Liberace - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Nearly 60 years after his initial breakthrough success with the campiest rendition of “September Song” ever recorded, Liberace is still better known for an outrageously gaudy fashion sense than for his elegant mastery of the piano. Be they classical pieces, show tunes, jazz standards, big band, you name it, Liberace could play it all with panache, grace, and a million dollar smile to boot. As a self described “entertainer”, Liberace came to nationwide fame by adopting a flamboyant campiness bordering on modern foppery as his primary profession with his remarkable proficiency at the piano simply providing the soundtrack to the Liberace experience…and what an experience it was. Decadent stages, exotic handcrafted pianos, and elaborate sequined suits when Liberace took the stage the audience entered an extravagant universe entirely created by Liberace himself. As his notoriety spread throughout the 1950’s, Liberace became a household name with his own television show, a starring turn in the film Sincerely Yours, and even his own line of cookbooks. The more famous he got the more outrageous he became yet the more outrageous he became the more the tabloids took an interest in his personal life. By the mid-50’s, Liberace’s overwhelming flamboyance and seemingly eternal bachelorhood sparked highly publicized tabloid rumors concerning his sexual orientation and though he always steadfastly refuted claims regarding his sexual proclivities, the rumor mill surrounding Liberace’s personal life dogged him until his death in 1987. Of course, these days we don’t live in such a heightened fear mongering homophobic climate dominated by the black list, the red scare, and McCarthyism as Liberace did at the height of his fame in the 1950’s, so it’s understandable why he attempted to keep his personal life out of the papers. Remarkably, his hugely popular Las Vegas live show thrived despite the tabloid rumors, giving credence to his stage moniker “Mr. Showmanship”. Decades after his death The Liberace Museum continues to attract thousands of visitors a year, cementing his reputation as one of Sin City’s most beloved performers and biggest box office draws.
Wladzíu Valentino Liberace was born on May 16, 1919 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Polish immigrant parents who nurtured their son into a musical prodigy, particularly his father Salvatore Liberace, who played the French horn in The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra amongst numerous other big band groups. Liberace was recognized as a child prodigy at the piano by a very early age and was encouraged by his father to practice and hone his skills. At age 8, young Wladzíu began studying under famed Polish classical pianist Ignace Paderewski, who helped his charge secure a prestigious scholarship at the Wisconsin College of Music, a scholarship he managed to keep for the next 17 years. While continuing his studies, Liberace began to branch out into public performance, beginning as a concert soloist at age 11 before working his way up to symphony orchestras by the time he was a teenager. As the Great Depression ravaged the U.S. economy, Liberace began branching out toward the seedier side of the entertainment industry by playing strip clubs and cabarets to help put food on the family table. Still a teenager, Liberace soon began to show signs of the signature showmanship flair he would hone into a well oiled machine more than a decade later, often playing under the name “Walter Busterkeys”, adopting princely regalia, and injecting a self-deprecating sense of comedy into his concerts. Ultimately, Liberace chose to pursue a career in show business over his pre-ordained profession as a classical concert pianist, and moved to New York City in 1940 to realize his dream. Liberace spent the better part of the early 40’s refining his act to include bits of pop standards, a pinch of classical music (only the exciting parts not the boring parts of course), polishing his comedic wit, and even taking charge of the lighting design and stage presentation of his shows. During this time he also adopted the official stage name, Liberace, and began using elegant and lavishly adorned pianos during performance. Yet his time New York didn’t offer him the fame and notoriety he felt his one of a kind live show deserved so Liberace relocated to Hollywood in 1947 and began staging his act at local nightclubs. Soon after he was offered a contract with Decca Records but after an unsuccessfully attempted to remake Liberace into a big band leader he was dropped.
Columbia picked up Liberace and issued his infamous over-the-top rendition of “September Song” at the dawn of the 1950’s. Throughout the rest of the decade Liberace would release up to 70 albums, most of which were live recordings from his various concerts. Although he achieved gold status with a handful of full length albums the magic and excitement of his elaborate stage show was difficult to capture on recordings and since Liberace never really composed his own material his albums were essentially glorified collections of eclectic covers ranging from Chopin to show tune’s and everything else in-between. If anything, Liberace released such an enormous amount of full length albums because they served as the best promotional tool to attract people to his live shows, which became sold events in the mid-50’s with Liberace playing to thousands of people a night. Established as one of America’s premier showman, Liberace’s highly visual act was made for television and his numerous T.V. specials along with his own program, The Liberace Show, which first aired on July 1, 1952, brought him to the attention of a nationwide U.S. audience. By 1955, Liberace had reached the pinnacle of his fame and was arguably the biggest star in the United States with a strong following in Britain as well. The Liberace Show proved so popular it began playing in syndication with Liberace netting 80% of the profits on re-runs alone, making him a multi-millionaire. That same year Mr. Showmanship also proved to be an adept leading man in his first big Hollywood film, Sincerely Yours, playing a deaf concert pianist preparing for a big performance at Carnegie Hall. His highly popular Los Vegas show at the Riviera Hotel and Casino also premiered in 1955 with the star making an astounding $50,000 a week. Numerous product ties-in’s from cookbooks to automobiles to mortician services followed with Liberace cashing in on nearly everything carrying his trademarked name. With the sudden influx of wealth and fame came even more extravagance with Liberace building numerous palatial mansions, customized pianos, and handcrafted stage outfits replete with jewels and, of course, the ever present rhinestones, which also seemed to be laced into everything he owned. As he entered pop culture superstardom near the end of 1955, Liberace’s excessive materialism began to eclipse his actual musical prowess and the showman became better known for his opulent pianos adorned with a signature decadent candelabra than he was for his actual playing of the instrument.
Liberace celebrated his 25th year in show business by throwing a lavish concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1956 followed by three sold out shows at London’s famous Royal Albert Hall a few months later. That same year however, the first real dent in Liberace’s superstar career came from the English newspaper The Daily Mirror when a columnist known as Cassandra (aka William Connor) incited a huge public scandal by making veiled accusations concerning Liberace’s sexual orientation. In turn, Liberace slapped a lawsuit on the newspaper and although he eventually won the damage to his reputation had already been done and his popularity subsided throughout the latter half of 50’s. At the dawn of the 1960’s, however Liberace turned his attention from recapturing his once potent fame and focused solely on his devoted fanbase and live show, turning his Vegas performances into mind blowing spectacles featuring Rolls Royce’s, exotic dancers, novelty acts like jugglers and magicians, and wild animals with Liberace sometimes making his grand entrance by descending from the ceiling on wires like a Messiah from the heavens. During this time Liberace also jump started Barbara Streisand’s career by including the young aspiring vocalist in his show, even helping her secure a recording contract with Columbia Records. After accidentally inhaling a massive amount of cleaning fluids Liberace nearly died from renal failure in November of 1963. When doctors diagnosed his condition as fatal, Liberace began to give away all of his earthly possession only to recover in full a month later.
Although he continued to release full length albums throughout the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Liberace never made a triumphant return to the charts yet he managed to remain obscenely successful by playing sold out shows to a diehard fanbase in both Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, earning an estimated $300,000 a week. Liberace once again made scandalous headlines in 1982 when a former chauffeur/bodyguard filed a palimony suit against the multi-millionaire star, which again dredged up questions about his sexuality. As usual, Liberace vehemently denied the accusations and the case was eventually settled out of court. As his health began to noticeably deteriorate in subsequent years Liberace still managed to take the stage, making his final performance at the legendary Radio City Music Hall in New York City on November 2, 1986 only 3 months before his death. Although he never admitted to being HIV positive, Wladzíu Valentino Liberace passed away at his winter home in Palm Springs, California from complications due to HIV/AID’s on February 4, 1987. After a 56 year career as one of America’s most popular entertainers, Liberace left behind a legacy of extravagant materialism so gross it was put on display at The Liberace Museum, which continues to be one of Las Vegas’ most popular tourist attractions. Perhaps more importantly however, Liberace set the template for the big outrageous Vegas live show carried on by the likes of Celine Dion, Bette Midler, and Elton John today.
In mid 2008, Oscar winning film director Steven Soderbergh announced his intention to direct a biopic about Liberace with veteran actor Michael Douglas taking on the lead role. Still untitled, the film currently has no set release date. He may have never been a critical darling with a squeaky clean reputation but Liberace was beloved by millions of fans throughout his career because, as Mr. Showmanship himself so aptly put it, he truly was “a one man Disneyland”.