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My Liberace Moments
Liberace was outre’ when outre’ was out.
The bedazzled pianist is the subject of the upcoming Steven Soderbergh HBO biopic “Behind the Candelabra.” Michael Douglas plays Liberace, Matt Damon portrays Lee’s lover Scott Thorson (the movie title comes from Thorson’s 1988 memoir) and Debbie Reynolds plays Wladziu Valentino Liberace’s mother. I’m not making any of this up.
Liberace died of complications from AIDS in 1987.
A little history lesson: if Elton John’s father had been from West Allis, Wisconsin, he would have been Liberace.
“Lee,” as his friends called him, died with six pianos, 27 dogs, 15 homes, nine cars and a $1 million wardrobe that filled 54 trunks……
I used to tell this story when I spoke to journalism classes:
In 1985 I interviewed Liberace in his 32nd floor suite in the Trump Tower near Central Park. The interview was moving slow as the bubbles in Liberace’s bathtub. Liberace seemed bored until I personalized our fleeting moment together by reaching for my wallet and showing him a snapshot of my rescued Beagle-Shepherd named Sandy.
If Liberace had a tail, it would have been wagging.
He strolled over to his dresser and pulled out a snapshot of Wrinkles, a Shar-pei covered in furry creases. He spoke of his other Shar-pei named Prunes, and how he wished “they had bred them down in size, because I want a little one called Raisins.”
“I’m so crazy about my dogs,” he said looking at his dog pictures. “I call them long-distance. They’re in all my homes. Each dog has his own jeweled collar and personalized fireplug. I tell my housekeeper to put the phone by their ear so they can hear my voice. They get all crazy and start carrying on.”
Liberace then got up and called one of his dogs to tell him “Daddy” was doing fine with the strange reporter from Chicago.
The ability for us to find a common, human denominator opened up the interview.
We had removed the glitz.
Liberace started riffing on his inventions such as a disappearing toilet (set on a movable turntable). He told me he thought he was the pathfinder for Elton and gender bender Boy George (who was popular at the time).
“I was ahead of my time,” Liberace said with a made-for-TV smile. “When I first started dressing away from the norm – wearing colorful, embroidered clothes and jeweled clothes – it was very daring for 1952. In fact, the first time I dressed different (at the Hollywood Bowl), I wore a white full-dress suit without any sparkle that was considered outrageous in 1952. Over the years I have to keep topping myself, because everyone is all jeweled up.”
Oh Lee, I shed a tear for you not being able to participate in “Dancing With The Stars.”
According to a 1981 Rolling Stone article, Elvis Presley first saw Liberace in Las Vegas. Posing for a picture, Elvis wore Liberace’s gold jacket and Liberace wore Presley’s red blazer. Elvis never was the same. They each grew into characters larger than life, so much so that there is supposed to be a steamy Matt Damon-Michael Douglas make out scene in “Behind The Candelabra (due out on May 26). Life is about taking risks.
“There is a time for me as a person and a time for me as an entertainer,” Liberace told me. “I learned that from Mae West. She was not Mae West when she was off the screen. She was a woman who wouldn’t drink, smoke, swear or anything. When she spoke of herself, she spoke in the third person. She created Mae West, and I was fascinated by that approach.”
At 15, Liberace won a scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music and a year later he was asked to appear as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Even as a teenager, Liberace was torched for hacking up the classics. Liberace’s first critic was his taskmaster father, a former trumpet player with John Philip Sousa.
Yet in concert, Liberace was able to bring a perfunctory perception of beauty to a classical piece. A Strauss waltz would have worked as well alone as it did against Liberace’s legendary “dancing waters.” Moments later, a sugar-coated cover of “Lara’s Theme” from “Dr. Zhivago” would be smothered by schmaltz.
In 1999 I wrote a travel piece for the Chicago Reader about the Cavalier, a dark and tiny piano bar on Fifth Avenue in La Crosse, Wisconsin where Liberace–then known as Walter Busterkeys–cut his chops. He played at the Cavalier for a month somewhere during the late 1930s, earning $80 a week and returned for a 1941 engagement. John Sheetz opened the Cavalier in 1934. His son Jack told me his father once ran a still across from Wrigley Field.
The Cavalier is still open and even retains some of the gaudy cavalier heads which John installed and later watched over Liberace.
Liberace left Wisconsin and never looked back. He wore a piano shaped ring with 260 diamonds when his television show made its debut. In 1954, during a live concert in Detroit, an “impartial hair specialist” was called on to inspect Liberace’s wavy hair to determine if it had been doctored by a curling iron. Justice won by a whisker.
Liberace was clean.
I was living in Wicker Park in 1982 when I chartered a rickety school bus for a road trip to see Liberace in concert at the Holiday Star Theatre in Merrillville, Ind. I made quiche and we loaded up the bus with beer, tequila and vodka. Liberace arrived on stage in a Rolls Royce. A dozen of us had balcony seats and it was no coincidence that by intermission eleven of us had already wandered into the lobby bar. My friend Tom, then a WBBM-TV cameraman, was still in his seat, catching the gaudy groove.
I can’t wait for “Behind the Candelabara.” Perhaps I’ll have another party because we will be looking at this unique entertainer through the lens of a more progressive world that he never knew.