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How Liberace left his mark on Las Vegas

AP Photo
Liberace's "Piano Roll Blues" rolled out the carpet at the premier of Las Vegas' new sky-scraper Hotel Riviera on April 21, 1955.

May 16 marks the centennial of the birth of Liberace. He was called Mr. Showmanship. He may have invented the term … or maybe the term was invented for him.

He was born in West Allis, Wisconsin, in 1919, to Polish and Italian immigrants. His father encouraged him and his siblings to pursue music. Liberace began playing the piano at age four. At age eight, he met his idol, the Polish pianist Paderewski. As a teen, Liberace helped his family during the Depression by tickling the ivories everywhere from local radio shows to strip clubs.

By age 20, he performed with the Chicago Symphony, then began touring the Midwest. But as he played classical music, he quickly realized a couple of things. One was that he loved playing all kinds of music. Also, by being more entertaining, more of a showman, he would make more money and reach more audiences. Accordingly, he dropped the use of his Americanized first name, Walter, using only his last name … an unusual step in show business in that era, and an attention-getter. To attract and maintain audiences, he added a candelabra and wore white tie and tails, then turned to costumes and custom pianos. As he put it, I don’t give concerts. I put on a show. He certainly didn’t enjoy it when critics belittled his piano playing, but he began to say that he cried all the way to the bank until he finally said, I don’t cry all the way to the bank any more. I BOUGHT the bank.

Television helped him buy it. In the 1950s, he had his own wildly popular show, and he would make guest appearances on other stars’ programs. These shows contributed to his album sales, including six gold records. They also inspired parodies, some of them affectionate. His success also brought him some unwanted attention: an English reviewer all but openly called him gay after a 1956 performance. Liberace sued the newspaper for libel, testified that he was not gay, and won the trial. Other publications claimed that he was gay, but he always denied it.

His career wasn’t always wildly successful—he never achieved the movie popularity he hoped for, and he had some ups and downs. But he survived. As late as the late 1970s, when he was sixty, CBS filmed his show at the Las Vegas Hilton and aired them as specials.

Indeed, Las Vegas was his spiritual and, for some years, actual home. He first appeared here in 1944 at the Hotel Last Frontier. There, supposedly, one day an unassuming man wandered into a rehearsal and Liberace directed him to have a spotlight moved; his assistant for the moment turned out to be Howard Hughes. Liberace didn’t quite achieve Hughes’s financial status. But in 1955, he set a new standard: the Riviera paid him 50 thousand dollars a week to open the resort. Early the next year, he was filmed playing the guitar of a young singer playing down the Strip from him … Elvis Presley, who sat at Liberace’s piano. Later, Liberace would earn more than a quarter of a million a week playing the Hilton, where Elvis later starred. There was another connection: when the Hilton opened in 1969 as the International, the first showroom star was Barbra Streisand, whose career Liberace boosted by hiring her as his opening act. But there’s more to the story of Liberace and his ties to Las Vegas. We’ll talk about that next time.