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Remembering The Candelabra: 100 years of Liberace (aired 2019)

Editor's note: This originally aired in May 2019.

May 16 marks the 100th birthday of Liberace, the flamboyant entertainer whose shows on the Strip were almost as legendary as the man himself. 

The virtuoso pianist not only adapted classical music for a pop music world, he redefined showmanship with his flashy presentation, onstage gimmicks, and engaging banter.  

But there was more to Liberace -- a lot more.  

His offstage personality was far more reserved than the one onstage. He was deeply religious. And he hid his homosexuality from everyone -- everyone except those who saw him in local gay bars.  

Dennis McBride, the director of Nevada State Museum, says everyone in the local gay community knew that Liberace was gay. But the performer publicly denied his sexuality until the day he died from complications from AIDS.

McBride recalls seeing Liberace around town with a much less flamboyant air.

"He didn't even dress as extravagantly offstage as he did onstage," McBride recalls. "He was just a regular kind of guy."

McBride added the stage show was just that -- a show. But in his offstage life, Liberace politically conservative and religiously devoted. 

The museum director remembers seeing the famous performer at the grocery store one night. "This is the guy who is wearing how many thousands of dollars worth of jewels and furs onstage, whose really just a guy now pushing a shopping cart around the produce department in this grocery store in Las Vegas," McBride said.

But that kind of everyman underneath the glitter is what made him accessible to the audience, McBride said.

"He made a very personal and warm connection with is audiences," he said. "In spite of the glamour, he was just an ordinary guy up there, talking to the audiences, bringing them into the show with him." 

McBride said the crowds loved his over-the-top persona.

"The more popular he became, the more outrageous and extravagant his productions became," he said.

And McBride notes Las Vegas was the place where Liberace's career really took off. Liberace opened the Riviera and was the highest paid entertainer in the country, making $50,000 a week in 1955.

Now, years after his death, McBride wonders if Liberace's stage presence was the only way he could show who he really was. "I've often wondered if all of the obviously camp stuff that he did in his shows wasn't some subliminal way of him expressing himself as a gay man in a context during a time when he could not do that openly and knowledgeably."

Despite Liberace's storied career, McBride is unsure of just how much influence he has today. He noted that in today's Las Vegas, a performer like him wouldn't be in a major showroom. His museum, as well as the Liberace Plaza, are now closed. 

His musical output certainly means a lot to Philip Fortenberry and Spencer Baker, local pianists who are co-headlining a Liberace tribute show on  May 11 at Windmill Library.  

"Liberace was such a showman," Fortenberry noted. "So much of what he did was about the show. He was a pianist first and foremost, and so having a technical facility was always important. That was readily apparent in all of his playing, but he adopted a very showy style because he was a businessman. He was a marketing genius. He knew what he could sell." 

Fortenberry actually served as Michael Douglas' hand double for the piano in the 2013 HBO film "Behind the Candelabra," starring Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his young lover. 

For Spencer Baker, Liberace was more than just an amazing pianist and performer -- he helped Baker get through school. The Liberace Foundation has funded hundreds of music scholarships at UNLV.

"This is an ongoing legacy," Baker said. "The money has been used to the tune of over $6 million over the past 30 years, and over 2,700 music scholarships."

And, perhaps more importantly, beyond the flashy costumes and music scholarships, Liberace brought classical music to the masses, Fortenberry said.

"Liberace's musical legacy was simply the fact that he was able to bridge the gap between classical and popular music," he said. "He brought music that was classical to the masses. He demystified classical music for so many."

Guests: Dennis McBride, director, Nevada State Museum; Philip Fortenberry, pianist; Spencer Baker, pianist and conductor

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Mike has been a producer for State of Nevada since 2019. He produces — and occasionally hosts — segments covering entertainment, gaming & tourism, sports, health, Nevada’s marijuana industry, and other areas of Nevada life.