HAPPY BIRTHDAY LIBERACE

By  |  0 Comments
The following two tabs change content below.
avatar

BRIAN MILLS

Editor / Founder
Founder & Editor of Fierth.com - I am not a journalist, I am not a blogger, and I am not a writer.


Remembering Liberace

Born on May 17th 

Early life

Liberace, known as “Lee” to his friends and “Walter” to family, was born in West Allis, Wisconsin, a Milwaukee suburb, to Frances Zuchowska (August 31, 1892 – November 1, 1980), who was of Polish descent, and Salvatore (“Sam”) Liberace (December 9, 1885 – April 1, 1977), an emigrant from Formia, Italy. He had a twin who died at birth and he was born with a caul, which in his family, as in many societies, was taken as a sign of genius and an exceptional future. Liberace’s father was a musician who played the French horn in bands and movie theaters but sometimes had to work as a factory worker or laborer. While his father encouraged music in the family, his mother was not musical and thought music lessons and a record player to be luxuries they couldn’t afford, causing angry 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 four and while his father 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. He memorized difficult pieces by age seven. He studied the technique of the famous Polish pianist and later family friend Ignacy Paderewski and at eight met him backstage 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.”

The Great Depression was hard on the family financially. The early-teenage Liberace also suffered from a speech problem and from the taunts of neighborhood children who mocked his avoidance of sports and his fondness for the piano and for cooking. Liberace focused fiercely on his piano playing and blossomed under the instruction of music teacher Florence Kelly who guided his musical development for ten years. He gained experience playing popular music in theaters, on local radio, for dancing classes, for clubs, and for weddings. He played jazz with a school group called the “Mixers” in 1934, then other groups later. Liberace also performed in cabarets and strip clubs, and even though his parents did not approve, he was earning a tidy living during hard times. For a while he 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 virtues and he grew more popular at school, though mostly as an object of comic relief.

In a formal classical music competition in 1937, Liberace was praised for his “flair and showmanship”.[11] At the end of a traditional classical concert in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1939, Liberace played his first requested encore, “Three Little Fishes”, which he played in the style of several different classical composers. The 20-year-old played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on January 15, 1940, at the Pabst Theatre 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 concertgoer. He changed from classical pianist to showman, unpredictably and whimsically mixing 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, cracking jokes, giving lessons to chosen audience members—and 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 appeared in a couple of 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 performance 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 tirelessly to refine his act. He added the candelabrum as a signature prop and adopted “Liberace” as his stage name, making a big point in his press releases that it was pronounced “Liber-Ah-chee”. He dressed in white tie and tails to be better seen in large halls. Besides clubs and occasional work as an accompanist and rehearsal pianist, Liberace also 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 would perform with an array of extravagant, custom-decorated pianos, some encrusted with sequins and mirrors.) He moved to North Hollywood, California in 1947 and was performing at local clubs, such as Ciro’s and Mocambo’s, for Hollywood stars such as Rosalind Russell, Clark Gable, Gloria Swanson, and Shirley Temple. He did not always play to packed rooms, and early on he learned to perform with extra energy to sparser crowds, in order to keep up 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 dramatically, and making him wealthy in short order.

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.[20] He was making over $1,000,000 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 but was also fascinated with royalty, ceremony, and luxury. He loved to hobnob with the “rich and famous,” acting as star-struck 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 top shaped swimming pool. His dream home with its lavish furnishings, elaborate bath, and antiques all 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. The sponsors would obligingly send him complimentary products, including his white Cadillac limousine. He reciprocated enthusiastically, “If I am selling tuna fish, I believe in tuna fish.” The critics would have a field day with his gimmicky act, his showy but careful piano playing, his non-stop promotions, and his gaudy display of success, but it was he who 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!”

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 Cavalcade of Stars, with Jackie Gleason. 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 Liberace series made the pianist more popular and prosperous than ever. His first two years earnings from television netted him $7,000,000 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 thirty million viewers at any one time and received ten thousand 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.”

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. From 1955 on, his recordings and sales declined steadily.

His albums included standards of the time, such as Hello Dolly, but also included his own versions of works from Chopin and other classical greats. In his life he received 6 gold records. As successful as his recording career was, however, it never reached the level of popularity of his live shows.

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 veteran columnist Cassandra (William Connor) mentioned that Liberace was “…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 did everything it could to imply he was homosexual without actually saying so.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 the term fruit-flavoured, which was held to impute homosexuality. The £8,000 damages he received from The Daily Mirror (approximately $22,000) 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 alleged behavior that strongly implied that he was homosexual. 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 24-year-old bodyguard, limo driver, and alleged live-in boyfriend of five years, sued the pianist for $113 million in palimony after an acrimonious split-up.[citation needed] Liberace continued publicly[where?] to deny that he was homosexual and insisted that Thorson was never his lover. In 1984, most of Thorson’s claim was dismissed, although he received a $95,000 settlement.[citation needed] Thorson claimed in his book,[citation needed] published after Liberace died, he settled because “I did not want to fight it out with a dying man.”[citation needed] Thorson claimed his lawsuit was legitimate and primarily based on conversion of property, and ultimately got twisted in litigation.

Confusion over Liberace’s true sexuality was further muddled in the public’s mind by his public friendships and romantic links with actress Joanne Rio (whom he claimed he nearly married), skater Sonja Henie, aging Hollywood icon Mae West, and famous transsexual Christine Jorgenson. Many publicity releases and women’s magazine articles attempted to counter the homosexuality rumors by portraying Liberace as “the perfect all-around man any woman would be thrilled to be with… He’s so considerate on dates… He never forgets the little things that women love… He makes you feel that when you are with him, well, you really are with him.” Another article was “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 confirmed that Liberace was gay, and that she often served as a Beard (companion) to counter rumors of the musician’s homosexuality.

Liberace’s final stage performance was at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on November 2, 1986; the 18th show in 21 days, the series grossing $2.5 million. His final television appearance was on Christmas Day that same year on The Oprah Winfrey Show TV talk show, which was recorded a month earlier.

He died at the age of 67 on February 4, 1987 at his winter home in Palm Springs, California, from “Cytomegalic Virus Pneumonia due to, or as a consequence of Human Immunodeficiency Virus Disease” according to the coroner’s report and reported in the LA Times.[55] Liberace’s obvious weight loss in the months before his death was attributed to a “watermelon diet” by his longtime manager Seymour Heller.[56]

He had been in ill health since 1985 with emphysema from his daily smoking off-stage, as well as heart and liver troubles; and author Darden Asbury Pyron wrote that Liberace had been “HIV-positive and symptomatic” from 1985. Liberace’s body is entombed in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Behind the Candelabra – Airs May 26th on HBO 
HBO has agreed to film Behind the Candelabra to air on its network. Michael Douglas is to star as Liberace, with Matt Damon playing Scott Thorson, in a story centered on a relationship the two shared and its aftermath. Filming is scheduled for Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Palm Springs during the summer of 2012. The production is to be directed by Steven Soderbergh with screenplay by Richard LaGravenese based on Thorson’s book Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace. The score will be by Marvin Hamlisch.

The following two tabs change content below.
avatar

BRIAN MILLS

Editor / Founder
Founder & Editor of Fierth.com - I am not a journalist, I am not a blogger, and I am not a writer.
avatar

Founder & Editor of Fierth.com - I am not a journalist, I am not a blogger, and I am not a writer.

Featuring Recent Posts WordPress Widget development by YD