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Liberace: The Evangelist of Kitsch

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

The lights go down in Manhattan’s deco dream palace, Radio City Music Hall, and Mr. Showmanship makes his entrance, flying across the huge stage in a cocoon of feathers, enough for a whole flock of purple ostriches. Did we hear someone say “Peter Pansy”? Go on and laugh. He doesn’t care; he knows you’ll soon be laughing with him. Perhaps by the first-act finale. A gigantic Statue of Liberty mock-up stands in center stage holding a candelabrum. Thirty-six Rockettes perform their automated scissors kick. Skyrockets flare on the back scrim. And then Glitter Beau Peep his bad self emerges from the stars-and- stripes Rolls-Royce in a red, white and blue hot- pants outfit and flourishes his baton like the most cunning majorette from Camp Camp.

At 67 every star has the fame he deserves. A lifetime of fabulation has honed his image; it matters little whether the public mask matches the private face, so long as it fits and pleases. The mask on Wladziu Valentino Liberace fits like a face-lift; it has evoked smiles and giggles for two generations. And it surely keeps the man busy. His current engagement at the Music Hall will bring Vegas glamour to more than 100,000 of the faithful, though ticket sales are lagging behind his two previous record-breaking Radio City gigs. In addition, Lee has a new book (his fourth), called The Wonderful Private World of Liberace. He is about to open a new museum in Las Vegas, filled with costumes and pianos. He will soon franchise his Vegas restaurant, Tivoli Gardens. The Liberace Foundation, which endows promising young musicians, ! provides the star with a string of proteges (like Eric Hamelin, the 14-year- old piano whiz who performs a featured solo at the Music Hall). Not bad for a fellow who might once have been laughed off as a novelty act, a Tiny Tim at the Baldwin.

From his first eminence in the early ’50s as the rage of syndicated TV, Liberace was a vision out of a closet yet to be opened in mainstream show business. The silken singsong voice, the candelabrum, the welded dimples and fluty presence, the references to his sainted mother Frances, all made him a conversation piece, a figure of fun — the Gorgeous George of mid-cult music. As Michael Herr observes in his new book The Big Room, “Never before, at least knowingly, had a man ever had the big steel balls to show himself like that, and on television.” The slurs must have hurt Liberace, but his blithe heroism became a ’50s catchphrase: “I cried all the way to the bank.”

He did more: he exaggerated the very elements of his persona and performance that had earned him his early notoriety. The costumes were soon fit for a king — King Frederick of Hollywood — with their exotic plumes and freighted trains. He wore diamonds as big as the Ritz; his hair was not so much teased as taunted; his candelabra were large enough to light the Library of Congress reading room. The patter between numbers became bolder, dropping innuendos like anvils.

Finally it was impossible to make fun of Liberace because he was having too much fun making fun of himself. He was in on the joke; he may have created it. In doing so he exploited the show-biz principle that nothing succeeds like wretched excess. And soon members of the rock glitterati from Little Richard to Elton John, Alice Cooper to Patti LaBelle, were raiding the wardrobes Liberace had stocked. He gave audiences what they never knew they wanted: a polyester blend of classics and crass, of Van Cliburn and Van Halen. Oh, yes — and their money’s worth of high dazzle.

Every appearance and artifact now buttress the Liberace pseudo story. The anecdotes in his new book are buffed beyond belief; there is nothing, for example, about the 1982 palimony action brought against Lee by his former companion-chauffeur-bodyguard, which was dismissed in 1984. He does reveal that 50 years ago he lost his virginity to a chanteuse at Milwaukee’s Club Madrid named Miss Bea Haven (“Say it fast,” Lee advises). He tells of a night “when I was very near death” in a Roman Catholic hospital and “a very young and lovely nun, wearing a white habit,” visited him and sped him toward recovery; the mother superior later told him, “There are no nuns in this hospital who wear white habits.” The rest of the book is less miraculous: lists of his favorite stars and soap operas, reminiscences of Elvis Presley and Ronald Reagan from the ’50s, and the recipe for Liberace’s Sticky Buns (feeds 18). It is a tell-nothing autobiography, but, as Lee jokes to his Music Hall devotees, “I figured I’d better write it before Kitty Kelley did.”

They lap it all up, these ladies of a certain age and young gentlemen of a certain persuasion. They laugh when, as he sits down on his studded coattails, he says, “No kiddin’, if the rhinestones are turned the wrong way it’ll kill ya.” They give Lee’s new “friend, valet and chauffeur” three separate ovations. They sing along to Let Me Call You Sweetheart and You Made Me Love You. They cheer when he summons a woman from the audience to dance onstage with him. His duet with the mechanized Dancing Waters earns aahhs. And at the end, when he comes to the stage apron to shake hands with the audience, his elderly fans rush down the aisles with a fervor not seen since the last stampede at the Social Security office. This evangelist of kitsch takes one more bow, waves and vanishes. Friends, that’s entertainment.

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