I’d like to dedicate this very special Valentine’s song to my mother, he tells the audience. Her favorite composer is Frederic Chopin. I’d like to play this, he says, for all the mothers here, and all the mothers tuned in at home.
He’s dressed as a man should be dressed on Valentine’s Day, if the man is playing piano for his mother, and is Liberace: red bow tie, red vest and slacks, black jacket studded with rhinestones, ruffled shirt. Behind him, the signature candelabra on the piano, a prop idea he got from an old movie about Chopin. He takes a seat at the piano, and in his liquid way, draws a melody up out of the keys. He begins with Chopin as promised, but it’s no jumpy polonaise, no mincing waltz. Liberace starts with “Étude Op. 10, No. 12 in C Minor” — “The Revolutionary Étude.” Bold, powerful, melancholy, the étude exclaims, “Now it is time to pay attention to Liberace.” It is instantly mesmerizing.
The year is 1979. Stage lighting shouts disco Xs across the stage, and everything is in soft focus. He’s really got us now….but then — hold on, isn’t that…? Yes, it is. Twenty-three seconds into the Chopin, Liberace has switched into a flowery version of “My Funny Valentine.” His fingers flutter across the keys—who knew this song had so many notes? We are back into Chopin again — “Nocturne in E flat, Op. 9,” but it doesn’t matter that we don’t know the name; we’ve all swooned to this melody before. The camera now wears a big pink filter in the shape of a heart with Liberace playing at the center. He’s moving at top speed, slipping from one Chopin melody to another, all the while filling the cracks with Funny Valentine. It’s impossible to follow, and it’s not worth trying. You just have to allow yourself to be swept away.
With a flourish (always), Liberace finishes the medley. He turns to the audience and bows. He rises from the bench, stands before us, bows again, then once more, raising his arms, smiling his gentle smile. This is not just romance I’m giving you, the smile says. This is love. I love you.
This week, the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas announced it would shut its doors after 31 years. Though his career once shone as bright as a 115,000-carat rhinestone (on display at the Museum), it’s been said from the start that Liberace’s star was doomed to extinguish. For baby boomers, Liberace was a threat to the hip authenticity they fought so hard to forge out of the coffin of their parents’ polite society. For the next generation, mine, Liberace was a baffling mystery — we were supposed to make fun of him but we didn’t know why. Growing up, I wasn’t even sure who Liberace was, and his Las Vegas home was just down the street from mine. The children of the ’80s were simply told that Liberace was a farce, a clown. His was the most embarrassing of all professions — an entertainer.
“Too closeted to be a gay icon,” wrote Las Vegas City Life, “too uncool to ever be camp.” Liberace didn’t compose his own songs, didn’t do faithful representations of classics that could be played over and over on the radio. He did mashups, medleys, and improvs, performances that weren’t meant to outlive the moment. Critics never gave Liberace the honor of being a “real artist.” He was too nostalgic, too pretty, too happy. His music “must be served with all the available tricks,” a critic once wrote, “as loud as possible, as soft as possible, and as sentimental as possible. It’s almost all showmanship topped by whipped cream and cherries.”
It’s difficult, then, to remember how it came to be that Liberace was the highest-paid performer of his day. This made him, in one sense, bigger than Elvis, bigger than the Beatles (and ergo bigger than Jesus). For every person who was ashamed of him, thousands more fell to his charms. Liberace’s art was the show, and he gave us everything he had. The costumes, the glitz, the fancy cars, the rhinestone-encrusted pianos — they were instruments in Liberace’s orchestra. “I’m a one-man Disneyland,” Liberace once said proudly. Liberace didn’t just put on a concert; he was ringmaster in a theater of fairytales. And with each show, he captured why it is we like fairytales so much: At the center of the stories are ordinary people, trying to believe in something a little extraordinary, a little bigger than themselves.
This is what he creates with the Funny Valentine/Chopin Medley. Like Chopin, Wladziu Valentino Liberace was a child star, at heart a boy who wanted to please. The son of working-class, Polish-Italian immigrants from Milwaukee, he was a romantic, too, in his American working-class way. Even as a child, Liberace was drawn to beauty and sentiment. But beauty, for Liberace, wasn’t some unattainable, transcendent thing. It was just what people liked. And this is what “My Funny Valentine” is about. It is a sad and sweet love song of ordinariness:
My funny valentine
Sweet, comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable, unphotographable
yet you’re my favorite work of art.
Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak,
are you smart?
Don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little Valentine
Each day is Valentine’s Day
“Even in this abstract atomic age, where emotion is not fashionable, Chopin endures,” the acclaimed pianist Arthur Rubinstein once said, knowing that even when people are embarrassed by it, emotion never goes out of style. Liberace knew this better than anyone. He was never ashamed of emotion. Whatever his personal fears, onstage you saw a man almost completely devoid of shame. Because shame, Liberace knew, is death to magic. In a performance, shame breaks the spell, turns up the lights and exposes us all. When a performer feels shame, it takes us collectively outside the moment, makes the audience worry about tomorrow, fear what’s going to happen next. Don’t be afraid, Liberace told us when he performed. Everything that you want is here. Focus on the sparkles, the fairytale. Let’s not worry about tomorrow. Let us live in the enchantment of now. Scott Thorson, Liberace’s former companion and lover, once told Larry King that he believed Liberace’s fans wouldn’t have cared if he came out of the closet. I believe he’s right. To be ashamed of Liberace would have meant living outside his world, and his fans loved him too much for that.
In a way, Liberace the man was quite plain. Scott Thorson said Liberace spent his quiet time puttering about the house, picking up dog doo doo in the yard. If Liberace weren’t so genuinely private, I think he would have invited us all into his home. Instead, he created the Liberace Museum — a fantasy on the corner of East Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street — and invited us into his dreams. Liberace made himself into a living present, like one of those ladies who jump out of a giant cake. He wrapped himself in ribbons, placed himself into a gift box — the Liberace Museum — and gave himself away. Liberace’s museum was never a memorial to his life, but an extension of it. Which is why, to those last few who care, its closing feels like a second (and likely final) death of the man himself.
Every time I listen to “Étude Op. 10, No. 12 in C Minor,” I hear the Funny Valentine in it. And every time I watch the Funny Valentine/Chopin Medley performance, I feel I am watching a complete expression of Liberace: funny, gaudy, sad, beautiful, stupid, simple, extraordinary. It is the denouement of an entire life’s work. In the Funny Valentine/Chopin Medley, Liberace shows us something quite rare: a performer who has given you his all, and has taken you to the end of himself. • 17 September 2010