Peacock-feather boas. Crimson-sequined tuxedos. Gold-brocade capes, embedded with rhinestones. Diamond-encrusted, white limousines. In live and televised performances over three post-war decades, Liberace entertained America with both his talent on the grand piano and his flamboyant showmanship.
The child of Italian immigrants, he was known as “Lee” to his friends and “Walter” to his parents. His father, a French-horn player, recognized the talent of his young son who could play piano by ear at age four and groomed him for a career as a classical pianist. At 16 he had earned a position with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
As a 20-year-old musician, Liberace dazzled his audiences by ending classical piano recitals with hit novelty tunes. He had found his niche –- the blend of highbrow and kitsch that would appeal to his wildly enthusiastic listeners and ultimately define his career. He chose the piano as his signature instrument, playing music that ranged from the classics, often abbreviated for easy-listening, to pop tunes imbued with a quasi-classical sound by the embellishment of arpeggios and flourishes.
In the early days of television, the 1952 “The Liberace Show” catapulted the musician to fame. The show was the new medium’s first syndicated program. Within two years, it was carried by more stations than either “Dragnet” or “I Love Lucy.” He won two Emmy Awards for hosting the show, one for best entertainment program and one for best male personality.
Despite his musical gifts, Liberace’s personality became his trademark. For his Las Vegas shows, Liberace’s costumes and sets were as outlandish and dramatic as his theatrics. Some antics included playing a glass piano, performing on elevated platforms or flying across the audience suspended from wires. He regularly played to sold-out audiences.
In 1959, his career reached a low point when a publication hinted at Liberace’s homosexuality. He filed a lawsuit for libel, and won. Liberace initially aimed to restore his career by embracing a more conservative image, but soon realized that he needed the glitz to keep his fans. By the 1960s, Liberace’s style was more outrageous than ever. He spent his money lavishly, but put it toward a good purpose in 1976 with the creation of the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, which funds grants and scholarships for the arts. In 1979, he opened the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas to house his massive collection of costumes, accessories and assorted memorabilia.
Liberace continued to perform in the late 1980s although his health began to decline. When the Las Vegas Sun reported that Liberace suffered from AIDS, his doctors issued a denial and demanded a retraction. He died in 1987 at age 67. Autopsy findings revealed that Liberace had indeed died from complications of AIDS.
An obituary in The Times read, “Flamboyant and affected, scorned by the cynical as the Sultan of Schmaltz who left no rhinestone unturned in his efforts to impress, Liberace was nonetheless respected in the entertainment field as one of the canniest showmen since P.T. Barnum.”