Certainly among the most popular early television celebrities and performances, both Liberace the individual and his television program were also among the most persistently derided. Oddly folksy and campy at the same time, Liberace and his show very much defined a certain strata of showmanship in the post-World War II era.
Born Wladziu (Walter) Valentino Liberace in suburban Milwaukee, he was interested in music from age four, and won a scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music when seven, studying there for seventeen years. Reputedly at the advice of family friend and renowned pianist Paderewski, the youngster decided to someday likewise be known by one name. Receiving classical training, he began to perform pop hits in local clubs as a teen. By the early 1940s he was establishing himself in New York night spots: ads offered a phonetic guide for his fans ("Libber-ah-chee"). Playing cocktail lounges and intermissions for big bands, he received a rave Variety notice in 1945 while appearing at the Persian Room, which lead to strings of dates across the United States. He won a small role in the film "South Seas Sinner" (1950).
In 1950, Don Fedderson, the general manager of Los Angeles station KLAC-TV, saw Liberace perform before a small audience at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, and immediately offered him a chance to appear on the new medium. The resultant series was so popular as to draw network attention, and when Liberace appeared on NBC as a summer replacement for Dinah Shore in 1952 (fifteen-minute shows twice a week in prime time) he began to create a sensation. For a subsequent series, he wisely accepted what was at the time an unorthodox format of filming programs for syndication. As a result, when Liberace became a television fixture throughout the country by the mid-1950s, he also became very rich. The program was one of several shows featuring KLAC talent produced by Fedderson and syndicated by Guild Films. (Betty White was another, starring in Life with Elizabeth from 1953 to 1955.) Fedderson would go on to produce many successful television series, often for CBS, which included My Three Sons and Family Affair.
Liberace's TV shows were famous for offering a range of popular and classical standards, and featured tributes to composers, musicians, and genres of music--everything from "The Beer Barrel Polka" to "September Song" to "Clair de Lune." Visually, they showcased Liberace in direct address to the audience and in flamboyant performance, always smiling and often winking. No one in early television worked harder to create a star persona. Ever-present candelabras, piano-shaped objects large and small, and especially his outrageous and glamorous costumes defined Liberace's celebrity. Sentimental but ostentatious, the program also featured elder brother George as violin accompanist and orchestral arranger, plus regular and affectionate mentions of their mother, Frances. The show was immediately successful, appearing on 100 stations by October, 1953--more than any network program--and nearly 200 stations a year later. He quickly sold out The Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, and other venues for live performances. A series of hit albums and a brief resumption of his movie career followed.
But he soon experienced the effects of over-exposure: some local stations, desperate for quality programming, played his shows twice a day, five days a week. His career suffered a considerable slump after only a few years. In response, a short-lived daytime series in the late 1950s tried and failed to feature a scaled-down, tempered Liberace. A change of management and a return to extravagance in a series of Las Vegas venues restored his notoriety, and he made many guest appearances on TV variety and talk shows throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In a memorable film cameo, he played a quite earnest casket salesman in the black comedy "The Loved One" (1965). In the late 1960s, one last TV series was briefly produced in London.
Liberace's popularity was typically met in the press with equal parts disbelief and disdain. The arrangements of his classical pieces were noted to be simplified, and his mix of classical and popular styles raised hackles about an encroaching middlebrow aesthetic. His personal eccentricities were detailed at length. More tellingly, the size and devotion of his following was seen to be problematic. That his audience was largely female, and often middle-aged, wrought clichéd anxieties about insubstantial and wayward popular culture; it was even suggested that he wasn't providing quality performances but rather an object to be mothered. In response to his critics, he uttered a still-famous retort: "I cried all the way to the bank." But in two instances, he responded with successful lawsuits--one against "London Daily Mirror" columnist "Cassandra" (William Neil Connor), and another against the infamous scandal magazine Confidential. Each had discussed his behavior or his appeal in terms that inferred homosexuality.
In retrospect, Liberace's career seems due for reconsideration as a kind of "queer" open secret. The concern that his audience was mostly female, the regular speculation about his love life (When would he marry?), and the criticism of his attention to his mother all can be seen as touchstones to social anxieties of the time about appropriate gender roles and definitions. Indeed, if Liberace's appeal was grounded in a decidedly unthreatening masculinity, marked by good manners and simplistic pieties, it also inspired a range of critical attention that often revealed a tendency to sexualize him. The libelous incidents were the culmination of this, and perhaps revealed more than they intended about "normative" attitudes of post-war male behavior. To be sure, there was nothing about Liberace which corresponded to "queer" underground culture or the avant-garde of the 1950s--no one appeared to be more mainstream. But the contradictions within his very successful career and persona raise further questions about post-war society and culture. Liberace died of AIDS related complications on 4 February 1987.
George Liberace and Orchestra (1952)
Marilyn Lovell (1958-59)
Erin O'Brien (1958-59)
Dick Roman (1958-59)
Richard Wattis (1969)
Georgina Moon (1969)
Jack Parnell Orchestra (1969)
The Irving Davies Dancers (1969)
July 1952-August 1952 Tuesday/Thursday 7:30-7:45
PRODUCER Joe Landis
1953-1955 Various Times
PRODUCERS Louis D. Sander, Robert Sandler
October 1958-April 1959 30 Minute Daytime
July 1969-September 1969 Tuesday 8:30-9:30
PRODUCERS Robert Tamplin, Bernard Rothman, Colin Cleeves
Donovan, Richard. "'Nobody Loves Me But the People.'" Collier's (New York), 3 September 1954 and 17 September 1954.
Liberace. Liberace: An Autobiography. New York: Putnam's, 1973.
"Popular Piano." Time (New York), 5 October 1953.
Taubman, Howard. "A Square Looks at a Hotshot." The New York Times Magazine, 14 March 1954.
"Why Women Idolize Liberace." Look (New York), 19 October 1954.