Liberace began playing the piano at four and while his father took them to concerts to further expose the children to music, he was also a taskmaster demanding high standards from the children in practice and performance. Liberace's prodigious talent was in evidence early. He memorized difficult pieces by age seven. He studied the technique of the famous Polish pianist and later family friend Paderewski and at eight, he met the great pianist backstage at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, "I was intoxicated by the joy I got from the great virtuoso's playing. My dreams were filled with fantasies of following his footsteps…Inspired and fired with ambition, I began to practice with a fervor that made my previous interest in the piano look like neglect."
The Great Depression was hard on the family financially. The early-teenage Liberace also suffered from a speech problem and from the taunts of neighborhood children who mocked his avoidance of sports and his fondness for the piano and for cooking. Liberace focused fiercely on his piano playing and blossomed under the instruction of music teacher Florence Kelly who guided his musical development for ten years. He gained experience playing popular music in theaters, on local radio, for dancing classes, for clubs, and for weddings. He played jazz with a school group called the "Mixers" in 1934, then other groups later. Liberace also performed in cabarets and strip clubs, and even though his parents did not approve, he was earning a tidy living during hard times. For a while he adopted the stage name "Walter Busterkeys". His artistic talents also emerged in draftsmanship, design, and painting, and he became a fastidious dresser and follower of fashion. By now, he already showed the knack of turning his eccentricities into attention-getting virtues and he grew more popular at school, though mostly as an object of comic relief.
In a formal classical music competition in 1937, Liberace was praised for his "flair and showmanship". 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 Bach. The 21-year-old played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1941, getting strong reviews, and 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 United States, largely abandoning the classical concert goer. He changed from classical pianist to showman, unpredictably and whimsically mixing serious with light fare, Chopin with "Home on the Range." For a while, he played piano along with a phonograph machine on stage. The tricky 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 mastered the details of staging, lighting, and presentation. The transformation to entertainer was driven by Liberace's innate 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 performance venue. He was playing at the best clubs, finally appearing at the celebrated Persian Room in 1945, with Variety proclaiming, "Liberace looks like a cross between Cary Grant and 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."
During this time, Liberace worked tirelessly to refine his act. He added the candelabrum as a signature prop and adopted "Liberace" as his stage name, making a big point in his press releases that it was pronounced "Liber-Ah-chee". He dressed elegantly in white tie and tails to be better seen in large halls. Besides clubs and occasional work as an accompanist and rehearsal pianist, Liberace also 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."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". (Later, he would perform 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 Hollywood stars such as Rosalind Russell, Clark Gable, Gloria Swanson, and Shirley Temple. He didn't always play to packed rooms, and early on he learned to perform with extra energy to sparser crowds, in order to keep up his own enthusiasm.
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 great success in the supper-club circuit, where he was often an intermission act, his huge ambition was to reach even 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 dramatically, and making him wealthy in short order. His "big little boy" and "perfect son" charm was honed to perfection, appealing especially to older women, and his younger female fans loved his "Continental" sophistication, which they longed to receive from their loutish boyfriends or husbands.
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. By 1955, he was making $50,000 per week at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and had over 200 official fan clubs with a quarter of a million member fans. He was making over $1,000,000 per year from public appearances, and millions from television. Liberace was frequently covered by the major magazines and he became a pop culture superstar, and he also became the butt of jokes by other comedians and by 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".
His fans didn't seem to notice the errant musicianship, however, and they came again and again for the show. Though not a Horowitz or a Rubinstein, the "Candelabra Casanova of the Keyboard" was a sure-fire entertainer. As he proudly stated, "I don't give concerts, I put on a show." Unlike the insular 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 the maestro's clothes, piano, jewelry, and hands. Kisses, handshakes, hugs, caresses usually followed, all projected with sincerity and generosity by Liberace. 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."
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.
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 top shaped pool. His dream home with its lavish furnishings, elaborate bath, and antiques all throughout, added to his appeal. Following up on the show business adage "when you're hot, you're hot", he shamelessly 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. The sponsors would obligingly send him complimentary products, including his white Cadillac limousine. He reciprocated enthusiastically, "If I am selling tuna fish, I believe in tuna fish." The critics would have a field day with his gimmicky act, his showy but careless piano playing, his non-stop promotions, and his gaudy display of success but he always had the last laugh, as immortally 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 cried all the way to the bank."
In 1956, Liberace had his first international engagement, playing successfully in Havana, Cuba. He followed up with a European tour later that year. Always a devout Catholic, Liberace considered his meeting with Pope Pius XII a highlight of his life. In 1960, Liberace performed at the London Palladium with Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. (this was the first televised "command performance", now known as "The Royal Variety Show" for Queen Elizabeth II).
Despite successful European tours, his career had in fact been slumping since 1957. But Liberace skillfully built it back up by appealing directly to his fan base. Through live appearances in small town supper clubs, and with television and promotional appearances, he regained his form and his fans. On November 23, 1963, he suffered renal failure from accidentally inhaling excessive amounts of cleaning fluid and nearly died. Told by doctors that his condition was fatal, he began to give away his possessions but then recovered after a month.
Re-energized, Liberace returned to Las Vegas, and, upping the glamour and glitz, he took on the sobriquet "Mr. Showmanship". As his act swelled with spectacle, he famously stated, "I'm a one-man Disneyland." The costumes became more exotic (ostrich feathers, mink, capes and huge rings), entrances and exits more elaborate (chauffeured onstage in a Rolls-Royce or dropped in on a wire like Peter Pan), choreography more complex (involving chorus girls, cars, and animals), and the novelty acts more varied (jugglers, magicians, hypnotists and puppeteers). He also introduced several especially talented juvenile acts including Australian singer Jamie Redfern and Canadian banjo player Scotty Plummer. Barbra Streisand was his most notable new adult act, early in her career.
Liberace's energy and commercial ambitions took him in many directions. He owned an antiques store in Beverly Hills, California for some years. In addition, he owned a restaurant in Las Vegas for many years and even published cookbooks, the most famous of these being Liberace Cooks, with co-author cookbook guru Carol Truax, which included "Liberace Lasagna" and "Liberace Sticky Buns". The book features recipes "from his seven dining rooms" (of his Hollywood home). In addition, he had a line of men's clothing, a motel chain (Liberace Chateau Inns), a shopping mall, and other enterprises.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Liberace's live shows were major box office attractions in Las Vegas at the Las Vegas Hilton and Lake Tahoe where he would earn $300,000 a week. He maintained homes in both places.
Always kind to animals and children, Liberace incorporated them into his shows and helped talented youth through his Liberace Foundation, whose good works still continue.
The fifteen minute network television program, The Liberace Show, began on July 1, 1952, but did not lead to a regular network series. Instead producer Duke Goldstone mounted a filmed version of Liberace's local show performed before a live audience for syndication in 1955, and sold it to scores of local stations. The widespread exposure of the syndicated Liberace series made the pianist more popular and prosperous than ever. His first two years earnings from television netted him $7,000,000 and on future re-runs he earned up to 80% of the profits.
Liberace learned early on to add "schmaltz" to his television show and to cater to the less sophisticated taste of the mass audience. Better than most early television performers, Liberace also projected a very intimate feeling—winking, joking, and smiling at the camera while playing—as if performing in the viewer's own living room. He applied a principle of television which is still true today—viewers are most engaged by a human face that is expressive and reactive—be it on a talk show, soap opera, reality show, or sit-com. To this end, he constantly altered his facial expressions to hold the viewer's attention. He also used dramatic lighting, split images, costume changes, and exaggerated hand movements to create visual interest. To that he added self-deprecating humor, his odd voice, and his endless energy to complete an engaging and entertaining formula. Liberace also employed "ritualistic domesticity", used by such early TV greats as Jack Benny and Lucille Ball. His brother George often appeared as guest violinist and orchestra director, and his mother was usually in the front row of the audience, with brother Rudy and sister Angelina often mentioned to lend an air of "family". Liberace began each show in the same way, then mixed production numbers with chat, and signed off each broadcast softly singing "I'll Be Seeing You". His musical selections were broad, including classics, show tunes, film melodies, Latin rhythms, ethnic songs, and boogie-woogie.
The show was so popular with his mostly female television audience that he drew over thirty million viewers at any one time and received ten thousand fan letters per week. His show was also one of the first to be shown on UK commercial television in the 1950s, where it was broadcast on Sunday afternoons by Lew Grade's Associated TeleVision. This exposure gave Liberace a dedicated following in the UK. Homosexual men also found him appealing. Elton John stated that Liberace was his hero and was the first gay person he had ever seen on television (but see the section on alleged homosexuality below).
Liberace also made significant appearances on other shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, the Edward R. Murrow program Person to Person and on the shows of Jack Benny and Red Skelton where he often parodied his own persona. A new Liberace Show premiered in 1958, featuring a less flamboyant, less glamorous persona, but it failed in six months, as his popularity began slumping. Liberace received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 for his contributions to the television industry. Liberace continued on television as a frequent and welcomed guest on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar in the 1960s, with memorable exchanges with Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mohammad Ali, and later with Johnny Carson. In 1966, he appeared in two highly-rated episodes of the U.S. television series Batman. During the 1970s, his appearances included guest roles on episodes of Here's Lucy and Kojak. In a cameo on The Monkees he appeared at an avant-garde art gallery as himself, gleefully smashing a grand piano with a sledgehammer as Mike Nesmith looked on and cringed in mock agony.
Liberace was also the guest star in an episode of The Muppet Show. His performances included a "Concerto for the Birds" and an amusing rendition of "Chopsticks". In the 1980s, he guest starred on television shows such as Saturday Night Live (on a 10th-season episode hosted by Hulk Hogan and Mr. T), and the 1984 film Special People.
His albums included standards of the time, such as Hello Dolly, but also included his own versions of works from Chopin and other classical greats. In his life he received 6 gold records. As successful as his recording career was, however, it never reached the level of popularity of his live shows, which far better showcased his unique act.
He was at the height of his career in 1955 when he starred in the Warner Brothers feature Sincerely Yours with Dorothy Malone, playing 31 songs. The film (about a concert pianist who loses his hearing) was a commercial and critical failure, which was attributed in part to his having been overexposed on television.
In 1965, he had a small part in the movie When the Boys Meet the Girls starring Connie Francis, essentially playing himself. He received kudos in 1966 for his brief role as a casket salesman in the film adaptation of The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh's satire of the funeral business and movie industry in Southern California. It was the only film Liberace made in which he did not play the piano.
In 1966, Liberace also played a dual role in the 60s TV show Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward as evil pianist Chandell plus his gangster-like twin Harry. The episodes "The Devil's Fingers" and "The Dead Ringers" showed off Liberace's acting talents.
He fought and settled a similar case in the United States against Confidential. Rumors and gossip magazines frequently alleged behavior that strongly implied that he was a homosexual. A typical issue of Confidential in 1957 shouted, "Why Liberace's Theme Song Should Be 'Mad About the Boy!'"
In 1982, Liberace's alleged live-in boyfriend of some five years, Scott Thorson, sued the pianist for $113 million in palimony after an acrimonious split-up. Liberace continued to publicly deny that he was homosexual. In 1984, most of Thorson's claim was dismissed although he received a $95,000 settlement. Later in the decade Thorson emerged as a pivotal witness in the prosecution of reputed gangster Eddie Nash in the 1981 quadruple murder of the Wonderland Gang.
Confusion over Liberace's true sexuality was further muddled in the public's mind by his public friendships and romantic links with actress Joanne Rio (whom he claimed he nearly married), skater Sonja Henie, aging Hollywood icon Mae West, and famous transsexual Christine Jorgenson. Many publicity releases and women's magazine articles attempted to counter the gay rumors by portraying Liberace as "the perfect all-around man any woman would be thrilled to be with…He's so considerate on dates... He never forgets the little things that women love…He makes you feel that when you are with him, well, you really are with him." Another article was entitled "Mature Women Are Best: TV's Top Pianist Reveals What Kind of Woman He'd Marry".
The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, opened in 1979, contains many of his stage costumes, cars, jewelry, and lavishly-decorated pianos, along with numerous citations for philanthropic acts and a sizable gift shop.
In August 2007, Kashi Kicks announced the release of the Liberace shoe, to honor “the King of Bling” . This was done in collaboration with the Liberace Foundation of Las Vegas.
Steven Soderbergh is set to develop and direct an untitled biopic about Liberace for Warner Brothers Pictures. Michael Douglas is to play Liberace, and Matt Damon is to play Scott Thorson, the man who sued him, claiming he was the entertainer's companion for five years. Richard LaGravenese is writing the script, and Jerry Weintraub is producing. Soderbergh's prior contractual obligations will prevent him from shooting the film until 2010.
6. Music books