Veteran Chautauqua actor takes on RFK

Special to the Tribune Chronicle Jeremy Meier will perform as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy June 29 in Warren as part of the Ohio Chautauqua program.

WARREN — Jeremy Meier, who will perform as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy during the Ohio Chautauqua run next month in Warren, said the local audience will get a treat because he is the same age, height and weight of the senator when he ran for the presidency that fateful year of 1968.

Meier will slip into the role of RFK during the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The one-man show features a 30-minute monologue using some of Kennedy’s campaign speeches as well insights on such 1960s historical events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement, which were impacted by the Kennedy name and had shaped RFK’s world view, Meier said.

“The audience is going to be taken back to May 31, 1968, a night in Oakland, California, just a few days before the primary,” Meier said.

Ohio Chautauqua is put on by the Columbus-based nonprofit Ohio Humanities. Sponsors of the event are the Tribune Chronicle, Warren-Trumbull County Public Library and Trumbull 100, in partnership with the Trumbull County Tourism Bureau and supported by the Charitable Remainder Trusts of Raymond L. and Janice Bland.

Each themed series visits eight Ohio communities over the course of two summers. The other locations that will host Ohio Chautauqua in 2019 are Defiance, Milan and neighboring Geauga County.

This year’s theme is “Modern Legends” and will feature other mid-20th century figures Erma Bombeck, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Julia Child and Cesar Chavez.

Kennedy spoke out about issues of the times he felt were moral obligations, like poverty, illiteracy and the war in Vietnam, as well as the division and rioting it wrought at home.

Meier said he used his computer to download from open source websites original footage of the candidate. He said that because many in the audience knew of Kennedy when he was alive, the expectations are higher than his other Chautauqua portrayals of Oliver Hazard Perry and John Dillinger.

“People are going to know that thin, reedy voice, but RFK actually received voice lessons and as that 1968 campaign wore on, the voice improved,” Meier said. “The audience knew what Kennedy looked like and how he acted. They want that toothy smile.”

Meier has performed RFK to audiences about a half-dozen times in the past several seasons.

“It has been a lot of fun and really rewarding,” Meier said. “In some of the places last summer, the political climate may not have been open to hear a lot of liberal talk, but people were still respectful.”

The actor said his research has dug up a lot of insights about RFK’s final campaign.

“Bobby was running one of the last of the whistle-stop campaigns. He was a throwback, not willing to do television debates.”

Meier said the crowds were very responsive to this campaign style. He said Bobby had to start wearing clip-on ties because his tied ones ended up being ripped off or tugged around his neck.

“His tooth was chipped when he was being pulled out of a convertible.”

Meier’s monologue also draws on RFK’s speeches from Cape Town, South Africa, in 1965; his endeavor in scaling Mount Kennedy, named after his slain brother, in the Canadian Rockies in 1964; and the speech Kennedy made on April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was slain.

“In that speech, RFK was at his best, he invoked a lot of the things that Martin Luther King stood for — things like non-violence and unity.”

The monologue is followed by a question-and-answer session in which Meier says he will stay in his role.

“When the crowd starts to ask questions about his assassination (on June, 5, 1968), I cut them off. I would respond, ‘Let’s not talk about those things; we can’t have a president who is afraid of walking among the people.'”

Meier said he is always concerned about the “authentic realism” of the role, so Kennedy didn’t talk much about Richard Nixon, who went on to win the 1968 election.

During the 1968 California primary campaign, Kennedy also interacted with labor leader Cesar Chavez, another subject who will be featured in this summer’s Chautauqua performances in Warren.

Meier began doing roles for Chautauqua in 2001 when he portrayed a young George Armstrong Custer in the Civil War. At age 42, he said he may be getting too old for his other roles of Dillinger and Perry.

“It looks like I have about five more years of being Kennedy,” he said.