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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Liberace (1919-87)

Wladziu Valentino Liberace was born May 16, 1919, in West Aldis, Wisconsin. His family was quite musical. His father, Salvatore Liberace (1885-1977) played the (French) horn with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. His mother, Frances Zuchowsky (1891-1990), was a pianist. By the time young "Walter" was four, he could play anything on the piano by ear. He learned both from listening to his mother and from experimentation. Because of his parents' connections, he was able to earn money as a piano player when he was in his early teens. But his father did not want his children involved in music.

Walter had three siblings, brothers George (1911-83) and Rudolph (1931-67), and a sister, Angelina (1914-96).  They were all musicians. 

Walter made his big time piano debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 14. He didn't just play the classics. He had a dance combo ("The Mixers") at the same time and later played piano in nightclubs as a student at the University of Wisconsin. He used the pseudonym Walter Busterkeys for those gigs. 

After graduating from college, he moved to California to try his hand at some kind of stardom. He was not against doing any kind of work. The first movie that he was in where he could be seen (even though unbilled) was Best Foot Forward (1943), in which he appeared as a piano player (what else?)

It was after this time that Liberace began his radio career. (Don't blink too fast or you might miss it!)  He wasn't only a piano soloist at this time, so he played in the orchestra for a number of radio programs that aired between 1941 and 1950, originating from Los Angeles. As a soloist, he played for the Texaco Star Theater (starring James Melton) and a number of Armed Forces Radio Service shows.

After 1950, he began working in television. His local TV show on channel 13 in Los Angeles was often poked fun at in Warner Brothers cartoons.

Now something should be said about his music. He was what most people would call a classical musician. He played Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and all those other guys. But he liked everything. He was Elvis Presley's friend. He had friends who worked in country and western music.

Probably the most controversial aspect of Liberace's life was his sexuality. His homosexuality was rumored as early as 1945, when he began to make a name for himself in radio.  Fortunately, the world was a much more innocent place during the time between the 1930s and the 1960s. Liberace's sexuality was something most people really didn't care about. He was a heck of a piano player. He had a nice personality. He was respectful. 

But there was a homosexual episode that happened in England that got coverage in several magazines. Because it was a defamation to his character (and, while what he did was probably immoral, but it wasn't illegal) he successfully sued a British publication for the equivalent of $110,000 in 1957. That was the setting for his one joke, "I cried all the way to the bank." With his settlement money, he was able to make some shrewd investments. From that he had a second joke: "You know the bank where I went crying to? I bought it!"

His career took a nosedive in the early 1960s as the world was going through some changes which made us all a little less innocent. Paul Harvey would tell of the story how Liberace had a performance one November and he couldn't get one of his suits cleaned. So he had some chemicals in his hotel room and cleaned the clothes in his room of the hotel where he was staying.  But the room wasn't well ventilated and he breathed in too much of the noxious chemicals. He tried to yell for help, but the dry cleaning chemicals made it so he couldmake no sounds and he began to pass out. 

The radio was on. The President of the United States was spending the day in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. And suddenly there was a commotion. Liberace almost completely passed out. But he listened intently to the radio. He prayed, not for himself, but for the country. He was scared of what might happen. And Liberace clung to his life as he worried about the President's life. 

A maintenance man was doing some work in the all of the hotel. He lingered near Liberace's room and listened to the radio. It concerned him, too. He knocked on the door to ask if the radio could be turned up. Liberace tried to say something, but nothing came from his mouth. The maintenance man heard this and opened the door with his master key. Seeing Liberace lying on the floor, he called an ambulance. As the medical personnel came to pick him up, it was announced on the radio that President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead.

But after this, his career really took off. He had been working in the motion picture industry for some time since 1950.  But by the mid 1960s he was doing everything. He was even a guest villain on the Batman series!

That lasted into the 1970s. Then he began making public appearances. Most of his fans were middle aged women. Most of them were married. They didn't care about the gossip about his sexuality. Liberace was an A1 entertainer and he was a gentleman. And such a great pianist!

Liberace died on February 4, 1987, in Palm Springs, California. Because so many aspects about his life were kept secret, there were thousands of reporters at the Riverside County Administration Center in Riverside (Palm Springs is in Riverside County). When the Riverside coroner announced that he died from AIDS, itwas big news.  He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Hollywood Hills, in Los Angeles, in a large white crypt with his mother and older brother.


Anonymous Expatriate said...

The circus-like environment surrounding the Riverside County Coroner's report of Liberace's death was so demeaning to the man that the Riverside County Board of Supervisors dissolved the office of Coroner and combined it with the Sheriff.

Ron Sayles said...

Liberace was born in West Allis, not West Aldis.

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