The highest-paid entertainer in the world for nearly two decades, Liberace earned the title "Mr. Showmanship" for his crowd-pleasing act, which blended masterful piano playing with witty banter and over-the-top glamour. Classically trained and rising through the supper club circuit, Liberace became a top draw in the 1950s, notching $50,000 a week for his Vegas shows. His TV series "The Liberace Show" (syndicated, 1953-54) cemented his massive popularity with women, who responded to his gentle nature and rhinestone-soaked flamboyance. While he never ignited as a film draw despite his star turn in "Sincerely Yours" (1955), Liberace remained an incredibly popular television figure whose shameless self-promotion and shilling of products only endeared him more to fans, who appreciated his up-by-his-bootstraps pluck. Plagued by rumors and hit with a 1982 palimony suit for $113 million by his limo driver/bodyguard and alleged lover Scott Thorson, Liberace steadfastly denied his homosexuality all his life. He died at the age of 67 on Feb. 4, 1987 due to AIDS-related complications, although he never publicly admitted being sick. Thorson's 1987 tell-all Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace revealed colorful details about the entertainer's life, inspiring a feature film of the same name (HBO, 2013), directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Matt Damon as Thorson and Michael Douglas as Liberace. Although modern audiences may not have appreciated just how massively influential and popular he was during his lifetime, Liberace singlehandedly wrote one of the most impressively outrageous American Dream stories of all time, conquering the world in his inimitably glamorous style.
Born May 16, 1919 in West Allis, WI, Wladziu Valentino Liberace was the son of a musical father who was determined to fill his house with music. Beginning piano lessons at age four and subjected to his father's strict standards, by the time Liberace was eight he demonstrated such talent and potential that he caught the eye of famous Polish pianist Ignaz Paderewski, who arranged for the youngster to receive a scholarship at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. With the help of his private tutor Florence Kelly and tireless practice, Liberace eventually debuted as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony at age 20. Although he had the talent to make it as a straightforward classical musician, Liberace had greater ambitions and an oversized personality to match. Throughout the early 1940s, he toured the United States, honing his act - an innovative mixture of classical and pop music liberally seasoned with comedy and audience interaction. His unique persona gelled by 1945, when he decided to bill himself as simply "Liberace" and to invest in the showmanship on which he would earn his fame, starting with an enormous grand piano and his trademark - an ornate, lit candelabra. His nightclub popularity led to him filming several "soundies," an early precursor to music videos, and he continued to refine his act, tirelessly polishing his performance and upping the "wow" factor with clever gimmicks and banter. Another key to his rise was his skillful self-promotion and ability to sell a glamorized version of himself, including publicity stunts such as purchasing "priceless," ornately designed pianos and appearing in extravagant costumes.
He quickly conquered his corner of the musical world, earning a record $138,000 for his 1954 performance at Madison Square Garden, and by the following year, he was earning $50,000 a week for his Vegas shows. Beloved and lampooned alike for his flamboyant appearance, performances and persona, Liberace became an icon of American pop culture. His television series, "The Liberace Show" (syndicated, 1953-54) became a smash hit, helping him achieve global popularity and establishing many of the hallmarks that would endear him to his mostly female fan base, such as his mother's constant presence at every show and his subsequent demonstrations of devotion to her. Portraying himself as a shy but goodhearted bachelor waiting for the right woman, Liberace became something of a sex symbol to many women, who responded to his kindness, glamour and gentle spirit. Although Liberace's homosexuality was something of an open secret and a source of delight for detractors and perceptive fans alike, many of his fans at the time knew nothing of his true leanings. Although he lived privately as a homosexual, Liberace fiercely defended his public heterosexual image, successfully suing The Daily Mirror in 1956 for alleging he was gay. The entertainer's enormous wealth and popularity helped insulate him against the rumors, as did his considerable charm and self-deprecating humor.
Although Liberace had made several film appearances, including "South Sea Sinner" (1950), his star turn in "Sincerely Yours" (1955) and "When the Boys Meet the Girls" (1965), television proved most welcoming, including a memorably campy double performance on "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68) and several incarnations of his own show, which helped launch sales of his albums as well as several successful books. In 1976, the entertainer founded the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, and three years later, he opened The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, a town over which he had come to effectively reign. Although he was hit with a $113 million palimony suit in 1982 by his long-term bodyguard, limo driver and alleged ex-lover, Scott Thorson, Liberace remained a powerfully popular figure, performing all five nominated film themes at the Academy Awards and notching a series of Radio City Music Hall appearances over the next few years that shattered all sales and attendance records for the storied venue. The entertainer continued to publicly deny his homosexuality, although he settled with Thorson for $95,000 in 1984, and he stuck by this party line until the end of his life. Although he never publicly admitted he was ill, Liberace died at the age of 67 on Feb. 4, 1987 at his home in Palm Springs due to AIDS-related complications.
In 1987, Thorson published a tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, that alleged that the entertainer had lived a promiscuous lifestyle of drug use and orgies, from which he had contracted HIV, as well as pressuring Thorson to have plastic surgery to look more like him. The colorful life of Mr. Showmanship continued to fascinate, inspiring two television movies "Liberace" (ABC, 1988) and "Liberace: Behind the Music" (CBS, 1988), as well as a 2010 stage show "Liberace: Live from Heaven." Although the Liberace Museum closed in 2010, the Liberace Foundation continued to provide scholarships, awarding more than $5.8 million to more than 2,700 students since the late-1970s. Most exciting of fans was the news that Steven Soderbergh had cast Michael Douglas as "Liberace" (HBO, 2013) and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson in a biopic that promised to renew interest in the performer who lived his own, glittering version of the American dream.
By Jonathan Riggs