“Behind the Candelabra,” Steven Soderbergh’s humorous look into the life of Liberace that debuted Sunday on HBO, features a scene in which the popular piano entertainer (played by Michael Douglas) recalls his experience performing at the Hollywood Bowl.
“I show up for rehearsal and I look at this vast, enormous open air theater and I look at the black piano. I think -- black piano, black tuxedo, who is going to see me in this giant clamshell?” he tells a rapt Las Vegas audience.
Brandishing his gaudy cape, he then says, “I ask you -- can you seen me now?”
A showman first and a musician second, Liberace performed five times at the Bowl during his career, according to archival information provided by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The best known of those was a Sept. 4, 1954, pops concert in which a 35-year-old Liberace appeared alongside the L.A. Philharmonic conducted by his brother, George.
The printed program for the evening didn’t list the pieces Liberace would play because he often changed them at the last minute. In his review, then-Times music critic Albert Goldberg wrote that the concert included a mix of crowd-pleasers and classical pieces, plus a number that Liberace wrote titled “Rhapsody by Candlelight.”
Goldberg was no Liberace fan. Describing his performance that evening of a piece called “Cornish Rhapsody,” the critic sniffed: “Thereafter so much corn was sprouted that we thought we were back in Iowa.”
Most critics showed little love for Liberace. As Goldberg put it, “The reason critics go to his concerts is for the same reason he gives them: they get paid for it. But not nearly enough, considering.”
A Times report the following month speculated on Liberace’s relationship with a young female dancer named Joanne Rio. The article stated: “Liberace, according to the rumors, told friends that he planned to marry Miss Rio in about a year, that while there has been no formal engagement the two have reached ‘an understanding.’”
As recounted in “Behind the Candelabra,” Liberace entered into a relationship with a teenage Scott Thorson in 1977. Their stormy affair ended in 1982, with Thorson suing the performer for palimony.
Liberace’s other Bowl appearances were in 1952, 1953, 1956 and 1967.
Goldberg was back for the ’67 Bowl concert, and made note of Liberace’s garish costumes in a Times review: “The first number was in shocking pink, and after the audience had been sufficiently awed, Liberace strolled around the outer edge of the pool displaying his diamond rings.”
Liberace held campy court at other venues around Los Angeles, including concerts at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center and the Long Beach Terrance Theatre.
The entertainer was once a resident of Sherman Oaks -- living in a house with a pool in the shape of a grand piano -- before he made Palm Springs his main residence.