Liberace (1919-1987)

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Liberace (1919-1987)

As "The Rhinestone Rubinstein" or the "Las Vegas Liszt," pianist-entertainer Liberace created his own sequined niche in the American popular imagination. He fashioned himself to appeal to the middlebrow masses as a latter-day reincarnation of the 19th-century Romantic grand pianist, and dazzled millions of (mostly female) fans with his flamboyant performances of showy and accessible music. As America's first television matinee idol, Liberace capitalized on the then new technology during the 1950s. His popular appeal brought him appearances in Hollywood films and television series, mention in songs (the Chordettes' 1954 hit "Mr. Sandman," among others), and he was parodied (as "Loverboynik") in a 1956 episode of Al Capp's comic strip Li'l Abner. Liberace's stardom sprang from a highly marketable and carefully packaged conflation of high and low cultural ingredients, and his model of musical spectacle influenced subsequent stars from Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson. Though he was ridiculed for his fey mannerisms, attacked for his closeted homosexuality, and lambasted for his glib and sentimentalized musicianship, Liberace's famous comeback still silences his critics: "I cried all the way to the bank."

Wladziu (called Walter) Valentino Liberace was born on May 16, 1919, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, a former member of John Phillip Sousa's concert band, played French horn in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. His mother, of Polish descent, chose his middle name after her favorite film idol, Rudolf Valentino. Legend has it that in 1923 the young Walter, a child prodigy, met Jan Paderewski, the acclaimed Polish pianist and statesman, who praised his playing. Liberace began performing professionally as a classical pianist during his high school years, but Depression-era hardships prompted him to earn money playing in nightclubs, movie houses, and at social events. Engaged to perform with the Chicago Symphony in 1939, he was persuaded to use the stage name "Walter Busterkeys" for his other "low-class" performing ventures. After one recital, audience members called for a rendition of the popular song "Three Little Fishes," which the pianist paraphrased in the style of various classical composers as an encore crowd-pleaser. This "crossover" intersection of classical and popular material became a significant characteristic of his future career.

Escaping military service in World War II on account of a back problem, Liberace went to New York in 1940, where he served as an intermission pianist at fashionable venues such as the Waldorf-Astoria's Persian Room, and later moved to Los Angeles with the hopes of furthering his career. During this period, he experimented with various attention-getting techniques such as encouraging audience participation in his act (the "Chopsticks" duet routine, for example), and playing "duets with the masters" by accompanying recordings of the great classical pianists. He also introduced his trademark on-stage candelabra (apparently an idea he took from the 1945 hit Hollywood biopic of Chopin, A Song to Remember). When his violinist brother George returned from war service in 1945, the two formed a supper-club act and toured the country under contract with the Statler and Radisson hotel chains. Around this time Liberace was inspired by a motivational self-help book by Claude Bristol, The Magic of Believing, and eventually contributed an introduction to the 1955 edition, writing, "To attain success, one must positively think success."

That success came to Liberace in the 1950s through his innovative television program, The Liberace Show, which first aired in 1951 and rapidly became a hit in the Los Angeles area. Through syndication in 1953 the program reached nationwide, rivaling even the I Love Lucy series in popularity. At its peak, the show commanded a weekly audience of 35 million, and was carried by 219 television stations in the United States. This recognition generated recording opportunities for Liberace, and in 1953 alone he sold two million records—albums and singles. His 1953 engagement at Carnegie Hall sold out and was followed by a 1954 success at Madison Square Garden. A Hollywood Bowl appearance prompted another important innovation in his presentational style: as the distant audience would be unable to distinguish him, in his black evening clothes, from the similarly clad orchestra, he wore a white tuxedo. From then on his stage outfits only increased in ostentatious flair.

Liberace made attempts to translate his television appeal into Hollywood stardom, but his few films were flops. He starred in the syrupy Sincerely Yours (1955) as a concert pianist afflicted by deafness who turns to anonymous acts of goodwill to regain his belief in life. The movie was essentially a vehicle for 31 of Liberace's renditions at the piano. He also had a minor pianist role in South Sea Sinner (1950), and a cameo as a camp casket salesman in The Loved One (1965). Guest spots on television series included Batman (1966), Kojak (1978), and The Muppet Show (1978).

Las Vegas was the city most suited to the style and content of Liberace's musical act. During the 1950s and 1960s, Vegas audiences relished the kitsch appeal of his spectacular shows with their outrageous costumes and the star's coy banter, and he was that city's highest-paid entertainer in 1955. In 1956 Elvis Presley joined Liberace for a historic show at the Riviera Hotel, during which the two stars traded outfits and instruments. In 1979 the pianist opened the Liberace Museum, which occupies one corner of a Las Vegas shopping mall, and houses his costumes, custom-designed automobiles (including a 1962 Rolls Royce covered with mirrored tiles), antique pianos, and the world's largest rhinestone. During the high-rolling 1980s, Liberace's aristocratic illusions and extravagant style appealed to younger audiences once again, and his shows at New York's Radio City Music Hall in 1984, 1985, and 1986 broke all box-office records in that landmark theater's history.

Although he toured abroad extensively, everywhere lionized as a celebrity, Liberace was particularly proud of his three Royal Command Performances in England, but the British tours were problematic for the furor of speculative gossip they unleashed about his private life. In 1957, he successfully sued Confidential magazine for libel when it insinuated that he was homosexual. Two years later, he also won a suit against Britain's Mirror newspaper group over an article by columnist "Cassandra" (William Connor), who had written that Liberace was "the summit of Masculine, Feminine, and Neuter … the biggest sentimental vomit of all times. Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, counting the cash at every second…." While men may have scoffed at his exaggerated effeminate mannerisms, women fans defended Liberace, citing in his favor his oft-displayed love and concern for his own mother. Fan disapproval, however, greeted the announcement that he planned to marry actress-dancer Joanne Rio in 1954; in one week, 6,000 letters were received, 80 per cent of which opposed the marriage. In 1982, Scott Thorson filed a $113 million "palimony" suit against the entertainer, claiming that he had been not only Liberace's bodyguard and chauffeur, but also his long-term lover. Liberace settled out of court for close to $1 million.

Among the enduring images of Liberace's campy appeal are his 1976 Bicentennial red-white-and-blue hot-pants outfit, his extravagantly expensive (and long) fur and bejeweled capes, his on-stage arrival in chauffeur-driven luxury cars decorated with mirrors and rhinestones, and his Peter-Pan-style gimmick of flying across stage at the close of a performance. When asked how he could play with so many large rings on his fingers, Liberace answered, "Very well, thank you." Liberace's showmanship has provided ample material for academic treatments of spectacle, sexuality, and other topics of cultural study. Marjorie Garber regards Liberace's outrageous displays as an example of "unmarked transvestism." Margaret Drewal sees his capes as invoking Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, and Kevin Kopelson examines the homophobia surrounding his reception in light of the "queer" connotations of his pianism and performance mannerisms. The unique showman-pianist died from AIDS on February 4, 1987, a sad ending that failed to end contentious speculation about his sexuality.

—Ivan Raykoff

Further Reading:

Bristol, Claude M. The Magic of Believing. New York, Prentice-Hall, 1955.

Drewal, Margaret Thompson. "The Camp Trace in Corporate America: Liberace and the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall." In The Politics and Poetics of Camp, edited by Moe Meyer. New York, Routledge, 1994, 149-81.

Faris, Jocelyn. Liberace: A Bio-Bibliography. Connecticut, Green-wood Press, 1995.

Garber, Marjorie. "The Transvestite Continuum Liberace-Valentino-Elvis." In Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York, Routledge, 1992, 353-74.

Kopelson, Kevin. "Classified Information." In Beethoven's Kiss: Pianism, Perversion, and the Mastery of Desire. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1996, 139-65.

Liberace. Liberace: An Autobiography. New York, Putnam, 1973.

——. The Things I Love. New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1976.

——. The Wonderful Private World of Liberace. New York, Harper and Row, 1986.

Thomas, Bob. Liberace: The True Story. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Thorson, Scott, with Alex Thorleifson. Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. New York, Dutton, 1988.