May 16th, 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 & I briefly lived in Las Vegas in 1980 (long story) & even nuttier, we didn’t have an automobile. I would actually walk in the 100 degree heat to the theatre where I was in rehearsal. There were no sidewalks. It was just me & the lizards. My route took me right by the Liberace Museum, just a few blocks from our condo. I always glanced in & I savored the camp factor, but somehow never went in.
Overheard on the Portland MAX Train:
Older Gay Guy: “That guy is so gay.”
Other Guy: “Totally gay.”
Older Gay Guy: “Liberace gay.”
Ironic, the man spent his lifetime hiding the truth & denied being gay to the very end.
His was a household name for decades, but if the baby gays have heard of him now, it is simply as a distant curiosity. But Liberace was an international superstar starting back to 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.
He was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in a Milwaukee suburb to poor parents. He was classically trained on the piano as a youth & made his concert debut as a soloist at just 11 years old. As a teenager during the depression he played piano in speakeasies to make money for his family.
In 1940, Liberace moved to NYC. His charm & piano skills paid off. Within a few years he was touring the hotel lounge circuit. His tale might have ended there, except that Las Vegas & TV discovered Liberace’s considerable charms. By the early 1950s he began playing extended runs in Las Vegas when the city was just a small cluster of hotels & casinos. He would appear at the showrooms at the casinos regularly for the rest of his life. As Las Vegas grew, so did Liberace’s fame. Las Vegas is a place built on fantasy, superficiality & unbridled spending, Liberace’s very essence. Las Vegas & Liberace both proved the same adage: “Nothing Succeeds Like Excess”.
Liberace appearances on TV cemented that superstar status. In the early 1950s, Liberace had a weekly variety series where he would play his elaborate piano, sing & dance a little, praise his mother Frances who was always in the audience, & make jokes about the show’s band leader his brother George. His TV 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, Hollywood Bowl. In 1955 he opened at the Riviera 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 & filled them with ornate pianos, antiques, & rococo furniture. He installed a piano shaped swimming pool.
Liberace’s musical repertoire included a unique mix of classical, film themes, cocktail jazz & sentimental ballads. He knew thousands of songs & 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 & down the scale.”
Liberace commissioned more elaborate costumes 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, & a King Neptune costume covered in pearls & sea shells weighing 200 pounds. He had large rings shaped like a candelabra & 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 in a feather cape. He toured with a grand piano covered with thousands of glittering mirror tiles. A pre-Funny Girl Barbra Streisand opened for him. 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 gay. He successfully sued 2 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, & paid for plastic surgery to have Thorson look like a young Liberace. Even this bizarre scandal didn’t put a dent in Liberace’s popularity. The case was eventually settled out of court for less than $100,000.
Liberace was at the apex of his career in the mid-1980s. At Radio City Music Hall he had 3 extended engagements. From 1984-86 he sold out 56 shows in a row. He called the Radio City shows “the fulfillment of a dream & the culmination of my 40 years in show business.” Liberace’s fortune continued to grow. He owned houses all over the world & 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 Beatle so he could drive both of his favorite cars at once.
Liberace was in a steady relationship with Jamie Wyatt when the gay world was introduced to the plague. It has never been clear when Liberace discovered that he was HIV+, 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 4 days in the hospital, but he decided to go home & 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 & partner by his side, Liberace took that final bow in early 1987. Only then did the world acknowledge his secret life & his illness.
Liberace lived a life of high showmanship & utter flamboyance. Even in his own era he wasn’t hip & irony was not his shtick, but now his existence embodies the very idea. His fervor for everything fabulous & his considerable talent touched the hearts of his legion of mostly female fans. He did influence many other artists from Elvis 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 & Matt Damon, made for HBO, was easily one of my favorite films of 2013. I give it a strong A on The Steve Report Card. I strongly believed that Damon’s ass deserved an Emmy Award. When I saw it, I was really ready for just a little sparkle in my own life.