GLITTERY, SHINY, SILVER AND GOLD...
VGMH Note: We continue our Christmas celebration with Liberace! It's been reported many times that Liberace was a genuinely nice person who truly loved Christmas. In the early years of his career he was able to lavish gifts and decorate without financial constraints. Later in his life, with his loved ones now gone, an extremely wealthy (and lonely) man was able to remember his loving family and the good times of Christmases past.
In an interview, Michael Douglas (who played Liberace) said “I met him once with my father in Palm Springs, where they both had homes, but what I mostly remember is Lee’s TV show. Liberace talked directly to the camera—he was the first person to do that. He was having such a good time that he was contagious. For me, Lee’s gayness didn’t even enter the picture—you just wanted to share the good time with him. And he was nice. I was attracted to his sheer likability.”
This great interview (below) first appeared in People Magazine's October 4th 1982 issue. It's an interesting article, especially in retrospect with what we now know since Liberace's passing, and it helps to explain both his personal family history and the very complex relationship that this star (one of the highest paid entertainers of all time) had with the media and also with the general public. We've included a variety of photos from his life which are not related to the 1982 People Magazine story, which begins here:
He appears at the entrance to his wantonly overdecorated living room in Las Vegas as one who has just awakened from a nightmare. His eyes, red and unfocused, convey the haunted look of a man who might never sleep again. Visibly shaking, he sinks into an overstuffed sofa beside his visitor and tries to light a cigarette.
"We've had a bit of a tragedy," he says, his breaking voice at nearly a whisper. "Domenick Allen, my supporting act...I knew something was wrong in the second show, when he sang 'Smile, though your heart is breaking.' Right at that line I just had to stop playing. Somehow the normal accompaniment wouldn't work. After the show I was having a drink in my dressing room, and my manager came in and said, 'Lee, we need you for a minute—Domenick has a problem.' Well, there was Domenick crying and his girlfriend Kathy was crying and then they told me what had happened and I started crying. It seems that when they came home the night before they opened the bathroom door and she was hanging from a doorpull. She had caught her little collar on it and broken her neck." The "she" of the story is a Yorkshire terrier named Sushi, now deceased.
|1957 publicity photo|
|Liberace Christmas cards as displayed at the Liberace museum|
He has realized the dreams of a most common man. His Las Vegas act, concert tours and records (60 million sold to date) have brought him an average gross income of $5 million for each of the last 30 years, and he has worked his bejeweled tails off to make it so. In his portfolio are many mansions (three in Las Vegas alone), pianos (18 at latest count, including Chopin's and Gershwin's), cars (20, two of them Rollses), gems (he wears about $3 million worth onstage and has one $35,000 Tiffany watch that plays his theme song, I'll Be Seeing You), furs (including a $150,000 black diamond mink coat lined with Austrian rhinestones), antiques (don't ask) and real estate. At the Liberace Plaza in Las Vegas there is now a Liberace Museum and a Liberace antiques store to take the spillover from a way of life that makes Kenny Rogers' look positively restrained. All this from leaving the classical piano repertoire for what he has called "the happiness side of music," by which he means the Beer Barrel Polka and a six-minute version of the Warsaw Concerto. "People say I'm prostituting myself by not sticking to the classics," he told a reporter in 1951. "But there's more money in being commercial."
As the facade lifts, a man of contradictions emerges. The thousand-megawatt smile he turns on for his show and for fans who come backstage to meet him goes to flat zero when he turns away; his face in these unmarked moments is grave and lonely, inaccessible as a frightened child's. He has a large, devoted following whose affection plainly moves him, but in his private life, says one longtime associate, "The only people he's really close to are the people who work for him, the ones on his payroll."
|Liberace with Cher (in character), 1974|
The option of a concert career was still open to him then; indeed, Walter Liberace was luckier than most piano students. For 17 years, starting at the age of 7, the Wisconsin College of Music put him on full scholarship to study with Florence Bettray-Kelly, a former pupil of the legendary virtuoso Moriz Rosenthal. At 17, Liberace made his debut recital in Milwaukee before the Society of Musical Arts, and three years later he took time off from the Wunderbar for a chance to play the Liszt A Major Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. What seems to him now the turning point came at about the same time, at the end of a recital in La Crosse, Wis., when he playfully obliged a request from the audience for Three Little Fishies as an encore. That slight but titillating breach of highbrow convention brought him an accolade he would find increasingly addictive: He got his name in the papers.
The heady years of his greatest success now seem a distant blur, but certain images stand out: the massive traffic jam the night he set the Hollywood Bowl's box office record in 1952; the show in which he sang Ave Maria to a woman in an iron lung; the riotous mob that greeted him on his arrival in London in 1956; the piano-shaped pool at the house he shared with his mother; his mother, in white mink and diamonds and dime store glasses. Liberace's celebrity then could not be overstated. He was TV's first matinee idol, inspiring the same mania among his fans as his middle-namesake. Women threw themselves at him, baked him cakes, knitted socks for him with little pianos on them, and in 1953 sent him 27,000 valentines. The Liberace Museum is filled with evidence of the frenzy: a tiny piano made with 10,000 toothpicks by a fan in Florida, for example, and a Madonna of beads painstakingly pieced together by a woman who had lost the use of her hands in a car accident. "It could have been the exercise that cured her," says the conductor of this tour, "but there might be something mystical involved."
Such vague hints that there is Something Special about Liberace are dropped liberally by those around him, in stories about airplanes he kept his entourage from boarding which later crashed, and about lame fans who walked after a meeting with him backstage. But Liberace is no churchgoer, and in his press kit gospel, what might be considered the First Sign was not from God but from Paderewski, Liberace's lifelong idol. Backstage after a concert he gave in Milwaukee, so the story goes, the old virtuoso was so impressed by Frances Liberace's pitch for her son's playing that, placing his hand on the boy's head in benediction, he was moved to the verge of prophecy: "Someday this boy may take my place."
|1954 Eldorado customized for the star|
In 1971, while antiwarriors of the counterculture went to jail for costuming themselves in the American flag and thus defiling it, Liberace went on a tour of macho Australia with a surefire new piece of business: He made his entrance twirling a baton, in a pair of jeweled, star-spangled red-white-and-blue hot pants.
|The piano design of one of Liberace's Palm springs homes- Piazza di Liberace- includes a piano shaped letterbox.|
For the last several years Liberace has considered his home to be Las Vegas, an urban frontier on the killing desert made habitable only by the full defensive array of human artifices. Here the false front is exalted as a sign of sanctuary, a place of safety.
|Bill Anderson and Liberace|
Liberace's presence in the city is more felt than observed. He keeps his entourage small and close about him, and he entertains at home. His current passions include a line of artificial flowers to be sold under his name and "Liberace's Tivoli Gardens," a new restaurant opening in the Liberace Plaza. In the next 12 months, if past performance holds, he will do some 300 concerts in 25 cities from North Tonawanda, N.Y. to San Jose. Everywhere they will give him parties, and he will enjoy virtually none of them. "I become introverted offstage," he says. "Onstage I'm in command. Offstage I'm not too sure. At parties I seek out a corner and wait for people to come up to me. I just feel like I have nothing to back me up—no costumes, you know, no music, no rings. I just get very quiet."
He blames his distrust for the fact that he never settled down. "Sometimes, unfairly, I would put stumbling blocks on associations I developed just to test whether it was me they really loved or just the glamour of my profession. Invariably they failed the test, and I cut it off. I finally realized that I really couldn't tie myself down to a commitment that could never change because I'm too generous with my feelings. For instance, you'd think one dog would be enough, but as you can see I have to have 26." He keeps 17 of them with him at his house in Las Vegas. "I just can't confine my feelings to one person, you know what I mean?"
And so he courts the multitudes with patented props and wiles, every new crowd a first date. Offstage only his dogs ask nothing of him by way of paychecks or songs or big dimpled smiles. In the desert, a dog's death can assume the burden of all sorrows. In such a world the stage is a good place to hide, and perhaps the only place quite safe to feel really alive.