Popular pianist Wladziu Valentino (“Lee” to his friends) Liberace, earned his nickname “Mr. Showmanship” for his flamboyant stage shows which included glittering wardrobes studded in sequins and rhinestone-covered pianos. A child prodigy, Liberace soloed at the age of fifteen with the Chicago symphony orchestra.
During the Depression, Liberace played his piano in nightclubs to help his family (using his first stage name of Buster Keys). To give his act a little more class in the 1940s, he placed a candelabrum on the top of his piano.
The most flashy part of his act was his wardrobe. Originally, he wore a tuxedo with tails and later dressed in a gold or plaid jacket while performing. However, when his fans began to out dress him, not to be outdone Liberace began wearing more and more outrageous costumes which eventually became an expensive joke costing an average of $1,000,000 a year and weighing in excess of 100 pounds a piece. But with a reported salary of $250,000 a week, he could afford it. Milton Berle recalled Liberace once saying that one of his red glittering jackets was actually “20,000 fire flies in heat.”
Negative critiques of his performances prompted Liberace to invent his now famous quote “I cried all the way to the bank.” Years later he remarked, “Remember the bank I cried all the way to?…I bought it.”
Liberace debuted on local Los Angeles television in 1951, followed by a summer musical variety series THE LIBERACE SHOW/NBC/1952. A syndicated version was filmed from 1953-55 and he reappeared in his own CBS network series in 1969. He often played the song “I’ll Be Seeing You” as a closing number. His last public appearance was on the 1986 Christmas telecast of the syndicated talk show series THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW.
Liberace died in his favorite Palm Springs home on February 4, 1987. The Riverside County coroner, Raymond Carrillo ruled his death (originally listed as congestive heart failure brought on by inflammation of the brain) as being due to complications brought on by the AIDS virus.
Memorial services were held at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Las Vegas (a town where he often played to sold-out performances). His body was buried next to his mother, Frances and brother, George in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.
In memory of the ever-smiling performer whose appeal spanned all age groups, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce placed a wreath on Liberace’s star on the Walk of Fame; and the Palm Springs City Hall flew their flag at half mast.
Artifacts of his career are now displayed in The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Note: A replica of a Louis XIV candelabrum always graced Liberace’s piano when he performed in concert and on his musical variety program THE LIBERACE SHOW/NBC/1952/SYN/1953-1955/CBS/1969.
Liberace first placed a candelabrum on the top of his piano in the 1940s to give his act a little more class. During a January 1954 interview Liberace said, “audience seems to sense my inspiration is extracted from the warm glow of those tiny flickering flames.”
In later years, Liberace used an electric candelabrum which he brightened or dimmed by an unseen control.