By Scott Jacobs

The upcoming HBO special Behind the Candelabra [Sunday, May 26, 8 PM CST] opens a Pandora’s box of stories about the eccentric Milwaukee born entertainer who rose to the top of the Las Vegas show world, but none are more inspiring than how he managed to survive his Wisconsin childhood in the first place.

The HBO bio pic stars Michael Douglas as the aging Liberace, Matt Damon as his coke-addled, much younger lover Scott Thorsen, Debbie Reynolds as his domineering mother and Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s manager Seymour Heller. In the hands of director Stephen Soderbergh it is a camp, over-the-top celebration of a fact Liberace spent decades trying to hide: he was gay.

“The film is mesmeric, riskily incorrect, outrageously watchable and simply outrageous,” The London Guardian wrote after it premiered in Cannes this week. Added The Hollywood Reporter, “Behind the Candelabra is fabulous — superbly scripted, brilliantly directed, smart but never smarmy and led by a lead performance by Michael Douglas so good you often forget you’re watching an actor rather than the famous character he’s playing. This is a rarity, a fully realized biographical drama shot through with real feeling and an abundance of sly humor. It’s a winner all around.”

Deflecting the Innuendo

Douglas’s portrayal of Liberace captures the wit and witticisms he used so often in his career to deflect the innuendos about his homosexuality: the fawning admiration of his mother Frances; the frequent references to marriage engagements that didn’t work out; and more telling, when challenged directly on his sexual preferences, a determination not to run, but double down on flamboyance as a defense.

Liberace was born Wladziu (Polish for Walter) Valentino Liberace in 1919. He was one of two twins, a 13-pound baby whose other half died in the womb. His early childhood was not especially pleasant. Pneumonia at the age of 2 left him a sickly child, and his parent’s thick accents proved an impediment to learning English. “The boys of my neighborhood always outwrestled me and outran me,” he recalled “ Later they bullied me and I remember sneaking home through alleys to escape them.”

But the family thrived on music. Liberace’s father played French horn in the Milwaukee Philharmonic; his older brother and sister played piano and violin; and his mother kept the Victrola playing with favorite tunes from her native Poland. At the age of 4, Liberace was playing the piano by ear alongside his brother. When he turned 7, he started formal lessons. By the time he turned 13, he’d already played with the Milwaukee symphony and the famous Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski heard him and recommended him for a scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music.

A Son of West Allis

The family lived in West Allis, a suburb just outside Milwaukee, in the bluest of blue collar neighborhoods. The father’s music gigs only partially supported the family, so the mother sold groceries out of a store in the front of their home.  “I can remember running from out little kitchen out into the store to get a couple potatoes, or something for dinner,” Liberace recalled later.  But even the grocery business wasn’t enough to make ends meet. Liberace’s mother took an outside job in a cookie factory; his older brother George drove a grocery truck; his older sister worked as a secretary nurse assistant and, even before he was a teenager, Walter brought home money washing dishes in restaurants.

As supportive as his mother was, the neighborhood kids weren’t so accommodating. When they heard Liberace practicing, he recalled, “they’d come to our yard and yell: ‘sissy, sissy, sissy.’” It was a nasty word that left him with few friends when he entered West Milwaukee High School. But his talent as a musician, not to mention his upbeat personality, helped him to slowly win the students over.

Yankee Doodle, Greta Garbo and Haile Selassie

He spent his lunches in high school playing boogie-woogie, ragtime and the latest popular songs in the girl’s gymnasium. He became a favorite performer at birthday parties. When a classmate slated to emcee a home economics class fashion show fell ill, Liberace stepped in wearing a beret, artist smock and billowing tie and left the audience in stitches.

Every semester, his high school celebrated Character Day,  and almost always he won first prize for original costume with outfits ranging from Yankee Doodle Dandy and Greta Garbo to Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia. “That was Walter for you,” the assistant principal later told Wisconsin History magazine. “Nobody but Liberace would have dared dress like that in those days ­­–– and the kids liked him for it.”

From Honky Tonks to The Plaza

From the age of 14 on, Liberace was out making extra money for the family by playing in Milwaukee’s taverns and music halls under the name “Walter Buster Keys.”  His first regular job after graduating high school was in the Red Room bar of the Plankinton Arcade (where the pay was $35 a week) but his break through moment came in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 1939.

Liberace was playing his usual assortment of classical pieces when, in a moment of silence, a voice in the crowd called out for a song titled Three Little Fishes by the Kay Kyser Orchestra. Liberace was happy to oblige, and then he took it one step further. He performed it as Chopin would, then Mozart, then Beethoven, then John Phillip Sousa. An AP reporter in the crowd sent out a article with the headline “Three Little Fishes Swim in a Sea of Classics” and Liberace realized, in the blending of pop and classic, he had found his métier.

Liberace’s classical repertoire was considerable. In 1940, his music teacher arranged for Liberace to play with the Chicago Symphony when it visited the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. But Liberace was still a young man and even a Chicago symphony appearance wasn’t enough to keep him in Milwaukee. He struck out for New York. His first gig was playing back-up in an orchestra at the Plaza Hotel. Professionally, the opportunity to move up never came around. But in his private life, Liberace was getting recognized for his bon vivant appearances at private parties. Among those attending were old friends Phyllis Diller, Debbie Reynolds and Milton Berle who convinced Liberace to move to Los Angeles where the parties never ended.

Mr. Showmanship

There’s more to this story, much more: six Gold records, two Emmys, two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 60 million records sold, a slew of sold out concerts worldwide, and a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest paid musician and pianist in the world. No wonder fans called him “Mr. Showmanship” and the Riviera Hotel gave him $2 million in 1955 for a 26-week season in Las Vegas.

The HBO special on Sunday picks up Liberace’s life well after he’d left Milwaukee. It starts with his introduction to Scott Thorsen in 1977 through 1982 when Thorsen filed a palimony suit against him. (Liberace would die five years later in 1987 of complications from HIV.) It airs at a time when attitudes toward homosexuality are rapidly shifting. The sly and knowing irony threaded through the program are easy to laugh at now, but tolerance wasn’t so easy or obvious back when the real events were taking place.

What strikes me as remarkable in all the things I’ve read about Liberace is how magnanimous he was in the face of some pretty cruel gay bating. He knew who he was and what he wanted out of life. His working colleagues found him considerate and unpretentious, but the critics weren’t so kind. The closer he got to the flame of fame, the more they the critics stretched their authority to question his sexuality. But suffering the taunts he received from people who didn’t understand him only made him stronger. And the bullying he encountered early in life gave him the fortitude to believe all that much more in himself as he got older.

And that’s what growing up in Wisconsin is all about: learning who you are in a state where everyone is different.

“Don’t be misled by this flamboyant exterior,” he once said. “Underneath I remain the same – a simple boy from Milwaukee.” So thank you HBO for giving us a chance to celebrate one of Milwaukee’s favorite son.

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