Although a talented musician and singer, Liberace was perhaps best known for his extravagant shows and flamboyant costumes. He toured with a grand piano covered in mirrored tile and often wore suits completely masked in rhinestones and sequins. Ironically, it's rumored that when not performing he would lounge around his home in a ratty terry cloth robe and would remain unshaved for days at a time.
Wladziu Valentino Liberace was born May 16th, 1919 in West Allis, Wisconsin to Salvatore and Frances. I'm told that Wladziu is Polish for Walter, but I remain convinced that in reality it is a form of child abuse. Clearly his father and mother wanted young Wladziu to grow up and be flamboyantly gay. Despite his tongue twisting name and the playground beatings he surely endured for it, Wladziu was musically gifted.
His entire family was well grounded in music and performance. His father, Salvatore, played the french horn in the Milwaukee Philharmonic and his mother was a pianist of some repute. All of the Liberace children, including Wladziu's three siblings, were encouraged to explore music. Wladziu simply outdid them all by being a genius and learning to play the piano by ear, at the tender age of four. So impressive was his skill that renowned pianist and family friend Paderwski recommended Wladziu for a scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music after an informal family visit. Wladziu received formal training from Florence Bettray Kelly and made his solo debut in the Chicago Symphony at the age of fourteen.
By 1940 he was performing popular nightclub routines at the infamous Persian Room in the New York Plaza Hotel. Seven years later, in a repeat engagement at the Plaza, he introduced a trademark that would endure for the rest of his life, a sparkling and sometimes bejeweled candelabra. This was the same year that on the advice of his similarly mono-monikered mentor Paderewski, he dropped his first two names and became known as simply Liberace.
In 1949, Liberace made his feature film debut playing a honky tonk pianist in the Shelley Winters film "South Sea Sinner." By 1951 his popularity had increased to the point that he was able to play himself in the D.W. Griffith film "Footlight Varieties." While playing in the San Diego resort hotel the Coronado, Liberace was spotted by a television producer. A local Los Angeles show was created for Liberace as a mid season replacement for Dinah Shore. The show's popularity swiftly grew and eventually won two Emmys. By 1954 it was carried by 217 American stations and 20 foreign countries.
Liberace's live performances were things of grandeur and spectacular showmanship. People flocked to see him and in 1953 he decimated the record attendance of Madison Square Garden, previously held by his mentor Paderewski, when the doors admitted a capacity crowd of 16,000. In 1955 he opened a show at the Riveria in Las Vegas that made him the highest paid performer in the city's history. In 1965 he had become so well-loved by America that he was awarded a role in the often forgotten but wonderfully dark Jonathon Winters film, "The Loved One."
In 1977 he founded the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, a not-for-profit organization that provides generous donations for scholarships in schools and colleges across America. On April 15, 1979, the Liberace Museum was opened in Las Vegas and serves to this day as the key funding arm of the foundation.
Liberace's final performances were at Radio City Music Hall in the fall of 1986. After a quick tour to promote his latest book he returned to his Palm Springs home and passed away from complications related to the HIV virus on February 4, 1987.
Liberace seemed to confuse some and delight others. The details of Liberace's private life were all the stranger when compared to his truly odd public personae that counted Rock Hudson as a sexual conquest and permitted him a nearly overpowering arrogance. Before the advent of Viagra, Liberace dealt with sexual dysfunction by having a silicone implant installed in his plumbing. He once refused to remove his hairpiece before a face lift, until the surgeon refused to perform the operation without its removal. He even arranged for one of his lovers, 40 years younger than he, to undergo plastic surgery, so that he could more closely resemble his patron.
Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, Liberace was clearly well loved by audiences that appreciated his often original compositions based on classical works that were easily recognized by the average joe. His sparkling shows and glittering props embodied a freedom that many feared to embrace in a country yet to fully embrace alternative lifestyles. He was a damn good piano man.
Play it again, Wladziu.
Major sources include:
Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe 2000