Panama Remembers Liberace
Back in the 50s, when most of you had yet to arrive from Tralfamador, there was a daily afternoon television show starring Liberace. It was fifteen minutes long, and came on just after the afternoon soap operas and game shows, and just before Dad came home from work.
It's hard for you to comprehend, I know, but there was a time in America when most moms stayed in the house while Dad brought home the bacon. That is, there was once a glorious time in America when one salary could support a whole household. So that there were a lot of moms watching the afternoon shows while cooking, cleaning and the other things that moms did back then. Not that they don't do this stuff now, bless them, for they still do, but back then they didn't have to work for 75% of the money that men make for doing the same jobs. But I digress into socialism, feminism, and the disappearance of the American middle class, and we're not here for that, either...
Liberace's afternoon shows were not carried on any network. Rather, they were syndicated to scores of local television stations by Liberace's team of agents and publicists. Financially this worked out well for Liberace, because he was earning for himself what the stations would have had to split with the networks for carrying the networks' commercial-laden national programming. It worked out well for the stations, too, because they could cram some local advertising into the time slot and, except for what they had to pay Liberace, keep a whopping amount of this money for themselves.
Liberace was, for a time, the highest-paid entertainer in the world, selling out Madison Square Garden for a single performance which netted him $138,000 in 1954 dollars or about $1,200,000 today.
I can't talk about the Liberace television shows without talking about the Fifties in America. Liberace and the Fifties and America's housewives are seamlessly joined together in my memory. So you'll please forgive me. I used to watch Liberace's daily afternoon shows with the same ardor I lavished on The Lone Ranger or Sky King on Saturday mornings. I was a fan. Well, not a fan, exactly, but even as a tad the young Panama was fascinated by pop culture. And Liberace popped. He was so far out there back in the Fifties that seeing his show was an open-mouthed event. Or something. He was fascinating is what I'm trying to say.
The other night I was talking to my wife about Liberace. Fortunately we are of a similar age and recall much of the same cultural phenomena. We will sometimes talk about the
summer (1957) that everybody was wearing pink and charcoal color combinations. Or the craze for madras that followed that. So that she is often a very effective sounding board for my unending (and unendurable she sometimes says) strokes of insight.
Today I want to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and talk about Liberace. I want to make one thing clear: Liberace was gay. I mean he flamed. Yet no one who watched his shows and there were millions of us, ever mentioned this.
“Why was this?” I asked Patty. “were people really that polite back then?”
“No. It wasn't being polite. It was taboo. Nobody talked about it because it didn't exist. There was no such thing as being queer, or faithless marriages, and being born out of wedlock was, as you know Panama, an incredibly shameful thing. Best not to mention these things. So nobody did.”
“Why was Liberace so popular with these Fifties moms?” I asked.
“Because he was gentle and polite and soft-spoken and pleasant. Always dressed very well, always smiling, never needed a shave, and didn't put you on the spot for sex and stuff like that. He loved you for who you truly were. He was every woman's special friend.” I thought about this for awhile, remembering Liberace's shows. It seems to me that Liberace was to the moms of the Fifties everything that perhaps their husbands and their husbands' friends were mostly not.
He had a rigorous education in classical piano, spanning decades. As a concert pianist there were truly few who were his equal. Yet he realized that there was a much greater chance of personal and financial success in performing popular music. Quite often in all his shows, whether televised or live, however, he would feature a classical piece. For many of us, including me, he was the initial conduit to the finer aspects of music, while his performances displayed a joy in his music and love for his audiences that was lacking in the acts of many of his contemporaries. He was a showman.
More than anyone else before or since, Liberace knew how to work television. He would look right into the camera, just as though the camera were a friend with whom he was spending a pleasant, small portion of an afternoon. And the effect was that he was looking right at YOU, and so happy to be there and especially to be in the company of such a special person as you. I mean the man was killer. Liberace would be playing along and singing and he would lean into the camera...you could see his flashing pearly teeth and his exquisite coiffed hair and his sparkling eyes, I mean it was like he was about two feet away from you. Yet he never violated your personal space.
And of course when the culture finally caught up with him and his type and he became merely camp, a stock figure in a very tasteless joke, I turned away from him, as did so many others, mostly I think to spare him. But there are still those of us who remember those wonderful afternoons in the Fifties, in a somehow better America when a smiling friendly wonderfully talented piano man would come onto our televisions and into our lives, and just for a little while, we would count, and we would be loved.
I'm not the only one who's been thinking about Liberace. Steven Soderbergh has directed a biopic of Liberace's relationship with his lover, toward the end of Liberace's life and career. Starring Michael Douglas(!) as Liberace and Matt Damon(!) as his paramour.
It'll be on HBO in February so they say. I can't wait.
Until then, I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you...