At the MGM Grand, they sink the Titanic onstage. At the Frontier, Seigfried and Roy make a two-ton elephant disappear. At Caesar's Palace, Liberace tops them all by playing "The Beer Barrel Polka."
Granted, he's wearing an emperor's raiment and while he doesn't have bells on his toes (he's sporting mink-edged boots, instead), the exotic rings on his fingers compensate for the lapse. His piano is covered with rhinestones and when he launches into the finale, it starts to revolve, a merry-go-round shooting off splinters of light like a glitter ball on prom night. But it's really his exuberance that gets them -- the pearly grin, the twinkling eyes, the bouncing body.
At 66, the pianist who was once the butt of more jokes than Brooklyn is again the height of fashion and popularity and he's lapping it up like cream from a solid-gold saucer. In a land that honors conspicuous consumption, he has become His Lord High Excellency of Glitz, the spiritual granddaddy to a generation of rock stars who wear sequined gloves and high drag and gleefully turn our notions of gender inside out.
"I've reached the rediscovery period," he says. "It's a matter of time. If you stick around long enough, you end up making converts out of nonbelievers. I guess I've just worn out my critics. You know, I got a call from Frank Sinatra today. He's in town right now. We both have homes in Palm Springs and he said, 'When are you going to be in Palm Springs?' I said, 'Next week, why?' And -- this is real cute -- he said, 'Every time I see you, we talk about my cooking you a dago meal. How about next week?' So he gave me his number. And then he said, 'I'm asking way in advance, but around next year I'm doing a big fundraiser for cancer in New York. Last year, we had Pavarotti and Domingo. Would you consider it for April?' Just before he hung up, he said, 'You know I love you.' "
Liberace still can't believe his ears. "If I live to be 100, I'll be in awe of celebrities. I really don't consider myself one," he explains. "The first time I ever got a letter from the British royal family, I said, 'Frame it!!!' I correspond regularly with them to this day. I have so many framed letters I've run out of wall space. I've had to store some of them away."
In the hinterlands, Liberace has never been out of fashion. He likes to joke that he could always be counted on to sell out in St. Petersburg, Fla., "where I'm the darling of the senior citizen set." But lately, the hip metropolises have been coming around, too. Last spring, he set a house record at Radio City Music Hall with 21 standing-room-only performances that grossed more than $2.4 million and also won him the respect of music critics, who have tended in the past to take a jaundiced view of his talents. Citing the romantic flourishes, the lush trilling, the attention-calling double octaves, The New York Times noted that "Liberace has arrived at a style that is not classical, jazz or pop but an ornamental genre unto itself" and crowned him a "one-of-a-kind musical monument."
Ticket sales for his upcoming appearance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, next Tuesday through Sunday, have been so brisk that his promoters added four matinees to the run. Recently, he was offered $600,000 to play two nights at a Dallas trade show for furriers. "I told them I'd think about it," he says ingenuously. "I've become very selective about what I do. It's funny. The moment the word gets out that you're not all that available, your price keeps going up and up. Sometimes I'm a little ashamed to take the money . . . but I will."
The son of an Italian French-horn player and his Polish spouse, Liberace (ne' Wladziu Valentino Liberace) has been a uniquely American phenomenon since the 1950s, when his half-hour television show endeared him to millions of women, some of whom actually made their husbands dress up to watch the program. But with success came controversy. He was anathema to a host of shrill critics, none more vituperative than the British columnist Cassandra, who described him as everything "he, she or it can ever want." (Cassandra lived to rue his words; Liberace hit him with one of the more celebrated libel suits of the 1950s, and won.)
"Today, anything goes," Liberace says. "All holds have been lifted. People look for what's different. Performers in show business are getting away with -- what's the word I'm searching for . . .?"
" . . . extremes in presentation. And the public has grown to accept that. What I did 30 years ago would go unnoticed in today's world. But when I was starting out, we were still in a period of so-called normalcy, conformity. When Elvis Presley went on television, they shot him from the waist up, so you wouldn't see his hips swaying. Because the rules for entertainment were so square and strict, I had no competition. Nobody was doing what I was doing and I found myself in a class by myself. I dared to be different."
Liberace took it on his dimpled chin for putting a candelabra on his piano, chatting to his viewers about Mother, and winking right into the television camera, as he produced one rippling arpeggio after another. But he soon had a retort for his detractors: "I cried all the way to the bank." Then, for a while, he was saying, "You know that bank I cried all the way to? I bought it." Nowadays, he just flaunts the wealth -- bounding onstage in a $150,000 floor-length, black diamond mink coat, lined with a blizzard of Austrian rhinestones; flashing his candelabra ring with platinum candlesticks and diamond "flames"; preening shamelessly in the spun-glass silver-blue tuxedo, studded with zillions of bugle beads and tiny mirrors.
The running gag in his show is: "Why don't I slip offstage and get into something more spectacular." Each time, the audience screams with delight.
Liberace said it first: "Without the show there's no business." But while it is entirely possible to suspect some rock sensations of profiteering in outlandishness, Liberace's sincerity is beyond reproach. He genuinely revels in his fantasy world. Judgments of good taste or bad taste are irrelevent. It's his taste, and his joyful flamboyance is rooted in a child's wonderment. He's still the kid with his nose pressed up against the shop window. Only the window is Tiffany's.
His image is not lost on the acquisitive 1980s. "I've become," he says, "a hot ticket."
Out Tropicana Boulevard on your way to the Liberace Shopping Center, you pass a modest subdivision of middle-class homes, baking in the fierce sun. It is here that Liberace resides when he's in Las Vegas. What started out as a small bungalow, not unlike those across the street, has since grown -- chandeliered room by black-and-white swimming pool by mirrored gallery -- to occupy most of the block. Painted on the bedroom ceiling is a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel. Liberace's own portrait gazes down pensively on a sybaritic Roman bath. The swimming pool is equipped with its own computerized dancing waters. Sixteen dogs cavort in the kitchen.
"I like the fact that you can create a jewel more or less in a modest neighborhood," Liberace explains. There may be unintentional symbolism here. He has never pretended to be more than of, by and for the people. If he lives like royalty, he still shops at K mart. The pomp is without circumstance.
"I think you have to learn to enjoy your success, without it taking possession of you," he says, as he sips a cup of afternoon coffee in the cut-glass splendor of his living room. "There's always that -- what is it? -- over-the-top part of success that can cause you to become a Humpty Dumpty. Know what I mean? Oh, onstage I say, 'Too much of a good thing is . . . wonderful.' But there are pitfalls and you have to learn to avoid them. You have to have the strength to avoid the excesses. This is a glorious, fantastical business I'm in. So many marvelous things have happened to me. And I enjoy it. I think it's nice. I like all this . . . stuff. I've worked hard for it. But I think what's made me persevere and endure is that I had a good foundation and a solid training period.
"Prior to TV, I was what you might consider a successful unknown. I made a decent salary as a cafe' society entertainer. I worked with Imogene Coca, Judy Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald when she was a thin youngster -- all these people who had a marvelous opportunity to cultivate their talent in supper clubs. When I came to California in the 1940s, I played the Mocambo, which was a popular nightspot, where I actually got paid by the night, depending on how good the business was. My older brother, George, would stand in line every night to get our salary. That couldn't happen today. Performers are thrust into the limelight and fame is almost spontaneous.
"That's why I feel sorry for the new performers of today. They don't have the opportunity for trial and error. They either do everything right or they do everything wrong and suffer the consequences. But it's only over a long period of time that you develop an intelligent sense of what's going to work for you. Getting famous is not all that easy, but it's easier than staying famous. Yesterday I picked up a magazine in the supermarket with Prince's picture on the cover. And the article starts off, 'Is there anything Prince hasn't done to make himself a royal pain in the ass?' And I thought, 'Oh my God, that didn't take long.' "
Liberace is a little fleshier than in his television heyday, but his face is startlingly unlined and he has a full head of hair, so thick and lustrous that for years he has had to battle the canard that he wears a wig. Offstage, he eschews extravagance in his wardrobe, although he can't seem to swear off the jewelry. This particular afternoon, he is sporting an opal ring the size of a golf ball and, around his neck, a cross set in gold studded with diamonds. The cross, he explains, belonged to his mother's sister, a nun. "I had it mounted by Cartier and they did a beautiful job," he says, holding it up for examination. "Well, look at that! It's loose. I just gave Cartier a plug and it's loose."
Tell him that he looks unexpectedly youthful and he replies, "Well, I used to be old. Twenty years ago, I was all wrapped up in myself. I was so intent on saving what I had, career-wise, trying to hold on to popularity, that I honestly wasn't enjoying myself as much as I was supposed to."
It took a brush with death in 1963 -- the very day Kennedy was shot, he notes -- to wake him up. In Pittsburgh at the time, Liberace had spent the afternoon going over his costumes with dry-cleaning fluid and inadvertently inhaling poisonous carbon tetrachloride fumes. That night in the middle of his show he was seized with acute nausea and rushed to the hospital. Doctors promptly hitched him up to an artificial kidney machine; for several days, it was touch and go.
"I had the last rites and everything," he recalls. "After that experience, I began taking a different attitude. I lifted a lot of the attention I was giving to myself onto other things, into other avenues of creativity. I got involved in restoration, collecting antiques, dogs, houses. Things like that. I think the best example I can give you was when my manager called me up during one of my vacation periods in Palm Springs. My home there was destined to become a parking lot, and I came along and saved it and made it beautiful. And my manager said, 'I know you're on vacation, but this is probably the greatest offer you're ever going to get in your whole career.' He told me about the job and the money and I said, 'It sounds wonderful, but I can't take it.' And he said, 'Why not?' And I said, 'Because my orchid trees are in bloom.' You know, to me that was more important -- because they bloom only once a year. Everybody started thinking, 'Is he all right?' "
At 9:45 in the morning -- 15 minutes before the doors open -- the first busload of tourists pulls up before the Liberace Museum. For the devout, the white stucco, red-tiled building is Mecca, offering, in the words of the brochure, "an intimate glimpse of the memorabilia that helped make Mr. Showmanship a legend in his own time."
The museum is run as a nonprofit foundation by Dora Liberace, widow of Liberace's violin-playing brother, George, whose instrument is prominently displayed, along with his album, "Let's Dance," reproduced in chocolate by Kro n. Here you can also see Liberace's mother's knitting basket, his father's French horn, a lock of Liszt's hair, Chopin's piano, and a staggering array of gifts sent by his fans -- the most astonishing of which appears to be a miniature version of the museum itself, constructed, according to the identifying label, "out of bread dough and glue by Mrs. Nola Becker of Norwalk, Ohio, who spent six months creating it."
"You should see the gifts I get," Liberace says. "People send me miniature pianos, stuffed toys, Cabbage Patch dolls and things like that. I've got a collection of teddy bears. Lib-Bear-race is one of them. But every now and then I get a goody. A real goody. I keep them all."
The museum's drawing cards, however, are the fabled relics of Liberace's own life and career: the red, white and blue Rolls-Royce he rode onstage the year of the Bicentennial; his first electrified candelabra; the mother-of-pearl crucifix blessed by Pope Pius XII in the course of his "22-minute private audience with the holy father at Castle Gondolfo" in 1956. Like horses put out to pasture, all his old costumes, modestly valued at $1 million, are "retired" in a glass case; his pianos sit behind velvet ropes. On a Liberace mannequin is his famous "Flying Suit" with the ostrich-feathered cape, in which he once took a gravity-defying curtain call.
"It all started when I ran offstage one night in Las Vegas and my cape billowed out and kind of lifted me up," he remembers. "You know, the principle of aerodynamics. I took a leap and instead of going two feet, I went about six. I thought, 'Oh my God, what a feeling!' I guess there's a certain something inside all of us that goes all the way back to the Wright Brothers. So the next day, they outfitted me with a harness and wires. At the curtain call, I walked out, very normal-like, and waved. And suddenly I was airborne. People fainted. They couldn't believe it."
At the museum gift counter, the perennial best seller, for $29.95, is a ceramic music box with detachable candelabra, which plays the theme from "Dr. Zhivago," followed closely, for $10, by an oil painting of the master himself. Proceeds are earmarked for music scholarships at 10 universities and colleges across the country.
After the Las Vegas casinos and Boulder Dam, the Liberace Museum is Nevada's third most popular tourist attraction. Approximately 10,000 people visit it each month. Built in 1979, it is too small to display the treasures that are bulging warehouse walls around town. This fall, Liberace will take up a piano-shaped shovel to break ground for a new, expanded museum. It will be, announces a staff member proudly, "five times as big as this one."
Among the fans who invariably congregate outside Liberace's dressing room, Jersey Polka Richie is something of a fixture. He and his mother make it a point of turning up wherever Liberace is appearing. They caught 9 of his 21 shows at Radio City, followed him to Florida, and are now waiting patiently in the wings of the Circus Maximus in the hopes of yet another backstage audience. "We had to take three flights to get here today," he says. Often, they bring gifts.
Richie hails from New Jersey, where he specializes in playing polkas on the concertina at Polish weddings and festivals, hence his name. He is 27 years old, potbellied and has slicked-back black hair. Dangling on his chest, set off by the white blazer, is a jeweled metal brooch in the form of a concertina. Jersey Polka Richie likes to call himself "The Liberace of the Concertina."
"I try to copy him, but not copy him, if you know what I mean," he says. "Nobody in the Polish line goes in for wardrobe like I do. I'm into fancy tuxedos and sequined things. I have a special concertina covered with rhinestones. This afternoon, I played 'Happy Birthday' for Liberace and gave him a piano cake. It was completely edible -- even the candelabra. I had it made by a gourmet baker in New Jersey."
His mother is snapping photos with the Instamatic around her neck.
"Of course, we'll be in Washington, when Lee plays the Kennedy Center," Jersey Polka Richie is saying. "Lee" is what Liberace's close friends call him.
"People," Liberace wrote in his 1973 autobiography, "can't help liking me." And Liberace, it appears, can't help liking them back. At the Tivoli Gardens, his 2-year-old restaurant here, the mirrored walls are etched with the music and lyrics of "I'll Be Seeing You." More than his theme song, it's his pledge to those who stood by through the early years of critical abuse and, more recently, a tidal wave of innuendo.
In 1982, Liberace's chauffeur and bodyguard, a one-time pet shop employe named Scott Thorson, slapped him with a $113 million lawsuit, claiming, among other things, that they had shared "an intimate sexual and emotional relationship" for nearly six years, and that Liberace agreed to pay him a salary for life in return for his services. Liberace called the assertions "an outrageous and vicious attempt to assassinate my character."
The palimony charge was later pitched out of a Los Angeles court, but Thorson's other claims are still pending -- including allegations of assault and infliction of emotional distress.
Thorson then filed a $36 million libel suit after Liberace told Newsweek, "It didn't take the judge long to decide I was being exploited. I could have stopped the whole thing before it started by paying off, but that would have been blackmail and blackmail never ends. So I decided to stick it out and take the embarrassment and insults."
Today, Liberace says, "Ever know somebody who was a real Jekyll and Hyde? Well, he Thorson was able to make you think he was the golden-haired, sweet boy every mother would love. He knew how to reach people and make people like him. Then there was this other person, who was mean and selfish and morose . . . A lot of people warned me that there was something wrong. But I refused to believe it. I said, 'I'll find out for myself, thank you.' "
The tabloids had a field day when the story broke. "There were a lot of headlines," Liberace acknowledges. "I remember passing a newsstand in Toronto as I was going to the theater, and I thought, 'How awful. How mortifying.' But at the same time, I was breaking records at places where I'd never broken records before. So I don't think people believed it."
Liberace pauses. "I think I've developed a kind of strength in dealing with adversity. People sense that I can handle a problem. Like when my kid brother was living. He was an alcoholic, a strange alcoholic who used to drink on weekends. He was so good-looking -- he looked like Errol Flynn -- and so sweet and lovable. But when he'd get drunk, he was mean as a bastard. He'd call you names, throw the latest suit you'd brought him on the floor and stomp on it. Mean, mean, mean. And everyone would come to me and say, 'You handle it, we can't.' "
For the longtime members of his staff, if Liberace errs, it is only, like Candide, by unfailingly extending the benefit of the doubt. "That little boy image, that warm sincerity you see onstage, it really is him -- backstage, in his leisure time," says Terry Clarkston, Liberace's dresser for the past eight years. "He just wants everything and everyone in life to be happy."
Being part of Liberace's entourage is not without drawbacks. "You can get spoiled by all the finer things in life," says Clarkston. "When you're with him, it's Pouilly-Fuisse' and lobster. Then, afterwards, you have to go back home to reality and the blue-label Safeway wine." For Cary James, the 24-year-old ex-dancer who now serves as Liberace's private secretary, the good life has added 65 pounds to his frame. An aspiring actor, he recently went on a Lean Cuisine diet to reverse the damage. Liberace is being supportive.
According to Liberace's manager, Seymour N. Heller, more than 60 people -- from seamstresses to waiters, backstage technicians to housekeepers, depend on the entertainer for their livelihood. Their devotion is palpable.
"When I say that I have deflected some of the attention away from myself," Liberace says, "one of the ways has been by becoming very involved in the lives of my employes. It used to be 'Mr. Liberace this, Mr. Liberace that.' I finally said, 'Don't you know me well enough after all this time to call me Lee?' I started kidding with them. You know, I'd say, 'Another coffee break? Geeeez!' Then I'd sit down and join them. They'd bring out photographs of their children and their grandchildren and before long I found I was getting caught up in their lives.
"But in order to balance it, you've got to bring them into your life and let them share some of the glory. Know what I mean? So I started taking them to my shows. And all of a sudden, I discovered my work became fresher, more vital. I was enjoying it more. It was kind of like showing off for my friends. I got very excited when I knew my gardener was out front or my housekeepers."
When he performed at Radio City, he flew his staff to New York and put them up at the best hotels. "Of course, like most women," he says, "my housekeepers claimed they didn't know what to wear. 'Come on,' I said, 'the stooooores are full!' So I went out and bought them all outfits. They looked faaabulous."
After Gladys Luckie, his Las Vegas housekeeper for 30 years, retired, he gave her a house. "She's a very understanding lady," Liberace says. "I would confide things in her that I didn't even think of telling my mother when she was alive."
It's not merely a question of largesse, although the tales abound. The full import of Liberace's generosity doesn't dawn on you until later in the afternoon. He is talking about his house, and he's saying, "I've always liked to take something that is ready to be destroyed, decadent almost, and prove that it can have another life by restoring it. Some of my furniture that people admire the most was wrapped in rope when I found it. It had to be glued back together. It's much more of a satisfaction for me, if it's really broken down. I guess that's my thing."
He has saved houses, pianos, vintage automobiles, old movie props. He has saved a pound's worth of canines. He even saved the doors from the California governor's mansion. If, you find yourself thinking, he's had his occasional troubles with people, it's probably because he's wanted to save them, too.
Liberace figures he won't retire until they clamp down the big piano lid. In deference to the blooming orchids, he's cut his schedule back to 14 weeks this year (which will gross him $3.5 million), but he's still looking ahead to another Radio City Music Hall engagement in the fall. Bigger and better than ever. "Once I do a show and it pays off, forget it," he says. "I immediately start thinking what I'll do next. It's like this thing with the Austrian rhinestones. The first time I came on with a cape lined in them and the lights went on, the audience went wild. Well, the motor in your head starts going. You think, 'If they loved a cape lined in rhinestones, wouldn't they love a piano covered in them?' Then the piano came. This year, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be mind-blowing to have a car covered with rhinestones.' It's like more whipped cream, more whipped cream, more whipped cream."
Indeed, soon after he's built "The Beer Barrel Polka" to a razzle-dazzle climax, an elegant roadster, radiating incandescence from a million facets, purrs out of the wings of the Circus Maximus. Liberace climbs in and waves grandly to the fans. They're on their feet, cheering, as it carries him triumphantly offstage -- away to a fabled land of mother-of-pearl sundaes and chocolate-dipped rubies.
It's the land where children dream. Liberace lives there.