Phil Meeder: A Class Act
Phil Meeder, the friendly septuagenarian bearing a resemblance to Bob Keeshan, TV’s Captain Kangaroo, is in his thirty-third year selling Mercedes Benz cars in Annapolis on 6th Street.
When he began in the early 1970s, the dealership sold American Motors autos alongside the newly added Mercedes line. “My job as an Annapolitan at that time was to educate people about what Mercedes Benz was,” says Meeder.
Though a salesman today, his earlier adulthood revolved around acting, primarily on the radio during the 1950s and 1960s. He began his pursuit of the stage while studying at Williams College in Massachusetts for an English degree, which he earned in 1954. During that time, Meeder participated in summer stock theatrical productions and auditioned for early television soap operas.
He describes his acting career during his post-college years as “freelance,” when he says he spent a lot of time “at liberty, looking for work—a lot of time looking for work.” Meeder found work in several serial daytime shows, all on live TV.
Just as he was beginning to make a name for himself as an actor, his acting career was put on hiatus when he was drafted into the Army in 1956 for a two-year stint. He wasn’t too concerned about losing momentum as a thespian because he had a young director, Fred Carr, as mentor who would continue to help him when his Army duty was completed. “He liked me and was using me more and more,” explains Meeder, “and he was getting used more and more.”
However, life often turns on the unexpected, and Carr died from a heart attack just before Meeder was discharged. Suddenly, his acting career was in limbo. “I came back starting all over again,” he says, somewhat chagrined.
This was the opposite of the success stories where an actor recounts being in the right place at the right time. “I had been, but it was the wrong thing to happen to me at the right time,” he continues. “It was just one of those unfortunate things. I was at that level where you had to be able to go a long time without making it.”
Meeder drifted away from TV after that, in part, because many of the productions were moving to California during that period. “I’m an Easterner, not a Westerner,” he says. “I was not comfortable going out there.”
So, he started doing the rounds again, this time focusing on radio, just as the grand old radio soaps were dying off. “From 1958 to 1960, I did a lot of radio,” he reminisces. He acted on The Right to Happiness, among others. “I did commercials, too. That’s how I really made my living.”
In 1960, Meeder’s wife Judith became pregnant. They met a few years earlier when he was in the Army. Judith was a classically trained vocalist who performed with the Baltimore Civic Opera Company under the legendary operatic diva Rosa Ponselle. They married in 1958. Currently receiving dialysis treatments, Judith is seeking a kidney transplant.
“Thanksgiving Day, shortly before my first child was born, the soap operas were cancelled.” He laughs, now, about how “he killed off the soap operas!” Meeder was able to find work on Sunday night radio suspense dramas, which continued to be popular despite the encroachment of television. Alas, the lack of steady income, and the need to support a new family, forced him to get “a straight job.”
He chose not to pursue a career in the advertising industry, which might have seemed a natural alternative to acting. “I was very well-connected in advertising,” he explains, “but I didn’t want to do that.” He watched too many people transition from acting to advertising and saw their personal lives crumble from the pressure, despite the lucrative compensation. Alcoholism and multiple divorces seemed to go with the turf.
His family trumped all, though. “My wife and I have a tremendous amount in common. You don’t last 48 years if you don’t. Judy and I were lucky enough to both want to have a family, and we wanted to share lives. We’ve had a pretty rich life.”
So, Meeder started working for Western-Electric as a technical writer, while still doing an occasional radio show. He didn’t like the tedious work, and his radio avocation eventually created his exit.
“I don’t know if my grandmother died five times or not, but I would (use any excuse) to take off a day to record a radio show.” He was caught one time when he co-starred with actress Piper Laurie on a suspense program that was advertised in the New York Times. “All publicity is not always good publicity,” he chuckles.
With a growing family and the need for a “straight job,” Meeder left New York City to teach theater at Williams College during the early 1960s. “I was hired for my professional background. I was the only non-PhD on the faculty.”
He then started work on that degree at Catholic University in Washington, DC, but financial pressures associated with the birth of his third child compelled him to cease his studies and, once again, look for a job. “I ran out of time and money for graduate school: Having three children, and trying to support a family, and trying to go to graduate school all at the same time.”
His wife’s family lived in Annapolis, so a decision was made to drop anchor here. During the latter part of the 1960s and early 1970s, he worked as a publisher’s representative selling textbooks. The traveling took him away from his family for long stretches, so he decided “it was time to find something closer to home.”
The transition from acting to sales was not hard for Meeder. As a freelance actor, he was always trying to sell himself to directors and producers, a nerve-wracking process where he was his own product. “You went out and promoted yourself,” he says describing the process. “You carried your résumé, your picture.”
Now, it’s easy, he says, because the product is a well-made motorcar. “It is a lot easier to sell a product than it is to sell yourself. Rejection is easier to take.”
He notes bemusedly about a contradiction in modern theater where the actor must be sensitive so that he can master his craft, yet be thick-skinned to survive the process of acquiring acting jobs. “You must have the hide of a rhinoceros to get jobs. It’s a hard life. It’s a pretty selfish life.”
While in Annapolis, Meeder was able to remain involved in radio. “From 1973 until about five years ago,” he states in his familiar baritone, “I was the voice of Benson Motor Cars. I did all our radio commercials.”