Liberace was a celebrated superstar at one time receiving over seven thousand fan letters and twelve marriage proposals a week. He also received over twenty-five thousand valentines a year. Known throughout the world for his trademark flamboyance, flair and exquisite over the top wardrobe, Liberace was the epitome of flamboyance. Liberace first appeared onto the national scene in the early 1950s with one of the American most watched shows at a time that television was at its infancy. At his peak, his careers earned him the highest paid performer and were listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest paid musicians and pianist. Much of his popularity was attributed to the fact that behind the candelabras and glittering facade, he was an eccentric genius and one in line with his Midwestern upbringing. He stood out as one of the most popular entertainers. Liberace treated his fans to a blend of contemporary favourites mixed with memorable classical pieces.
Liberace shows were a wonderful wild, weird and wonderful spectacle. He performed in outrageous outfits, and his fans were dominated by women over the age of forty. His trademark was a candelabrum with electric lights which sat on the top of a glass-topped piano. Creating a fantasy on stage, he achieved a large following. He exhibited a bright and optimistic, engaging and lavish, romantic and idealistic way of life. He was popular and inclusive. This character earned him the nickname "Mr. Showmanship." This paper seeks to expound on the life of Liberace, the musician.
Pianist and Showman Liberace was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace on May 16, 1919, in West Allis, one of the four children of Salvatore Liberace and Frances Zuchowsky (Liberace, 2003). His father was himself a semi-professional musician and played the French horn in several bands, including the orchestra of John Philip Sousa. Liberace studied Piano under the guidance of his father from an early age. Liberace is quoted to have said that his meeting with famous Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski gave him an inspiration and encouragement to continue using his choice of the instrument which his father was not supportive of. Liberace would later join Wisconsin College of Music where he received a scholarship and continued to study till he was twenty-four.
At the age of fourteen, he became a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the supervision of Frederick Stock. Under the recommendation of Frederick, he moved to the tutelage of noted performer and teacher Florence Kelly. At seventeen Liberace joined the Works Progress Administration Symphony Orchestra. In 1939, he was noted to have played the song, Three Little Fishes, in a semi-classical style paving the way for his unique way of playing popular songs with a classical fair (Liberace, 2003). Liberace first featured in the film where he played a honkey tonk pianist in South Sea Sinner, a 1950 movie. Inspired by his performance, a television producer asked Liberace to star in a television show that became a summer replacement of the Dinah Show. In 1952 The Liberace Show was the most viewed national show and even aired abroad as a fifteen minutes' segment. At its peak, the show had approximately 35 million viewers. He incorporated his family into his career as illustrated by his brother George who played violin on his show and operated as his orchestral arranger. In addition to the television show, his career involved performing at live concerts and in bars and restaurants.
Liberace life was not without controversies. He had long been ridiculed for his effeminate ways that he ended up filing a case against a British publication for defamation after the magazine implicitly stated that he was gay. Moreover, Liberace won another court battle against a British columnist over his comments. It was later revealed that he was gay. In public, he identified himself so closely with his mother that the association drew controversy. His critics, especially in the 1950s, used the relationship as evidence of the performer's decadence and others called him a "mama's boy." He stirred the issue in an article that appeared under his name in women's magazine, "Mature Women Are Best" (Liberace, 2003). His chauffeur and live-in lover, Scott Thorson, filed a lawsuit against Liberace. In 1986, Thorson agreed to settle the case outside the court where he received a $75000 settlement, three pet dogs and three cars worth $2000 despite having placed a $113 million claim (Liberace, 2003). Though having denied claims of being a homosexual, Thorson confirmed the claim and even admitted that he had had plastic surgery to look like Liberace, son. The assertion points to the fact that Liberace wanted the young lover to look more like his son to hide his sexual escapades.
Music criticizers were commonly unforgiving in their review of his piano performance. Critic Lewis Funke wrote, after a Carnegie Hall Concert, that Liberace's music "must be served with all the available." The review by Funke critics that the performance was sloppily coupled with his failure to stick to what the composers had written, an excess of petrification and sentimentality, biased phrasing, wrong tempos as well as a slackness of rhythms (Pyron, 2001). Richard Davies of Milwaukee journal praised Liberace noting that he had a sure hand of the craftsman and that sometimes his performances transfigured moments which only a genius can create. Another reviewer noted that talent and showmanship combined with years of experience made Liberace stand out from the common and even serious concert pianists. According to biographer Pyron, when Liberace performed classical repertoire from works of Beethoven and Bach he always enhanced it with dramatic and spectacular playing. Liberace remains unaffected by reviews on his work and life as depicted in a letter he sent to a critic noting, "Thank you for you for your very amusing review. After reading it, my brother George and I laughed all the way to the bank." ( Pyron, 2001).
At the peak of his career, Liberace was a perfect description of showmanship that defined much of his career. An over decorated performer and a nurtured self-promoter Liberace depicted showiness on stage an in his private life. Liberace was flamboyant but inclined to conceal his identity. He captured the emotion of his fans in his love for his mother. It is on this note that most of his followers were middle-aged mothers. Before he succumbed to his illness, Liberace kept a baroque home and established the popular Liberace Museum. Liberace clothes had a profound meaning in his career on a professional and personal level. The flamboyant fur clothes enabled him to live a gay life with the knowledge of the public. Clemente and O'Connor (2013) note that Liberace's wardrobe consisted of bespoke suits with scarlet linings, silking lounging attire, and rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuits. He captured the attention of King Ludwig II, head of the Bavarian monarch, who was at the time described as gay. Liberace honored his connection to the King by offering him a black mink of leather, a black inch trench, and a raccoon. Liberace bought the skill of the best designers and always demanded the best materials. Liberace e is once noted to have said: "I don't give concerts, I put on a show." Moreover, different from concerts which ended with applause and a departure off stage, Liberace ended his shows with his audience invited on-stage to touch his jewelry, hands or clothes. These acts we usually followed by caresses, hugs, handshakes, and kisses.
Liberace received various recognition in his landmark career. These include two Emmy Awards two stars and six gold albums on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Other awards bestowed on him include Best Dressed Entertainer, Entertainer of the Year, and Instrumentalist of the Year. Moreover, he released a book on his life. Clemente and O'Connor (2013) affirm that Liberace biggest achievement was his ability to turn a recital into a show full of music, glitter, and personality. He is credited for founding the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, a non-profit organization. Funds from the organization provided a scholarship for financially needy college musicians.
Several films have featured Liberace, giving an account of his life and death. Liberace: Behind the Music, is a 1988 American-Canada biographical film on Liberace (Pyron, 2001). The movie storyline focuses on how young Liberace moved from a humble working-class family to become a famous American pianist and vocalist. The movie, "Behind the Candelabra" is about the love drama between the pianist Liberace and his admittedly bisexual young companion Scott Thorson. The movie depicts their secretive five-year relationship to their bitter and public breakup. The movie premiered in 2013 and starred Matt Damon and Michael Douglass and was directed by Steven Soderberg.
Liberace died on the morning of February 4, 1987. He died of pneumonia as a result of AIDS at his retreat home on Palm Spring, California aged 67. In an article appearing on the New York Times, the Riverside County Coroner confirmed of his death by a disease caused by Aids (AP., 1987). The coroner went further to accuse Liberace' doctors of attempting to cover up the cause of death.
The paper has focused on the overwhelming and unparalleled life of Liberace. His story influenced mass media, materialism, and the capitalist society that is America. Liberace aimed at making classical music accessible to the masses. He achieved this by thoroughly engaging the audience and delighting them within increasingly wild ornate costumes and stage sets. He exhibited an over the top, outrageous stage persona on the highly respected 19th century piano. By achieving extravagant success, he set the bar for what entertainers can achieve. Elvis, one of the greatest rock artist, heavily influenced by Liberace and once asked him for advice on his act. Liberace, the pianist, is reported to have given Elvis a gold lame jacket which significantly improved his stage appeal. Pyron notes that Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire could also be linked to Liberace boundless display of tricks and gimmicks to cheer up his stage performances. By giving the public augmented acts, Liberace brought a whole new meaning to "showbiz."
AP. (1987, February 10). Coroner Cites Aids In Liberace Death. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1987/02/10/us/coroner-cites-aids-in-liberace-death.html
Clemente, D., & O'Connor, A. (2013, 6). Why Liberace's Costumes Mattered. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/06/why-liberaces-costumes-mattered/276568/
Liberace. (2003). The Wonderful Private World of Liberace. Turner Publishing Company.
Pyron, D. A. (2001). Liberace: An American Boy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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