered fondly and sought after by collectors and those who wanted to hear it. Finally, in 1999 the collected albums were released on CD. And sold well once more, as people laughed and remembered a bright, shining moment when optimism abounded and anything seemed possible.

In Camelot.

Media Source: Wikimedia Commons

Link to the Wikipedia article on The First Family record album


Camelot, Comedy, First Family, Jfk, John F Kennedy, Kennedy, Record Album, Vaughn Meader

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author avatar Jack Goblin
Was born. Haven't died yet. Don't intend to anytime soon.

Thank you much for reading my articles. I hope they brought you pleasure and enlightenment. :)

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author avatar Dawn143
9th Mar 2015 (#)

It's amazing how sobering one single act can be. Humans are nothing if not resilient though, and we need to see the funny side of things. I appreciated this article immensely! Thank you!

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