LiberacePianist / Showman
Born: 16 May 1919
Died: 4 February 1987 (AIDS-related pneumonia)
Birthplace: West Allis, Wisconsin
Best known as:
The glitzy and popular pianist of the 1950s
Name at birth: Wladziu Valentino Liberace
Liberace was the flamboyant and rhinestone-studded pianist and entertainer whose death in 1987 raised public consciousness of AIDS. A child prodigy, Liberace was only seven when he won a scholarship to the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. As a young man he made a living playing movie theaters and burlesque clubs, then moved up to the concert circuit, where he began to mix pop and classical tunes while adding jokes, patter and elaborate showmanship. It worked: by 1949 he was playing for President Harry Truman at the White House, and in 1951 he began The Liberace Show, his own syndicated TV program. His signatures included a shiny candelabra on his piano, charmingly silly patter, and ever-more-elaborate capes, costumes and jewelry. His audience ate it up. He toured widely, starred in the 1955 movie Sincerely Yours, and eventually landed in Las Vegas, becoming one of the city's biggest draws. Liberace's heyday was the 1950s, but he remained a popular guest star on TV in the 1960s and 1970s, and he opened the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas in 1979, with displays including fur-trimmed robes and his mirror-tiled Rolls Royce (complete with matching mirror-tiled mechanic's toolbox). A former chauffeur, Scott Thorson, sued Liberace in 1982, saying that they had been romantically involved and that Liberace had promised to take care of him. The case was settled out of court, but it caused a scandal and the cat was out of the bag about Liberace's sexuality. He never publicly acknowledged being gay, but died in 1987 from pneumonia brought on by AIDS.
His name was pronounced libber-AH-chee... Friends often called him "Lee"... His brother, George Liberace, was a violinist and bandleader. "I wish my brother George was here" became one of Liberace's signature sayings... During his early years as a performer he sometimes used the name Walter Busterkeys... Scott Thorson wrote the 1998 memoir, Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace. The book was made into a 2013 movie starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson... The Liberace Museum closed in 2010.
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