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In a formal classical music competition in 1937, Liberace was praised for his "flair and showmanship".[11]At the end of a traditional classical concert in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1939, Liberace played his first requested encore, "Three Little Fishes", which he played in the style of several different classical composers.[12] The 20-year-old played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on January 15, 1940, at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, performing Liszt's Second Piano Concerto under the baton ofHans Lange, for which he received strong reviews. He also toured in the Midwest.

Between 1942 and 1944, Liberace moved away from straight classical performance and reinvented his act to one featuring "pop with a bit of classics" or as he also called it "classical music with the boring parts left out." In the early 1940s, he struggled in New York City but by the mid- and late 1940s, he was performing in night clubs in major cities around the US, largely abandoning the classical concertgoer. He changed from classical pianist to showman, unpredictably and whimsically mixing serious with light fare, e.g., Chopin with "Home on the Range."[13] For a while, he played piano along with a phonograph record player on stage. The gimmick helped gain him attention. He also added interaction with the audience—taking requests, talking with the patrons, cracking jokes, giving lessons to chosen audience members—and began to pay greater attention to such details as staging, lighting, and presentation. The transformation to entertainer was driven by Liberace's desire to connect directly with his audiences, and secondarily from the reality of the difficult competition in the classical piano world.

In 1943, he appeared in a couple of Soundies (the 1940s precursor to music videos). He re-created two flashy numbers from his nightclub act, "Tiger Rag" and "Twelfth Street Rag". In these films he was billed as Walter Liberace. Both "Soundies" were later released to the home-movie market by Castle Films. In 1944, he made his first appearances in Las Vegas, which later became his principal venue. He was playing at the best clubs, finally appearing at the celebrated Persian Room in 1945, with Varietyproclaiming, "Liberace looks like a cross between Cary Grantand Robert Alda. He has an effective manner, attractive hands which he spotlights properly and, withal, rings the bell in the dramatically lighted, well-presented, showmanly routine. He should snowball into box office." The Chicago Times was similarly impressed: He "made like Chopin one minute and then turns on a Chico Marx bit the next."[14]

During this time, Liberace worked to refine his act. He added the candelabrum as a signature prop and adopted "Liberace" as his stage name, making a point in press releases that it was pronounced "Liber-Ah-chee".[15] He wore white tie and tails for better visibility in large halls. Besides clubs and occasional work as an accompanist and rehearsal pianist, Liberace played for private parties, including those at the Park Avenue home of millionaire oilman J. Paul Getty. By 1947, he was billing himself as "Liberace—the most amazing piano virtuoso of the present day."[16] He had to have a piano to match his growing presence, so he bought a rare, over-sized, gold-leafed Blüthner Grand, which he hyped up in his press kit as a "priceless piano."[17] (Later, he performed with an array of extravagant, custom-decorated pianos, some encrusted with sequins and mirrors.) He moved to North Hollywood, California in 1947 and was performing at local clubs, such as Ciro's and Mocambo's, for stars such as Rosalind Russell, Clark Gable, Gloria Swanson, and Shirley Temple. He did not always play to packed rooms, and he learned to perform with extra energy to thinner crowds, to maintain his own enthusiasm.[18]

Liberace created a very successful publicity machine which helped rocket him to stardom. In 1950, he performed for music-loving President Harry S. Truman in the East room of the White House. Despite his success in the supper-club circuit, where he was often an intermission act, his ambition was to reach larger audiences as a headliner and a television, movie, and recording star. Liberace began to expand his act and made it more extravagant, with more costumes and a larger supporting cast. His large-scale Las Vegas act became his hallmark, expanding his fan base, and making him wealthy.

His New York City performance at Madison Square Garden in 1954, which earned him a record $138,000 for one performance, was more successful than the great triumph his idol Paderewski had made twenty years earlier.[19] By 1955, he was making $50,000 per week at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegasand had over 200 official fan clubs with a quarter of a million member fans.[20] He was making over $1,000,000 per year from public appearances, and millions from television.[19] Liberace was frequently covered by the major magazines and he became a pop culture superstar, but he also became the butt of jokes by comedians and the public.

Music critics were generally harsh in their assessment of his piano playing. Critic Lewis Funke wrote after the Carnegie Hall concert, Liberace's music "must be served with all the available tricks, as loud as possible, as soft as possible, and as sentimental as possible. It's almost all showmanship topped by whipped cream and cherries." Even worse was his lack of reverence and fealty to the great composers. "Liberace recreates—if that is the word—each composition in his own image. When it is too difficult, he simplifies it. When it is too simple, he complicates it." His sloppy technique included "slackness of rhythms, wrong tempos, distorted phrasing, an excess of prettification and sentimentality, a failure to stick to what the composer has written."[21]

Liberace once stated, "I don't give concerts, I put on a show."[22] Unlike the concerts of classical pianists which normally ended with applause and a retreat off-stage, Liberace's shows ended with the public invited on-stage to touch his clothes, piano, jewelry, and hands. Kisses, handshakes, hugs, and caresses usually followed.[23] A critic summed up his appeal near the end of Liberace's life: "Mr. Showmanship has another more potent, drawing power to his show: the warm and wonderful way he works his audience. Surprisingly enough, behind all the glitz glitter, the corny false modesty and the shy smile, Liberace exudes a love that is returned to him a thousand-fold."[24]

In contrast to his flamboyant stage presence, Liberace was a conservative in his politics and faith, eschewing dissidents and rebels. He believed fervently in capitalism but was also fascinated with royalty, ceremony, and luxury. He loved to hobnob with the "rich and famous," acting as star-struck with presidents and kings as his fans behaved with him. Yet to his fans, he was still one of them, a Midwesterner who had earned his success through hard work—and who invited them to enjoy it with him.[25]

In the next phase of his life, having earned sudden wealth, Liberace spent lavishly—incorporating materialism into his life and his act. He designed and built his first celebrity house in 1953, with a piano theme appearing throughout, including a piano-shaped swimming pool. His dream home with its lavish furnishings, elaborate bath, and antiques throughout, added to his appeal. He leveraged his fame through hundreds of promotional tie-ins with banks, insurance companies, automobile companies, food companies—even morticians. Liberace was considered a perfect pitchman, given his folksy connection with his vast audience of housewives. Sponsors sent him complimentary products, including his whiteCadillac limousine, and he reciprocated enthusiastically; "If I am selling tuna fish, I believe in tuna fish."[26]

The critics had a field day with his gimmicky act, his showy but careful piano playing, his non-stop promotions, and his gaudy display of success, but he always had the last laugh, as preserved by the famous quotation, first recorded in a letter to a critic, "Thank you for your very amusing review. After reading it, in fact, my brother George and I laughed all the way to the bank."[27] He used a similar response to subsequent poor reviews, famously modifying it to "I cried all the way to the bank."[28] In an appearance on The Tonight Showsome years later, Liberace re-ran the anecdote to Johnny Carson, and finished it by saying, "I don't cry all the way to the bank any more – I bought the bank!"

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