Wladziu Valentino Liberace was born in Milwaukee in 1919. Despite coming from a poor family he managed to take classical piano lessons and, at age 11, started making concert appearances. During the Depression he played piano in speakeasies to make money for his family.
By 1940 he had moved to New York and was earning a meagre living playing in smalltime night clubs. His talent and charm soon saw him move up into the world of the hotel clubs. Then he struck lucky. He performed in the casinos of Las Vegas in the late 1940s and, as the town grew, so did his career. He used this popularity to springboard into the world of television and, by the very early 50s, hosted his own variety show. He mixed his fancy piano playing with chatter to the audience (including to his mother, Frances, who always attended), soft shoe and conversations with his brother, George, the show's band leader. This show became wildly successful and was carried by more stations than I Love Lucy.
Having found superstar status, he proceeded to live in an extravagent way. He bought many expensive mansions and remodelled them to suit his fancy - including the installation of a piano-shaped pool in one of his backyards. he filled the houses with antiques, ornate pianos and glizzy furniture.
At the onset of his career Liberace had only sported a white tuxedo but, in the early 50s, he added a gold lamé jacket to his wadrobe, hoping that it would catch the stage lights. This simple upgrade led to more and more extravagent costumes until he was spending tens of thousands of dollars every year on bigger, flashier, and more opulent costumes which he paired with outrageous rings.
'For me to wear a simple tuxedo on stage
would be like asking Marlene Dietrich
to wear a house dress.'
The spending wasn't only confined to his clothes, though. He covered his pianos with mirrors and huge, gold, candelabra. He employed show girls, singers, jugglers, full orchestras, water fountains, light shows and the odd elephant or two and often started his show flying in on a wire.
'You can't take anything for granted as an entertainer... you have to be surprising, find new things to make the audience stand up and take notice.'
His style of music delighted his fans and enraged the purists. His repertoire was based on an unique mix of classical, boogie woogie, movie themes, cocktail jazz, and sentimental ballads and he kept his audience satisfied by being able to play almost any request. Anything he considered too long to hold the attention was drastically cut - many popular classical pieces lost 10 or more minutes as he 'took out the boring parts'. This cavalier attitude won him many enemies, especially among the male music critics of the day:
Liberace is... deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love... the biggest sentimental vomit of all time.
British Tabloid, 1956
Liberace's famous response to this was:
'I cried all the way to the bank.'
which, in later years, was amended to:
'Remember that bank I used to cry all the way to?' (Pause, smile, wink.) 'I bought it.'