Vic Meyers' Main Legacy Is Laughter -- Quick Wit, Wild Stunts Marked His Long Career
When Victor Aloysius Meyers died early yesterday, it was a case of the body almost, but not quite, outlasting the legend.
This state's most famous musician-politician, the man dubbed the Clown Prince of Politics, had been on the shelf for several decades.
But many old-timers remembered the man they called "Vic," the very human person who made them laugh during the Great Depression when humor sometimes was as hard to come by as three squares a day.
Who could ever forget the quips that rolled from Vic's tongue?
Or that famous all-purpose Meyers' greeting, "Hiya, Kiddo," which was followed by a teeth-jarring slap on the back.
One always expected Vic to breathe his last after delivering some outrageously funny remark.
But it was not to be. When Meyers died, at age 93, there were no smart sayings left. He had used a wheelchair in recent years. A thick curtain had fallen on the memory that could spin a thousand yarns.
But it was different in the glory days when Meyers rose from band leader to lieutenant governor of the state in 1932 and reigned for three decades as the funniest, and perhaps most human, politician this state has ever known.
You couldn't miss him on the street - slicked-back hair, pencil-thin mustache, Dutch Master cigars and patent-leather shoes.
Five times, the voters elected him to the office of lieutenant governor. Then they elected him to two terms as secretary of state.
Old Vic was a riot.
"I won't tell any lies about my opponent if he won't tell the truth about me," he said.
"I never wear a vest because I don't want to be accused of standing for vested interests."
"If I'm a Communist, then I'm the only one who was ever named Aloysius," he retorted, with a grin, when an opponent accused him of being a far-left liberal.
Meyers was born in Little Falls, Minn., the 15th of 16 children. His father was a county treasurer for 20 years.
When the family moved to Oregon, Meyers embarked on a musical career, playing drums professionally at a Seaside, Ore., resort while still a teenager. He organized his own 10-piece band when he was 21 and landed a long-term engagement at what once was Seattle's poshest hotel, the old Butler.
There he auditioned a jug-eared young singer, and, as he loved to say in later years, told young Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby he'd be better off in some other profession.
Meyers was a top recording artist for Brunswick, and he built his own Club Victor, where doormen greeted the regular clientele by name and tuxedos were the norm.
In 1932, at the urging of some newspaper reporters, he ran for mayor of Seattle, firing off one-liners, making outlandish promises, lifting a little of the gloom of the Great Depression.
Besides trees the length of Fifth Avenue and "two-four time instead of daylight time," Meyers promised hostesses on street cars.
To the delight of newspaper photographers, he imported a movie actress, Laura LaPlante, to pose provocatively on a trolley.
Once he hired a professional actor as a stand-in speaker before "a stuffy women's club, whose members weren't going to vote for me anyway." The actor came out for open gambling, marijuana, prostitution and legalized speakeasies.
Asked at a political rally how he stood on garbage, Meyers replied, "To the windward, Madam, to the windward." He vowed not to tolerate any "cheap chiseling on city contracts, because I'm going to take it all myself."
But his most famous spoof was to show up at a downtown businessmen's luncheon - along with about a dozen other mayoral candidates - dressed in a Mahatma Gandhi sheet, playing a flute and pulling a goat on a rope.
The idea, he said later, was to portray himself as the poor man's candidate, the others as beholden to the rich. The subtlety got lost in the furor. But Meyers and the goat became a permanent part of the state's political lore.
Despite losing the race, Meyers became the darling of the Seattle press corps, whose members talked him into seeking higher office. Meyers took them seriously and later that year appeared in Olympia to announce he wanted to file for governor.
Told the filing fee was $60, Meyers checked his wallet and replied, "What have you got for $20?" "Lieutenant governor costs $12," he was told.
So Meyers filed for lieutenant governor. For years afterward, he would say, "I came within $48 of being governor."
Meyers was leading his dance band at Seattle's old Trianon ballroom the night he was swept into office with Franklin Roosevelt.
The bandleader proved to be a quick study when he arrived in Olympia. He didn't know Robert's Rules of Order from the Boy Scout oath, but, realizing he'd have to preside over the Senate, set out to learn parliamentary procedure. Before long, he was a master at wielding a gavel.
It turned out that Meyers hadn't been kidding when he said he favored the underdog.
When down-and-outers marched on Olympia to protest the lack of jobs, most state officials hid behind the curtains and wondered what to do. Meyers knew exactly what to do. He went out and talked to them at their soup kitchens.
When Gov. Clarence D. Martin left the state on a trip, Meyers - as next in command - called a special session of the Legislature because: "The Legislature had adjourned without passing an enabling act to permit the state to get old-age pension money. This was the Depression and people were hungry. If Martin didn't care, I did."
Martin rushed back to the state to head off the special session. Ever after, he complained that he was afraid to go out of town for fear of what Meyers might do.
After World War II, Meyers became fascinated with the idea of developing a state park in the sand and sagebrush of Eastern Washington. He hauled fertilizer and two-by-fours in the back of his state-owned Cadillac, while critics laughed.
They called it "Vic's Folly" and deplored the expense - an estimated $700,000. But Sun Lake State Park, a part of 1,400-acre Dry Falls State Park, has become one of the busiest in the state.
Postwar, Meyers also got into the prefabricated-housing business with his brother Joseph and state Sen. Howard Bargreen of Everett. Many of the so-called "Honeymoon GI homes" they developed still stand in Tacoma.
During this time, Meyers made headlines for having three state-owned automobiles - two Cadillacs and one Oldsmobile - while the governor had only one. Meyers cracked that the governor hadn't been around long enough to learn the ropes.
While being re-elected every four years as lieutenant governor, Meyers continued to burnish his image as a master quipster.
One of his best:
"When Will Rogers learned that I also played the violin, he said I was the only politician he ever met with an honest profession."
In 1952 he lost in an Eisenhower landslide not unlike the FDR landslide that had first swept him into office. The years out of office were difficult. Meyers returned to bandleading. He worked for the state land office.
In 1956, he filed for secretary of state, billing himself as "former bandmaster, former lieutenant governor and formerly unemployed."
One of his favorite lines on the stump:
"The last time I talked to you people, I asked you to help old Vic out, and you did; now I'm asking you to help old Vic back in."
Meyers redefined the job of secretary of state. Let others run the office. He'd be an unofficial "ambassador of goodwill" and he'd do it in style - always traveling first-class in the ever-present Cadillac.
But in 1963, Meyers was embarrassed by one of the great political mysteries in state history. Anti-gambling petitions signed by some 80,000 voters, and intended to go on an upcoming statewide ballot, were stolen on a weekend from Meyers' offices.
The scandal rocked the state. And with Meyers billed as a luncheon-club speaker in Olympia the day after the theft was discovered, the press assembled to see whether his vaunted joke-making ability could save him once more.
Meyers stood up and began, "I hate to be a name-dropper, but . . ."
The late Robert Cummings, a veteran Olympia reporter who was there, once said, "The line and timing were vintage Meyers and the audience howled on schedule, and I almost thought for a moment that he'd survive the scandal . . . but, of course, he didn't."
The quips ran out the next year, when the voters turned out Meyers for the last time and elected A. Ludlow Kramer.
In his final appearance before the combined House and Senate in Olympia, the man once dubbed "The Pagliacci of Politics" delivered the jokes that were his trademark.
But his voice choked with emotion as he told the assembled lawmakers how much being in office had meant to him all those years.
In 1976, Meyers caused a flurry of excitement when he filed, at age 78, to run once more for secretary of state. Asked why, he replied with the candor that had marked his entire political career, "I need the money."
But Meyers withdrew for health reasons a few days later. He continued to manage a little golf course associated with apartments he owned near Kent.
In 1990, a party was held for Meyers at the nursing home. While his old dance-band recordings were played, a few people got up to dance, others listened and tapped their feet.
Meyers held court in a wheelchair, smiling, shaking hands but not really understanding all that was going on.
This past March, they finally got around to inducting Meyers into the Northwest Music Association Hall of Fame.
Meyers was preceded in death by his wife, Goldie, in 1976, and by his son, Victor A. Meyers Jr., in 1981.
Survivors include a daughter, Mary Louise Meyers of Palm Desert, Calif; four grandchildren, Patricia Eckloff, of Enumclaw; Dr. Judith Meyers, of Bremerton, Victor A. Meyers III, of Kent, and James Meyers, of Seattle; and four great-grandchildren.
Arrangements for a memorial service are pending.
Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.