May 16, 1919– Wladziu Valentino Liberace:
“You know that bank I used to cry all the way to? Well, I bought it.”
Here is the craziest part: The Husband and I briefly lived in Las Vegas in 1980 (long story), and even nuttier, we didn’t have an automobile. I would walk in the 100 degree heat to the theatre where I was in rehearsal. There were no sidewalks; it was just me and the lizards. My route took me right by The Liberace Museum. I always glanced in and I savored the camp factor, but somehow I never went in.
Overheard on the Portland MAX Train:
Older Gay Guy: “That guy is so gay.”
Other Gay Guy: “Totally gay.”
Older Gay Guy: “Liberace gay.”
Ironic; Liberace spent his lifetime hiding the truth and denying being gay right to the very end.
Liberace was a household name for decades, but if today’s baby gays have any interest in him now, it is simply as a distant curiosity. Yet, they should know that Liberace was an international superstar starting back in the early 1950s. His averaged income was $5 million a year for more than 35 years. In the 1970s, the Guinness Book Of World Records named Liberace as the world’s highest paid musician.
Liberace was born in a Milwaukee suburb to poor parents. He was classically trained on the piano as a youth. He made his concert debut as a soloist at just 11-years-old. As a teenager during the Great Depression, he played piano in speakeasies to make money for his family.
In 1940, Liberace moved to NYC. His charisma and piano playing skills paid off. Within a few years he was touring the hotel lounge circuit. His tale might have ended there, except that Las Vegas and the new medium of television discovered Liberace’s considerable charms. By the early 1950s he had begun playing extended runs in Las Vegas when the city was just a small cluster of hotels and casinos. He appeared at the showrooms in the casinos regularly for the rest of his life. As Las Vegas grew, so did Liberace’s fame and fortune. Las Vegas is a place built on fantasy, superficiality and unbridled spending, Liberace’s very essence. Las Vegas and Liberace both proved the same adage: “Nothing Succeeds Like Excess”.
Liberace’s appearances on television cemented his superstar status. He had a weekly variety series, the imaginatively titled The Liberace Show (1952-1969), where he would play his elaborate piano, sing, dance a little, praise his mother Frances Liberace who was always in the audience, and make jokes about the show’s band leader, his brother George Liberace. The show was a huge hit, carried by more stations than I Love Lucy.
In 1954, the year I was born, Liberace played to capacity crowds at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, and Hollywood Bowl. In 1955, he opened at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas with a salary of $50,000 per week, becoming the city’s highest paid entertainer. He bought lavish mansions, remodeled them extravagantly and filled them with ornate pianos, antiques, and rococo furniture. He installed a piano shaped swimming pool.
Liberace’s musical repertoire included a unique mix of classical, film themes, cocktail jazz and sentimental ballads. He knew thousands of songs and could play almost any request from the audience. He would edit his classical pieces to just less than 5 minutes:
“I took out the boring parts. I know just how many notes my audience will stand for. If there’s any time left over, I fill in with a lot of runs up and down the scale.”
Liberace commissioned more elaborate costumes for his shows as the years went by. Eventually he was spending $50,000 each season on bigger, nuttier, ever more opulent costumes. He wore a cape made with $60,000 worth of chinchilla, a tuxedo embedded with diamonds spelling out his name, and a King Neptune costume covered in pearls and sea shells weighing 200 pounds. He had large rings shaped like a candelabra and a grand piano, each studded with diamonds. He was the Elton John of his time.
To the act, Liberace added showgirls, jugglers, singers, giant water fountains, light shows, a full orchestra, even an elephant. He flew above the stage from a cable wearing a feathered cape. He toured with a grand piano covered with thousands of glittering mirror tiles. Pre-Funny Girl Barbra Streisand became his opening act. How gay is that?
Liberace emphatically denied his gayness throughout his long career. He evidently thought that coming out of the closet would hurt his popularity. His female fans simply refused to recognize the obvious. In 1957, Confidential Magazine featured the headline: “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be “Mad About The Boy!”. Gossip rags frequently implied that he was a queer. He successfully sued two publications that attempted to out him. He had a series of beards including our beloved Betty White.
Liberace’s denials finally unraveled when he was sued for palimony in 1983 by his “chauffeur” Scott Thorson who had been living with Liberace for years. Liberace had Thorson on the payroll, dressed him up like himself, and paid for plastic surgery to have Thorson look like a young Liberace. Even this bizarre scandal couldn’t put a dent in Liberace’s wild popularity. The Thorson case was eventually settled out of court for less than $100,000.
Liberace’s bank account continued to grow. He owned houses all over the world and had all of his clothes made especially for him. He even had the front of a Rolls Royce attached to the back of a VW Beetle so he could drive both of his favorite cars at once.
Liberace was in a steady relationship with Jamie Wyatt around the time that the USA was introduced to the gay plague. It has never been clear when Liberace discovered that he was HIV positive, probably early on, possibly as early as 1985.
In the press, he attributed his sudden weight loss to the popular “watermelon diet”. After a final tour to promote his new book, The Things I Love, Liberace became seriously sick. He spent four days in the hospital, but he decided to go home and leave this world comfortably surrounded by all his opulent stuff. He spent his last days at home with his 27 dogs, watching episodes of The Golden Girls. With his family and partner by his side, Liberace took that final bow in early 1987. Only then did the world acknowledge his secret life and his illness.
Liberace lived a life of high showmanship and utter flamboyance. Even in his own era he wasn’t hip and irony was not his shtick, but now his existence embodies the very idea. His fervor for everything fabulous and his considerable talent touched the hearts of his legion of mostly female fans. He did influence many other artists from Elvis Presley to Adam Lambert. Liberace is absolute proof that being fabulous can be a life unto itself.
Steven Soderbergh’s film version of the Liberace/Scott Thorson story, Behind The Candelabra starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, made for HBO, was easily one of my favorite films of 2013. I give it a strong A on The Rutledge Report Card. I firmly believed that Damon’s ass deserved an Emmy Award. When I saw it, I was in a place where I was ready for just a little sparkle in my life.