Icons / December 2016

Mr Showmanship: Valentino Liberace

“I didn’t get dressed like this to go unnoticed”, Liberace once told his adoring fans, and the pianist spent many years living up to his nickname Mr Showmanship.

There were certain words that one senses Władziu Valentino Liberace may never have learned the meaning of. Words like ‘no’ or ‘less’, ‘subtlety’ or ‘understatement’. For ‘Mr Showmanship’ there was no display of wealth too gaudy, no outfit too excessive. It seems almost unthinkable today that a flamboyant, bedazzled, classically trained pianist could be the world’s highest earning entertainer. And yet, for over three decades, that’s exactly who Liberace was. He was bigger than every member of the Rat Pack. He was bigger than Elvis.

Liberace was born to a Catholic family in suburban Milwaukee, the son of an Italian émigré and a mother of Polish descent. Money was tight growing up - he the third of four children - and his parents both worked in factories to make ends meet, his father sometimes moonlighting as a musician. From the age of four, the young Liberace began to play the piano, and it was clear from the off that he had talent. It was his father who encouraged the young Liberace to pursue his love of music, his mother decrying it as an unaffordable indulgence. As his skill grew, he began playing for weddings, clubs and theatres during the day, and then moonlighting at strip clubs in the evening. His parents strongly disapproved, however his earnings from his many jobs helped his family survive the Great Depression.

As an adult Liberace (who was now using his surname exclusively as a stage name) rapidly became a well-reviewed concert pianist, but he desperately wanted to engage with larger audiences. He reinvented his show from one that focussed on classical music to one that was mainly anchored around pop or, as he described it, ‘classical music without the boring bits’. His dressing became increasingly ostentatious - first to increase his visibility when performing, and then simply for the publicity it gave him. “Nakedness makes us democratic”, he said of his style at the time. “Adornment makes us individuals.” His wardrobe soon became one of rhinestone and lamé. Soon Sammy Davis Jr. was wearing lameé. Soon after, Elvis was too. “What started as a gag,” Liberace later said, “ended up becoming a trademark.” Far ahead of his contemporaries, he quickly realised the potential of performing live on television, and began to disregard accepted protocol and perform looking at - even talking to - a camera, to make audiences at home feel he performed just for them. His gaudy performances became legendary, and he found a natural home in the Las Vegas circuit, earning him his life-long sobriquet, ‘Mr Showmanship’.

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