Liberace - Consummate Gentleman, Expert Pianist and Gay Performer
Stroll down Memory Lane
I can remember from an early age, our mother extolling the virtues of an amazing showman and performer by the name of Liberace. Whenever his music graced our television set, clearing the table and doing the dishes were put on hold until his performance was concluded and the last tinkling notes faded to commercial.
Our mother, an accomplished pianist in her own right, even went so far as to place a candelabra on the piano, although not as fancy as Liberace's. Its presence mirrored the quality and professionalism found in his performances. In many ways, I think she related to his style and showmanship, and rarely missed an opportunity to watch the man she considered to be a musical master.
Walter "Lee, to his friends" Liberace, was born May 16, 1919, in West Allis, Wisconsin, to Frances Zuchowska, (of Polish decent), and Salvatore Liberace, an immigrant from Formia, Italy. It is said he was a twin, however, we are left wondering which of his siblings held that honour.
Liberace's father was a musician himself, and encouraged his children to embrace music. Unfortunately, as he did not have full time work musically, he would sometimes have to work as a laborer to make ends meet. Liberace's mother was not musical, and did not have the same genetic love of music her husband and children enjoyed. There were many arguments because she considered both music lessons and record players luxuries they could not afford.
Liberace later stated, "My dad's love and respect for music created in him a deep determination to give, as his legacy to the world, a family of musicians dedicated to the advancement of the art."
Liberace began playing the piano at the age of four. His father took them to concerts to expose the children to music, and taught them to strive for high standards regarding their practice and performances.
Liberace's prodigious talent was very evident early on. He was memorizing difficult pieces by the time he was seven, and studied the technique of Paderewski, a famous Polish pianist and family friend who he idolized.
He is quoted as saying "I was intoxicated by the joy I got from the greatvirtuoso's playing...I began to practicewith a fervor that made my previous interest in the piano look likeneglect."
A young Walter
The early-teenage Liberace also suffered from a speech problem and was teased relentlessly by neighborhood children. They delighted in making fun of him because he wasn't active in sports, instead, he enjoyed the piano and cooking.
Florence Kelly helped to guide his musical development for ten years, and under her tutelage, Liberace blossomed. He gained experience by playing popular music in theaters, on local radio, for dancing classes, for clubs, and for weddings. He played jazz with a school group called the "Mixers" in 1934, and also performed in cabarets and strip clubs. His parents did not approve of that! For a while he adopted the stage name "Walter Busterkeys" and he managed to earn a decent living despite times being tough.
He also showed an interest for design, painting and fashion. He became known for his eccentric and flashy costumes that were almost as famous as his music.
In 1943, he appeared in a couple of 'soundies', the 1940s version of a music video, and in 1944, he made his first appearance in Las Vegas, which was to later become his main performance venue.
By 1947, he was billing himself as "Liberace—the most amazing piano virtuoso of the present day." He began dressing in white tie and tails so that he could be seen better when playing in large halls, and worked day and night to hone his act. He added a candelabra as a signature show piece, and made a point in his press releases that his name was pronounced "Liber-Ah-chee."
In 1950, he performed for President Harry S. Truman in the East room of the White House. Despite his success in the supper-club circuit, he wanted to reach even larger audiences as a headliner and a television, movie, and recording star.
Liberace began to expand his act and become more extravagant, with more costumes and a larger supporting cast. His Las Vegas act became his hallmark, and it expanded his fan base dramatically, making him wealthy in a short period of time. His performance at Madison Square Garden in 1954, was even more successful than his idol Paderewski had made twenty years earlier.
By 1955, he was making $50,000 per week in Las Vegas, and had over 200 official fan clubs, sporting two hundred and fifty thousand members. He was making over $1,000,000 per year from public appearances, and TV. Despite his success, Liberace became the butt of jokes by comedians and public alike.
(I can remember watching him raise his hands to show the audience his rings - saying: "You like 'em? I hope so - you bought 'em!")
In actuality, Liberace was a conservative in his politics and faith. He had a fervent belief in capitalism, and was also fascinated with royalty, ceremony, and luxury. He loved to hobnob with the "rich and famous", and was as star-struck with presidents and kings as his fans were with him.
TV, movies and recordings
From the launch of The Liberace Show on July 1, 1952, he became so popular and well known, he was invited to perform with such greats as The Cavalcade of Stars, The Kate Smith Show, Jack Benny, The Ed Sullivan Show, Edward R. Murrow program, Person to Person, and Red Skelton.
Liberace received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and continued on television as a frequent and welcomed guest on The Tonight Show in the 1960s. In 1966, he appeared in two episodes of my favorite television series Batman, and in the 70s he was featured on Here's Lucy, Kojak and The Monkees.
Liberace was also the guest star of The Muppet Show. His performances included a "Concerto for the Birds" and his own version of "Chopsticks". In the 1980s, he also guest starred on Saturday Night Live.
From 1947 to 1951, he produced about 10 records, but by 1954, it jumped to nearly 70 and he sold over 400,000 albums by mid-1954. His most popular single was "Ave Maria", which sold over 300,000 copies, and he received 6 gold records over the course of his career.
His movie credits include: South Sea Sinners in 1950, Sincerely Yours in 1955, (playing 31 songs) When the Boys Meet the Girls in 1965, and The Loved One in 1966,
Believe it or not, Liberace had his fingers in a lot of different pies. He owned an antiques store in Beverly Hills, California, and a restaurant in Las Vegas. He even published cookbooks, the most famous of these being Liberace Cooks, co-authored by Carol Truax, which included "Liberace Lasagna" and "Liberace Sticky Buns". He also had a line of men's clothing, a motel chain (Liberace Chateau Inns), a shopping mall, and other enterprises.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Liberace's live shows were major box office attractions in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. A live show could earn him $300,000 a week. He was always kind to animals and children, and he added them to his shows regularly, as well as helping talented young people through his Liberace Foundation, whose good works still continue today.
In 1956, an article in the Daily Mirror mentioned that Liberace was"...the summit of sex--the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want... a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love..." a description that implied he was homosexual without actually saying so. Liberace sued, and won, partly because of the term "fruit-flavoured".
Confusion over Liberace's true sexuality was muddied even more by his public friendships and romantic links with actress Joanne Rio (whom he claimed he nearly married), skater Sonja Henie, and Hollywood icon Mae West.
Liberace's final stage performance was on November 2, 1986 at the Radio City Music Hall, and his last television appearance was on Christmas Day that same year, as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
He died at the age of 67, on February 4, 1987 at his home in Palm Springs, due to complications from AIDS. He had been in poor health since 1985 with other problems including emphysema as well as heart and liver troubles.
He is entombed in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.
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