- Category : Entertain-Music-Instrumentalist
- Type : MGE
- Profile : 1/3 - Investigating / Martyr
- Definition : Split - Small (43)
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Contagion 2
Wladziu (or Vladziu) Valentino Liberace (May 16, 1919 – February 4, 1987), known as Liberace, was an American pianist and vocalist.
In a career that spanned four decades of concerts, recordings, motion pictures, television, and endorsements, Liberace became world-famous. During the 1950s–1970s he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world and embraced a lifestyle of flamboyant excess both on and off stage.
Liberace publicly denied being gay during his lifetime, and sued those who said he was. Towards the end of his life, his former chauffeur and lover, Scott Thorson, sued him for palimony. Liberace died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987.
Liberace, known as "Lee" to his friends and "Walter" to family, was born in West Allis, Wisconsin. His father, Salvatore ("Sam") Liberace (December 9, 1885 – April 1, 1977), was an immigrant from Formia, Italy. His mother, Frances Zuchowska (August 31, 1892 – November 1, 1980), was of Polish descent. When Walter was born, he had a twin sibling who died at birth. Liberace was born with a caul, which, in his family, as in many societies, is taken as a sign of genius and the promise of an exceptional future. Sam played the French horn in bands and movie theaters but often worked as a factory worker or laborer. While he encouraged music in his family, his wife, Frances, thought music lessons and a record player were unaffordable luxuries. This caused family disputes. 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 age four. While Salvatore took his children to concerts to further expose them to music, he was also a taskmaster demanding high standards from the children in practice and performance. Liberace's prodigious talent was in evidence early. By age seven, he was capable of memorizing difficult pieces. He studied the technique of the famous Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski. At age eight, he met Paderewski backstage after a concert at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. "I was intoxicated by the joy I got from the great virtuoso's playing. My dreams were filled with fantasies of following his footsteps…Inspired and fired with ambition, I began to practice with a fervor that made my previous interest in the piano look like neglect." Paderewski later became a family friend.
The Depression was financially hard on the Liberace family. In childhood, Liberace suffered from a speech problem and as a teen from the taunts of neighborhood children who mocked his avoidance of sports and his fondness for cooking and the piano. Liberace focused on his piano playing and became prodigious with the instruction of music teacher Florence Kelly. Kelly oversaw Liberace's musical development for ten years. He gained experience playing popular music in theaters, on local radio, for dancing classes, for clubs, and for weddings. During 1934, he played jazz piano with a school group called the "Mixers" and later with other groups. Liberace also performed in cabarets and strip clubs. Even though Sam and Frances did not approve, their son was earning a tidy living during hard times. For a while, Liberace adopted the stage name "Walter Busterkeys". He also showed an interest in draftsmanship, design, and painting, and he became a fastidious dresser and follower of fashion. By then, he was already showing the knack of turning his eccentricities into attention-getting practices, and attained popularity at school, even though some saw him as an object of ridicule.
A participant in a formal classical music competition in 1937, Liberace was praised for his "flair and showmanship". At the end of a traditional classical concert in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1939, Liberace played his first requested encore, the popular comedy song "Three Little Fishies". He later stated that he played the popular tune in the styles of several different classical composers. The 20-year-old played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on January 15, 1940, at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, performing Liszt's Second Piano Concerto under the baton of Hans Lange, for which he received strong reviews. He also toured in the Midwest.
Between 1942 and 1944, Liberace moved away from straight classical performance and reinvented his act to one featuring "pop with a bit of classics" or as he also called it "classical music with the boring parts left out". In the early 1940s, he struggled in New York City but by the mid- and late-1940s, he was performing in night clubs in major cities around the United States, largely abandoning the classical music altogether. He changed from a classical pianist to an entertainer and showman, unpredictably and whimsically mixing the serious with light fare, e.g., Chopin with "Home on the Range". For a while, he played piano along with a phonograph record player on stage. The gimmick helped gain him attention. He also added interaction with the audience—taking requests, talking with the patrons, making jokes, giving lessons to chosen audience members. He also began to pay greater attention to such details as staging, lighting, and presentation. The transformation to entertainer was driven by Liberace's desire to connect directly with his audiences, and secondarily from the reality of the difficult competition in the classical piano world.
In 1943, he began to appear in Soundies (the 1940s precursor to music videos). He re-created two flashy numbers from his nightclub act, "Tiger Rag" and "Twelfth Street Rag". In these films he was billed as Walter Liberace. Both "Soundies" were later released to the home-movie market by Castle Films. In 1944, he made his first appearances in Las Vegas, which later became his principal venue. He was playing at the best clubs, finally appearing at the celebrated Persian Room in 1945, with Variety proclaiming, "Liberace looks like a cross between Cary Grant and Robert Alda. He has an effective manner, attractive hands which he spotlights properly and, withal, rings the bell in the dramatically lighted, well-presented, showmanly routine. He should snowball into box office". The Chicago Times was similarly impressed: He "made like Chopin one minute and then turns on a Chico Marx bit the next".
During this time, Liberace worked to refine his act. He added the candelabrum as a signature prop and adopted "Liberace" as his stage name, making a point in press releases that it was pronounced "Liber-Ah-chee". He wore white tie and tails for better visibility in large halls. Besides clubs and occasional work as an accompanist and rehearsal pianist, Liberace played for private parties, including those at the Park Avenue home of millionaire oilman J. Paul Getty. By 1947, he was billing himself as "Liberace—the most amazing piano virtuoso of the present day". He had to have a piano to match his growing presence, so he bought a rare, over-sized, gold-leafed Blüthner Grand, which he hyped up in his press kit as a "priceless piano". (Later, he performed with an array of extravagant, custom-decorated pianos, some encrusted with rhinestones and mirrors.) He moved to the Los Angeles neighborhood of North Hollywood in 1947 and was performing at local clubs, such as Ciro's and The Mocambo, for stars such as Rosalind Russell, Clark Gable, Gloria Swanson, and Shirley Temple. He did not always play to packed rooms, and he learned to perform with extra energy to thinner crowds, to maintain his own enthusiasm.
Liberace created a very successful publicity machine which helped rocket him to stardom. In 1950 he performed for music-loving President Harry S. Truman in the East Room of the White House. Despite his success in the supper-club circuit, where he was often an intermission act, his ambition was to reach larger audiences as a headliner and a television, movie, and recording star. Liberace began to expand his act and made it more extravagant, with more costumes and a larger supporting cast. His large-scale Las Vegas act became his hallmark, expanding his fan base, and making him wealthy.
His New York City performance at Madison Square Garden in 1954, which earned him a record $138,000 for one performance, was more successful than the great triumph his idol Paderewski had made twenty years earlier. By 1955, he was making $50,000 per week at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and had over 200 official fan clubs with a quarter of a million member fans. He was making over $1 million per year from public appearances, and millions from television. Liberace was frequently covered by the major magazines and he became a pop culture superstar, but he also became the butt of jokes by comedians and the public.
Music critics were generally harsh in their assessment of his piano playing. Critic Lewis Funke wrote after the Carnegie Hall concert, Liberace's music "must be served with all the available tricks, as loud as possible, as soft as possible, and as sentimental as possible. It's almost all showmanship topped by whipped cream and cherries." Even worse was his lack of reverence and fealty to the great composers. "Liberace recreates—if that is the word—each composition in his own image. When it is too difficult, he simplifies it. When it is too simple, he complicates it". His sloppy technique included "slackness of rhythms, wrong tempos, distorted phrasing, an excess of prettification and sentimentality, a failure to stick to what the composer has written".
Liberace once stated, "I don't give concerts, I put on a show." Unlike the concerts of classical pianists which normally ended with applause and a retreat off-stage, Liberace's shows ended with the public invited on-stage to touch his clothes, piano, jewelry, and hands. Kisses, handshakes, hugs, and caresses usually followed. A critic summed up his appeal near the end of Liberace's life: "Mr. Showmanship has another more potent, drawing power to his show: the warm and wonderful way he works his audience. Surprisingly enough, behind all the glitz glitter, the corny false modesty and the shy smile, Liberace exudes a love that is returned to him a thousand-fold."
In contrast to his flamboyant stage presence, Liberace was a conservative in his politics and faith, eschewing dissidents and rebels. He believed fervently in capitalism and was also fascinated with royalty, ceremony, and luxury. He loved to hobnob with the rich and famous, acting as starstruck with presidents and kings as his fans behaved with him. Yet to his fans, he was still one of them, a Midwesterner who had earned his success through hard work—and who invited them to enjoy it with him.
In the next phase of his life, having earned sudden wealth, Liberace spent lavishly—incorporating materialism into his life and his act. He designed and built his first celebrity house in 1953, with a piano theme appearing throughout, including a piano-shaped swimming pool. His dream home, with its lavish furnishings, elaborate bath, and antiques throughout, added to his appeal. He leveraged his fame through hundreds of promotional tie-ins with banks, insurance companies, automobile companies, food companies—even morticians. Liberace was considered a perfect pitchman, given his folksy connection with his vast audience of housewives. Sponsors sent him complimentary products, including his white Cadillac limousine, and he reciprocated enthusiastically; "If I am selling tuna fish, I believe in tuna fish."
The critics had a field day with his gimmicky act, his showy but careful piano playing, his non-stop promotions, and his gaudy display of success, but he always had the last laugh, as preserved by the famous quotation, first recorded in a letter to a critic, "Thank you for your very amusing review. After reading it, in fact, my brother George and I laughed all the way to the bank." He used a similar response to subsequent poor reviews, famously modifying it to "I cried all the way to the bank." In an appearance on The Tonight Show some years later, Liberace re-ran the anecdote to Johnny Carson, and finished it by saying, "I don't cry all the way to the bank any more – I bought the bank!"
Early television work and The Liberace Show
Liberace mostly bypassed radio before trying a television career, thinking radio unsuitable given his act's dependency on the visual. Despite his enthusiasm about the possibilities of television, Liberace was disappointed after his early guest appearances on CBS's The Kate Smith Show, starring Kate Smith, and DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars, with Jackie Gleason (later The Jackie Gleason Show on CBS). Liberace was particularly displeased with the frenetic camera work and his short appearance time. He soon wanted his own show where he could control his presentation as he did with his club shows. His first show on local television in Los Angeles was a smash hit, earning the highest ratings of any local show, which he parlayed into a sold out appearance at the Hollywood Bowl. That led to a summer replacement program for Dinah Shore.
The fifteen-minute network television program, The Liberace Show, began on July 1, 1952, but did not lead to a regular network series. Instead producer Duke Goldstone mounted a filmed version of Liberace's local show performed before a live audience for syndication in 1953, and sold it to scores of local stations. The widespread exposure of the syndicated series made the pianist more popular and prosperous than ever. His first two years' earnings from television netted him $7 million and on future re-runs he earned up to 80% of the profits.
Liberace learned early on to add "schmaltz" to his television show and to cater to the tastes of the mass audience by joking and chatting to the camera, as if performing in the viewer's own living room. He also used dramatic lighting, split images, costume changes, and exaggerated hand movements to create visual interest. His television performances featured enthusiasm and humor.
Liberace also employed "ritualistic domesticity", used by such early TV greats as Jack Benny and Lucille Ball. His brother George often appeared as guest violinist and orchestra director, and his mother was usually in the front row of the audience, with brother Rudy and sister Angelina often mentioned to lend an air of "family". Liberace began each show in the same way, then mixed production numbers with chat, and signed off each broadcast softly singing "I'll Be Seeing You", which he made his theme song. His musical selections were broad, including classics, show tunes, film melodies, Latin rhythms, ethnic songs, and boogie-woogie.
The show was so popular with his mostly female television audience that he drew over 30 million viewers at any one time and received 10,000 fan letters per week. His show was also one of the first to be shown on British commercial television in the 1950s, where it was broadcast on Sunday afternoons by Lew Grade's Associated TeleVision. This exposure gave Liberace a dedicated following in the United Kingdom. Homosexual men also found him appealing. According to author Darden Asbury Pyron, "Liberace was the first gay person Elton John had ever seen on television; he became his hero."
After The Liberace Show
In 1956, Liberace had his first international engagement, playing successfully in Havana, Cuba. He followed up with a European tour later that year. Always a devout Catholic, Liberace considered his meeting with Pope Pius XII a highlight of his life. In 1960, Liberace performed at the London Palladium with Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. (this was the first televised "command performance", now known as the Royal Variety Performance, for Queen Elizabeth II).
On July 19, 1957, hours after Liberace gave a deposition in his $25 million libel suit against Confidential magazine, two masked intruders attacked his mother in the garage of Liberace's home in Sherman Oaks. She was beaten and kicked, but her heavy corset may have protected her from being badly injured. Liberace was not informed about the assault until he finished his midnight show at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Guards were hired to watch over Liberace's house and the houses of his two brothers.
Despite successful European tours, his career had in fact been slumping since 1957. But Liberace built it back up by appealing directly to his fan base. Through live appearances in small town supper clubs, and with television and promotional appearances, he began to regain popularity. On November 22, 1963, he suffered renal failure, reportedly from accidentally inhaling in a Pittsburgh dressing room excessive amounts of dry cleaning fumes from his newly cleaned costumes, and nearly died. He later said that what saved him from further injury was being woken up by his entourage to the news that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Told by doctors that his condition was fatal, he began to spend his entire fortune by buying extravagant gifts of furs, jewels, and even a house for friends, but then recovered after a month.
Re-energized, Liberace returned to Las Vegas, and, upping the glamour and glitz, he took on the sobriquet "Mr. Showmanship". As his act swelled with spectacle, he famously stated, "I'm a one-man Disneyland." The costumes became more exotic (ostrich feathers, mink, capes and huge rings), entrances and exits more elaborate (chauffeured onstage in a Rolls-Royce or dropped in on a wire like Peter Pan), choreography more complex (involving chorus girls, cars, and animals), and the novelty acts especially talented, with juvenile acts including Australian singer Jamie Redfern and Canadian banjo player Scotty Plummer. Barbra Streisand was his most notable new adult act, early in her career.
Liberace's energy and commercial ambitions took him in many directions. He owned an antiques store in Beverly Hills, California, and a restaurant in Las Vegas for many years. He even published cookbooks, the most famous of these being Liberace Cooks, co-authored by cookbook guru Carol Truax, which included "Liberace Lasagna" and "Liberace Sticky Buns." The book features recipes "from his seven dining rooms" (of his Hollywood home).
In 1970 Liberace competed against Irish actor Richard Harris for the purchase of The Tower House, in Holland Park, West London. Harris eventually bought the house after discovering that Liberace had agreed to buy it but had not yet put down a deposit. British entertainer Danny La Rue visited The Tower House with Liberace, and later recounted in his autobiography a paranormal experience that he had there with him.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Liberace's live shows were major box office attractions at the Las Vegas Hilton and Lake Tahoe, where he would earn $300,000 a week.
Later television work
Liberace also made significant appearances on other shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford, Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person and on the shows of Jack Benny and Red Skelton, on which he often parodied his own persona. A new Liberace Show premiered on ABC's daytime schedule in 1958, featuring a less flamboyant, less glamorous persona, but it failed in six months, as his popularity began slumping. Liberace received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 for his contributions to the television industry. Liberace continued on television as a frequent and welcomed guest on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar in the 1960s, with memorable exchanges with Zsa Zsa Gabor and Muhammad Ali, and later with Johnny Carson. He was also Red Skelton's 1969 CBS summer replacement with his own variety hour, taped in London; Skelton's and Lew Grade's production companies co-produced this program. In a cameo on The Monkees he appeared at an avant-garde art gallery as himself, gleefully smashing a grand piano with a sledgehammer as Mike Nesmith looked on and cringed in mock agony. During the 1970s, his appearances included guest roles on episodes of Here's Lucy and Kojak.
In 1966, Liberace appeared in the highly popular TV show Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward, playing a dual role as concert pianist Chandell and his gangster-like twin Harry, who was extorting Chandell into a life of crime as "Fingers", in the episodes "The Devil's Fingers" and "The Dead Ringers", both written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., who had developed Batman for television. The episodes of this two-part story were, according to Joel Eisner's The Official Batman Batbook, the highest-rated of all the show's episodes.
In 1970, Liberace appeared on an episode of Here's Lucy, in which Craig (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) borrows a candelabra for a high school club initiation.
Liberace was also the guest star in an episode of The Muppet Show. His performances included a "Concerto for the Birds", "Misty", "Five Foot Two", and a rendition of "Chopsticks".
Television specials were made from Liberace's show at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1978 and 1979 which were broadcast on CBS.
In the 1980s, he guest-starred on television shows such as Saturday Night Live (on a 10th-season episode hosted by Hulk Hogan and Mr. T), and the 1984 film Special People. In 1985, he appeared at the first WrestleMania as the guest timekeeper for the main event.
Even before his arrival in Hollywood in 1947, Liberace wanted to add acting to his list of accomplishments. His exposure to the Hollywood crowd through his club performances led to his first movie appearance in Universal's South Sea Sinner (1950), a tropical-island drama starring Macdonald Carey and Shelley Winters, in which he was 14th-billed as "a Hoagy Carmichael sort of character with long hair." Liberace also appeared as a guest star in two compilation features for RKO Radio Pictures. Footlight Varieties (1951) is an imitation-vaudeville hour and a little-known sequel, Merry Mirthquakes (1953), featured Liberace as master of ceremonies.
In 1955, Liberace was at the height of his career when tapped by Warner Bros. for his first starring motion picture, Sincerely Yours (1955), a remake of The Man Who Played God (1932), with George Arliss as a deaf concert pianist. In April 1955 Modern Screen magazine claimed Doris Day had been most often mentioned as Liberace’s leading lady, "but it is doubtful that Doris will play the role. Liberace’s name alone will pack theatres and generous Liberace would like to give a newcomer a break." When Sincerely Yours was released in November, the studio mounted an ad and poster campaign with Liberace’s name in huge, eccentric, building-block letters above and much larger than the title. "Fabulously yours in his first starring motion picture!" was a tag line. The other players and staff were smallish at the bottom. The film was a critical and commercial failure. Liberace’s eccentric stage charisma did not translate as leading man to the screen. Warners quickly issued a pressbook ad supplement with new "Starring" billing below the title, in equal plain letters: "Liberace, Joanne Dru, Dorothy Malone." TCM’s Robert Osborne recalls a more dramatic demotion: When Sincerely Yours played first run at the Orpheum in Seattle, the billing was altered even more: Joanne Dru, Dorothy Malone and Alex Nicol above the title (with big head shots of all three) and below the title in much smaller letters: "with Liberace at the piano."
A decade later he had two movie cameo roles. In When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965), starring Connie Francis, Liberace essentially played himself. He received kudos for his brief appearance as a casket salesman in The Loved One (1966), based on Evelyn Waugh's satire of the funeral business and movie industry in Southern California.
The huge success of Liberace's syndicated television show was the main impetus behind his record sales. From 1947 to 1951, he produced about 10 disks. By 1954, it jumped to nearly 70. He released several recordings through Columbia Records including Liberace by Candlelight (later on Dot and through direct television advertising) and sold over 400,000 albums by mid-1954. His most popular single was "Ave Maria", selling over 300,000 copies.
His albums included standards of the time, such as "Hello, Dolly!", and also included his versions of works from Chopin and other classical greats. In his life he received six gold records.
Lawsuits and homosexuality
Liberace's fame in the United States was matched for a time in the United Kingdom. In 1956, an article in the Daily Mirror by columnist Cassandra (William Connor) described Liberace as "…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 which strongly implied he was homosexual without actually saying so explicitly.
Liberace sent a telegram that read: "What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank." (This phrase was already in use by the 1940s.) He sued the newspaper for libel, testifying in a London court that he was not a homosexual and had never taken part in homosexual acts. He won the suit, partly on the basis of Connor's use of the derogatory expression "fruit-flavoured". The case partly hinged on whether Connor knew 'fruit' was American slang implying that an individual is a homosexual. The £8,000 damages he received from the Daily Mirror led Liberace to repeat the catchphrase to reporters: "I cried all the way to the bank!" Liberace's popularization of the phrase inspired the title of Crying All the Way to the Bank, a detailed report of the trial based on transcripts, court reports and interviews, by the former Daily Mirror journalist Revel Barker.
Liberace fought and settled a similar case in the United States against Confidential. Rumors and gossip magazines frequently implied that he was gay. A typical issue of Confidential in 1957 shouted, "Why Liberace's Theme Song Should Be 'Mad About the Boy!'"
In 1982, Scott Thorson, Liberace's 22-year-old former chauffeur and live-in lover of five years, sued the pianist for $113 million in palimony after he was let go by Liberace. Liberace continued publicly to deny that he was homosexual and insisted that Thorson was never his lover. The case was settled out of court in 1986, with Thorson receiving a $75,000 settlement. Thorson stated after Liberace's death that he settled because he knew that Liberace was in profoundly ill health, and that he had intended to sue based on conversion of property rather than palimony.
Because Liberace never publicly acknowledged he was gay, confusion over his true sexuality was further muddled in the public's mind by his public friendships and romantic links with women. He further obscured his sexuality in articles like "Mature Women Are Best: TV's Top Pianist Reveals What Kind of Woman He'd Marry."
In a 2011 interview, actress and close friend Betty White stated that Liberace was, indeed, gay and that she often served as a "beard" to counter rumors of the musician's homosexuality.
Final appearances and death
Liberace's final stage performance was at New York's Radio City Music Hall on November 2, 1986; it was his 18th show in 21 days, and the series grossed $2.5 million. His final television appearance was on Christmas Day that same year on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was videotaped a month earlier.
Liberace died of cytomegalovirus (CMV) pneumonia as a result of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) on February 4, 1987, at his winter home in Palm Springs, California. He was 67 years old. The original cause of death was attributed variously to anemia, emphysema, and heart disease, the latter of which was attested to by Liberace's personal physician, Dr Ronald Daniels. The Riverside County coroner conducting the autopsy stated there had been a deliberate attempt to hide the actual cause of death. Based on tissue samples obtained from Liberace's body after death, the coroner officially ruled the star's death to be the result of complications due to AIDS. How and when Liberace became HIV positive has never been made public. Author Darden Asbury Pyron writes that Liberace had been "HIV-positive and symptomatic" from 1985 until his death.
Liberace's body is entombed at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. In 1994, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.
Closure of Liberace Museum and Tivoli Gardens Restaurant
In October 2010, the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas closed after 31 years of being open to the general public. In June 2011, Liberace's Tivoli Gardens Restaurant, then operated by Carluccio's, closed its location next to the museum and relocated elsewhere. According to Liberace Foundation President Jack Rappaport, the museum had been in negotiations with money interests on the Las Vegas strip to relocate the museum, but were unsuccessful. The Liberace Foundation, which provides college scholarships to up-and-coming performers, continued to function. In January 2013, the Liberace Foundation announced plans to relocate the museum to Downtown Las Vegas, with a targeted opening date of 2014.