How do we explain Liberace to our children? Do we try? Or should they be left to grapple with life’s enigmas on their own? Won’t that make them stronger?
Born on this day in 1919, his full name was Wladziu Valentino Liberace. He started playing piano at age four with his father’s encouragement, and was obsessed with Paderewski, whom he got to meet backstage once when he was eight. While he did play some classical concerts in the late 30s and 40s, he also played dances, theatres, parties, and the like and he liked having popular music in his repertoire, and was already bringing showmanship and flair to his performances by then. (He cited Hildegarde as one of his influences). Sadly, vaudeville was gone by the time he came along, so he mostly worked the nightclub circuit.
By the 1940s he was already becoming the Liberace we all came to know and love, although as the years went on he would push the envelope further and further. But by the 40s he was already playing his signature grand piano, with a candelabra, billing himself as “Liberace — the most amazing piano virtuoso of the present day”. Amazingly, he became (at times) the highest paid performer in show business, though it’s really hard to see whom his music pleased. Serious (classical) music lovers thought his music too low brow; and yet it is way stodgier than any sort of jazz, swing, big band or rock music. Yet he sold millions and millions of records (mostly, I would imagine to the little old ladies who were his core audience). But for the wider world the main point of Liberace was always the visual. It’s impossible to imagine Elvis’s 1970s incarnation without him. Or Elton John. Or Prince, for that matter.
Sadly, he was killed by AIDS in 1987. I didn’t know that until yesterday, because it wasn’t public knowledge at the time he passed away. Sadly he stubbornly attempted to keep his gay identity a secret his entire lifetime (although it was a secret to no one). But the decision to keep it a secret was a shame, because I think the true news of his death would have hit the public hard, might have touched the hearts of some people who felt unmoved by the crisis then going on.
At any rate, time has been kind to Liberace. I watched this clip below yesterday, and was just in awe. No irony intended. We made a big joke of him when he was alive, but this is a man who knows how to entertain an audience. This is a spectacle you cannot look away from. Is there anyone like him around today?
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc