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Liberace, 67, Flamboyant Musical Showman, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Liberace, the musical showman who cried all the way to the bank when critics were more impressed by his wardrobe than by his piano technique, died Wednesday at his home in Palm Springs.

He was 67, and his personal physician, Dr. Ronald Daniels, said death was due to congestive heart failure brought on by subacute encephalopathy, a general term for degenerative brain disease.

Gathered inside the house where Daniels pronounced the entertainer dead at 2:05 p.m. were Liberace’s sister, Angelina Farrell; his sister-in-law, Dora Liberace, and Jamie Wyatt, described as Liberace’s friend and longtime companion.

Outside were nearly 100 of his fans, who had begun their vigil when the seriousness of their idol’s condition was first made known last week.

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Funeral arrangements were pending at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills, where Liberace’s brother and mother are entombed. A family spokesman said services will be private, but asked that contributions in lieu of flowers be made to the Liberace Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts in Las Vegas, Nev. Plans for memorial services in Palm Springs and Las Vegas were incomplete.

Liberace had continued to work--a sellout engagement at the Radio City Music Hall, followed by appearances in New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles promoting his new book, a full-color inventory of his many possessions called “The Wonderful Private World of Liberace"--until just a few weeks before his death. His last public appearance was on the “Oprah Winfrey Christmas Show,” which was taped for television in mid-November.

Rumors of ill health first surfaced in mid-1986 and were reinforced late last month when his manager, Seymour Heller, announced cancellation of all engagements for the coming year.

Diet Initially Blamed

Liberace was admitted to Eisenhower Medical Center in nearby Rancho Mirage “for tests” late last month, but was released four days later. At that time, Heller said his client was suffering from anemia brought on by a watermelon weight-loss diet.

A newspaper in Las Vegas quoting unnamed sources reported, however, that the pianist was suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Heller vehemently denied this, demanded a retraction and threatened to sue the Las Vegas Sun for libel.

But within an hour after issuance of Daniel’s cause of death statement Wednesday, Dr. Jay N. Cohn, head of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s cardiovascular division, denied that there was or could be any direct relationship between encephalopathy and heart failure, while noting that a virus infection could both damage the heart and cause encephalopathy.

“AIDS,” he added, “does indeed give you an encephalopathy.”

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Liberace’s fans paid no attention to the bickering.

They crowded into a parking lot of a Catholic church across the street from Liberace’s Spanish-style mansion trampling flower beds in their rush with members of the media to the door to hear all bulletins on the pianist’s condition.

Attorney Joel Strote, who had acted as spokesman for the family during the last few days, was not pleased.

“I think that it is tragic,” he said, “that this is turning into a circus. It doesn’t seem very dignified. It is (Liberace’s) wish that his fans remember him in his glory. He would like to die in peace.”

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But the fans didn’t see it that way.

“He loved us, we loved him,” said Sara Hempling, who had taken a week’s vacation from her job in Seal Beach to join the crowd. “He’d want friends around. . . . “

Flamboyant and affected, scorned by the cynical as the Sultan of Schmaltz who “left no rhinestone unturned” in efforts to impress, Liberace was nonetheless respected in the entertainment field as one of the canniest showmen since P. T. Barnum.

Movie Not Successful

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He had reached his peak in the late 1950s; his single starring role in films was not a success, and in recent years his main appeal had been to an aging audience of women whom one detractor characterized as “every mother who felt she had been disappointed by her son.”

Yet it was death--and death alone--that finally set a term to a career that seemed always to be in mid-stride.

The ever-smiling performer who had made personal trademarks of a lighted candelabra and outrageously overstated attire had been playing piano professionally for nearly six decades, and he had been a headliner for more than half that time.

Bursting upon the national scene in the early 1950s with one of the first film-syndicated television shows, his appeal had seemed never to falter through the vicissitudes of record albums, concert tours and finally a nightclub act that packed showrooms year after year.

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“Liberace is a four-letter word: STAR!” was a sign--and a slogan stenciled on T-shirts--at the former Las Vegas shopping center he rebuilt and operated as the Liberace Museum, and there is reason to suspect that he thought of himself that way. And enjoyed every minute of it. . . . “Musical critics haven’t always been kind,” he said in a 1981 interview, “and telling people that I didn’t care what they said may not have been entirely accurate. No one is really immune. But the audiences seemed to enjoy the kind of performance I could give them.

“They kept coming back . . . and I kept trying to please them.”

Wladziu (pronounced Vla-ja) Valentino Liberace was born May 16, 1919, in West Allis, Wis., and grew up in nearby Milwaukee where his mother, Frances, a pianist, ran a grocery store and his father, Salvatore (Sam), a former performer with the John Philip Sousa band, played French horn with the Milwaukee Philharmonic Orchestra.

Music in the Family

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“In our house,” he told an interviewer many years later, “music was as much a part of life as conversation. My father was born in Italy, and it wasn’t just that he was a professional musician. My Polish mother’s family were all musicians, too. So nobody was surprised--least of all me--when I could play piano by ear when I was 4 years old. It came with the territory.”

At 7, he began formal piano studies, but his father did not approve. Despite his own musical background, Sam Liberace sternly admonished young Walter (as he was then known) to abandon any aspirations he might cherish for a career in music.

“He wanted me to be like my uncles,” Liberace recalled. “One was a doctor. The other was an undertaker . . . but I wanted no part of anything that involved scalpels or pine boxes . . . so I sort of tuned out the lectures and kept practicing fingering technique.”

All the same, the entertainer said, his father’s lectures might have prevailed in the end if not for an old friend of his mother.

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Ignace Paderewski, piano virtuoso and former premier of Poland, paid a visit and was effusive in his admiration for 7-year-old Walter’s performance. Praise from such an exalted source was too much even for Sam Liberace, and from then on there was no hanging back.

By the time he was 15, Liberace was earning money as a professional pianist--playing for patrons of Milwaukee ice cream parlor and occasionally performing at high school concerts in the vicinity and with a small dance band where he billed himself as “Walter Busterkeys.”

That was also the name he used when he jumped at the opportunity to perform with the WPA Symphony--a Depression-spawned cultural employment program--and won a scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music.

Liberace never graduated, but members of the faculty were sufficiently impressed to arrange an audition with Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony, who signed the 16-year-old prodigy as a guest soloist when the orchestra arrived in Milwaukee on tour.

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Memorable Encore

But an incident during a performance at LaCrosse, Wis., turned him in a new direction.

“The audience was a good one, interested and welcoming,” he said, “but the applause after the main performance was only just enough to rate one encore, and I decided to give them something to remember.

“Instead of ‘Minute Waltz’ or something like that, I played a novelty tune, ‘Three Little Fishes,’ that was very popular at the time, and followed with ‘Mairzy Doats,’ another well-known novelty, dressing them up in arpeggios and flourishes to give the impression that I was trying to pass them off as classics.

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“It wasn’t much of a joke. But the audience seemed to love it; they relaxed and enjoyed themselves and . . . they smiled. That was the big thing, for me. They smiled in a way that they hadn’t for the straight classical repertoire, no matter how well I performed. And suddenly I had an idea of how to make piano playing pay more than the $35 a week I’d been getting.”

It was only a first step, but he followed it with a foray to New York. He had now acquired an agent, Mae Johnston, who booked him as intermission pianist at the Persian Room of the Plaza hotel, where a New York Sun reviewer heard him and thought his music “brilliant” and suitably “sprightly” for dinner and supper entertainment.

In the late 1930s and early ‘40s, Liberace (he had finally dropped all the other parts of his name, concentrating on the single patronymic) took his act on the road, incorporating light classical, popular and novelty numbers into hotel and supper room performances that now included occasional songs by the pianist.

“I’m breathy and not very loud,” he said. “But at least I’m usually on key. . . . “

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Complaints of Critics

Critics, especially those who usually reviewed purely classical music, complained of his “slackness of rhythms, wrong tempos, distorted phrasing and excess of prettification.” But theater and club owners noticed a growing number of repeaters--true fans--in the Liberace audiences, and offered new bookings well in advance.

He became a crowd-pleasing raconteur, an inventive keyboard improviser--and, above all, a showman whose greatest talent may have been the ability to seize upon any likely bit of business or stage property and make it uniquely his own.

One prime example occurred in 1944 when Cornel Wilde achieved stardom with the candelabra-lighted role of Frederic Chopin in “A Song to Remember.”

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Within a few days of the film’s opening, Liberace had found a candelabra of his own, and it became a permanent fixture on the music rack of his gleaming, oversize Bluthner grand piano. By 1947, when he returned to the Persian Room at the Plaza--as the main attraction rather than intermission relief--he was appearing in faultless black evening clothes that lent a patina of elegance to an already striking presence.

Classicists still weren’t satisfied; they accused him of “compressing” some works at the expense of musical coherence--and of avoiding those passages that presented technical problems of fingering and interpretation.

“Vladimir Horowitz takes eight minutes to get through a movement of the ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ ” one critic wrote. “Liberace gets through it in three.”

Liberace was undaunted. “If I play Tchaikovsky,” he said, “I play his melodies . . . and skip his spiritual struggle.”

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His first booking in Las Vegas was at the old Last Frontier hotel, where he got a job in 1948 by deluging the entertainment manager with penny postcards extolling his own talents. His act was so successful that it attracted a kind of attention that the musician-showman had not anticipated.

Approached by Mobster

“Hey, kid,” said rival hotel owner Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel, “I wanna talk to you!”

Siegel’s offer was simple and direct--move to the Flamingo or try to play with broken fingers--and Liberace had almost decided it was one he couldn’t refuse when the quandary was resolved by a higher power: On orders of the national crime commission, Siegel was shot to pieces at Virginia Hill’s house in Beverly Hills.

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“To this day,” he said, recalling the incident later, “I don’t know what I would have done if that hadn’t happened.”

Moving to Los Angeles in the 1950s, the Liberace brothers (George was now business manager as well as musical director for the act) began to explore the possibilities of television.

Liberace began with “sustaining” (unpaid) appearances on station KLAC, acquired a sponsor after the first month, and was so well received that concert appearances at the Philharmonic Auditorium and Hollywood Bowl were sellouts.

“But still no national sponsor wanted to take a chance on me,” the pianist said. “So it was an advertising man named Reub Kaufman who got the idea of putting my whole program on film and then shipping it around the country to let independent stations sell sponsorship to local advertisers. It was really one of the first true syndication shows in the world. . . . “

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And it was an instant winner. Filmed before a live audience at the Music Hall Theater in Los Angeles, within a year the show was being aired on 192 stations (more than the networks could claim for their popular “Dragnet” and “Lucy” segments) and Liberace received two of the earliest national Emmy awards for the best entertainment program and most outstanding male personality of the year.

The show’s popularity continued to expand with the passing years: In 1958, ABC began airing a daytime Liberace series, and there was an hourlong network summer show in 1969 (with guest stars and regulars Richard Wattis and Georgina Moon, who played his butler and maid in regular sketch sequences).

Flamboyant Wardrobe

Any possible free time was filled with concert tours, where he tried out an increasingly outrageous wardrobe that grew in time to include one ermine coat (with rhinestone lining, worn during a command performance for the Queen of England) that weighed 136 pounds.

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“Of course, it was all part of the act--not the real me,” he told an interviewer in 1976. “I never wanted the public to get the impression that I really slept in sequined shorts or anything like that.”

Yet he was never bashful about his tastes in clothing.

“Look me over,” he said, preening before an audience after arrival on stage in a customized Rolls-Royce. “Don’t be shy. Look! I didn’t get dressed up like this to go unnoticed!”

Success led, some thought, to excess. He had homes (“marzipan mansions,” one architectural purist called them) in Malibu, Palm Springs, Las Vegas and New York; he owned 333 miniature pianos and more than 100 full-size ones, a fleet of automobiles and a collection of furniture that one connoisseur characterized as “world-class kitsch: every gilded imitation-antique that too much money can buy.”

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His private life became the subject of gossip: In 1959, he won a $22,400 libel judgment against a London newspaper for printing allegations that he was a homosexual. In 1974, a former Moulin Rouge chorine sued him for what she called libelous characterization of their relationship in the first of his several autobiographies. And in 1982, a former Las Vegas dancer who had served as his chauffeur-bodyguard and companion sued him for palimony, claiming that he had entered upon a homosexual relationship with the performer on the promise of lifelong support.

Personal Burdens

Family relationships deteriorated: His parents were divorced in 1941. Brother George, who had led the orchestra and acted as foil for the pianist’s humor during the early years of the television show, left to start a show of his own. He died in 1983. His parents and younger brother had died earlier and at the end his only close relative was his sister.

There were neighborhood quarrels: In the early 1970s, Liberace opened his home overlooking the Sunset Strip to the public as the Liberace Museum. But those who lived nearby complained that the excursions (at $5.90 a head, proceeds going to a nonprofit foundation to encourage fledgling artists) were causing traffic jams. A plan to move the museum to his hometown of Milwaukee was foiled by legal problems, and he finally reopened the attraction in Las Vegas.

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But there were also accolades: In 1983, the San Fernando Criminal Bar Assn. honored Liberace for his philanthropies in behalf of young musicians and the following year the Polish National Alliance sponsored an honorary doctor of music degree from Alliance College in Cambridge Springs, Pa.

And through it all, he continued to perform:

“People say I’m a workaholic,” he said, “but that’s not really true. I don’t do anything I don’t enjoy--and I find that it works very well. You know that bank I used to cry all the way to? Well, I bought it.”


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