17 May 2019 18:50
Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in West Allis on May 16, 1919, the artist known around the world by his last name has faded a little from view in the three decades since his death in 1987. West Allis and the state of Wisconsin both declared Thursday "Liberace Appreciation Day," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett proclaimed it "Liberace Day," and Alderman Mark Borkowski sponsored a resolution saluting Liberace on the 100th anniversary of his birth for his "lifetime of musical accomplishments and his many contributions to the city of Milwaukee." In West Milwaukee, where he graduated from high school, West Milwaukee Intermediate School renamed its main performance space the Liberace Auditorium in 2015; the village also is proclaiming Thursday "Liberace Day." The Wisconsin Historical Museum is getting in on the act, too: This week, the Madison museum debuted a pop-up display featuring one of Liberace's performance jackets (illustrated with peacocks); it'll be up through July 27. In 1939, at a classical concert in La Crosse, Liberace asked the audience what it wanted for an encore, and one patron yelled out "Three Little Fishies." Liberace started with an introduction that sounded like Chopin but segued into the big-band hit — drawing huge applause and, as important, widespread attention when the story got picked up nationally. Liberace spent most of the rest of his career mingling pop and classical sounds in his shows, a legacy of "schmaltz" that annoyed some critics but fueled the syrupy classical boom of the 1950s. From the ornate candelabra on his piano to his over-the-top costumes, Liberace paved the way for glam stars from Elton John to Lady Gaga.
Liberace's syndicated television show — mostly, him playing piano and bantering directly at the camera — was one of the country's most watched programs in the mid-1950s. In 1954, he collected a then-record $138,000 for a single performance at Madison Square Garden; in the mid-1950s, he was taking in $1 million a year just from personal appearances. Liberace, who went to great pains for decades to keep his homosexuality private, successfully sued a British tabloid in 1956 for insinuating he was gay, and forced Hollywood Confidential to pay $40,000 to settle a suit over the magazine's claim that Liberace molested a male press agent. When he launched his record-setting residency at the Riviera Hotel in 1955, he wore a black tuxedo jacket sporting more than 1.3 million sequins (the jacket drew as much attention as his music). After a deal to buy a mansion in Wauwatosa fell through, he opened the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas in 1979 to show off his extravagant costumes, cars and other paraphernalia.
After falling in love with the desert in the mid-1950s, Liberace later purchased four homes in Palm Springs. At the celebration, guests mingled, took photos and talked about their personal ties to Liberace and the role he played in their lives. "What a great way to celebrate and honor a man who has influenced so many people," he said. Growing up, Wellman said he was "transfixed" by Liberace's costumes and music. He said the entertainer showed people that people can be flamboyant, talented and celebrated.
Riviera Hotel marquee on Aug. 4, 1963, with Liberace and Barbra Streisand. The opening night of the Liberace variety show April 25, 1956, at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. Liberace and friends watch the Beatles on Aug. 20, 1964, at the Las Vegas Convention Center. (Las Vegas News Bureau) Entertainer Liberace, right, poses with a puppet, fashioned after the star, center, backstage Sunday, Oct. 26, 1986 with members of the cast of "A Little Like Magic," at New York's Lyceum Theatre. Bette Midler, right, accepts the Entertainer of the Year award at the Conference of Personal Managers West at the Beverly Hills Hotel, along with Liberace, Nov. 1, 1980.
Entertainer Liberace performs during a Las Vegas PBS, Channel 10 event. Liberace plays the piano on the Johnny Carson Show night of Sept. Remembered as a master showman renowned for spectacular costumes and lavish productions, longtime Las Vegas headliner and pianist Liberace started life a century ago in more humble surroundings. It was 100 years ago, May 16, 1919, when Władziu Valentino Liberace was born in West Allis, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. A 24-year-old Liberace was his own agent and negotiator in 1943 when he made his first deal to play on the Las Vegas Strip, earning $750 a week at the Last Frontier hotel. Liberace said that he got an offer to move to the Flamingo from the hotel's entertainment director, Benjamin Siegel. When the Riviera opened in 1954, it handed Liberace a then-unheard of $50,000 per week to headline its showroom. Longtime RJ columnist Norm Clarke shared the story of Barbra Streisand's Las Vegas debut as the opening act for Liberace in July 1963 at the Riviera. Featuring memorabilia from his career and gifts from his many worldwide fans, the museum helped fund the Liberace Foundation for Creative and Performing Arts, which was used to fund more than 2,700 music scholarships. Inside, you'll find numerous Liberace pieces, including pianos, costumes, candelabras and facts about the famed showman. The star built his Las Vegas mansion in 1974 in a neighborhood near East Tropicana Avenue and Swenson Street, and lived their until his death. The 2013 acclaimed film from Steven Soderbergh starred Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, his lover of several years who ended up suing the entertainer after being fired from the show and thrown out of his home. Las Vegas served as one of the filming locations, and in 2012, Damon and Douglas wowed an audience at the then-LVH (now the Westgate) and recreated the notable entrance of Thorson driving a Rolls-Royce onto stage and helping Liberace gloriously emerge from the car in a white furlike coat with a 16-foot train. I mean the guy really redefined the entertainment industry and he would come from right here in a blue collar town like West Allis is pretty special honestly," said Erik Dorfner with Westallion Brewing Company. May 16 marks the 100th birthday of Liberace, the flamboyant entertainer whose shows on the Strip were almost as legendary as the man himself. The virtuoso pianist not only adapted classical music for a pop music world, he redefined showmanship with his flashy presentation, onstage gimmicks, and engaging banter. Dennis McBride, the director of Nevada State Museum, says everyone in the local gay community knew that Liberace was gay. The museum director remembers seeing the famous performer at the grocery store one night. "This is the guy who is wearing how many thousands of dollars worth of jewels and furs onstage, whose really just a guy now pushing a shopping cart around the produce department in this grocery store in Las Vegas," McBride said. But that kind of everyman underneath the glitter is what made him accessible to the audience, McBride said. And McBride notes Las Vegas was the place where Liberace's career really took off. Liberace opened the Riviera and was the highest paid entertainer in the country, making $50,000 a week in 1955. Now, years after his death, McBride wonders if Liberace's stage presence was the only way he could show who he really was. He noted that in today's Las Vegas, a performer like him wouldn't be in a major showroom. His musical output certainly means a lot to Philip Fortenberry and Spencer Baker, local pianists who are co-headlining a Liberace tribute show on May 11 at Windmill Library. Fortenberry actually served as Michael Douglas' hand double for the piano in the 2013 HBO film "Behind the Candelabra," starring Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his young lover. For Spencer Baker, Liberace was more than just an amazing pianist and performer--he helped Baker get through school. And, perhaps more importantly, beyond the flashy costumes and music scholarships, Liberace brought classical music to the masses, Fortenberry said. "Liberace's musical legacy was simply the fact that he was able to bridge the gap between classical and popular music," he said. This month sees the centennial of Wladziu Valentino Liberace, born in Wisconsin on May 16, 1919, a piano prodigy who, from the 1940s until his 1987 death, fashioned a startling level of musical and extra-musical fame. Combining an unabashedly self-promoting yet charmingly self-deprecating persona with a musical style turning from classical grandeur to pseudo-classical fireworks to pop-music indulgence on a dime, Liberace conquered nightclubs, then television, then Las Vegas, his accoutrements growing ever more lavish every step of the way.