(Today from writersdigest.org, about one of the more intriguing entertainers in American history, my opinion.)
It is the birthday of American piano virtuoso and unparalleled showman Liberace. Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in West Allis, Wisconsin (1919), Liberace was called Walter as a child. He had a twin who died at birth. His father, Salvatore Liberace, was a musician who worked odd factory jobs when music didn’t bring in enough money and he encouraged Liberace to pursue music. His mother, on the other hand, thought music was a waste of time and picked fights with Salvatore about better ways for young Walter to spend his time.
Liberace began playing piano at age four and his father held him to high standards. His passion for the piano helped him survive his teenage years, when other children mocked him for not playing sports or his love of cooking. At age 15, he began performing with a jazz ensemble at his school, but he quickly moved to performing at cabarets and strip clubs, where he earned a lot of money despite the Great Depression. He developed more confidence at school and began to have success turning his quirks into comedy.
For a while after high school, Liberace toured the Midwest playing only classical music. But in his early 20s, he began to combine classical music with pop songs, arrangements he dubbed “classical music with the boring parts left out.” One of his first arrangements was a mix of Chopin and “Home on the Range.” He also honed his showmanship during these years, adopting the signature candelabra on his grand piano and dressing in white tie and tails to be better seen in the concert hall. He bought a rare gold-leafed grand piano to match his increasingly theatrical and outsized image. In the late 1940s, he moved to Hollywood and performed for some of the era’s biggest stars.
Liberace was as good at self-promotion as he was at the piano. He played for Harry S. Truman, developed an extravagant Las Vegas act, and earned nearly $140,000 for a performance at Madison Square Garden in 1954 — a record amount for one night of performing. He was widely panned by critics but beloved by audiences.
He died from AIDS-related complications in 1987. An upcoming feature film about Liberace’s life will star Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover.
Liberace once said: “I don’t give concerts, I put on a show.”
To his critics, Liberace said: “Thank you for your very amusing review. After reading it, in fact, my brother George and I laughed all the way to the bank.” Years later, on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Liberace updated the anecdote, saying, “I don’t cry all the way to the bank anymore. I bought the bank.”