When I first saw the video from Liberace’s 1978 concert at the Las Vegas Hilton, I was blown away and forever hooked. His mirror-clad, silver Phantom V (Five) Rolls Royce limo is driven onto the stage and, after his chauffeur opens the rear door, Liberace emerges wrapped in a white fox fur coat with a 16-foot train, over a glimmering rhinestone and sequin-studded costume, and rings the size of June bugs. Now that’s an entrance.
I’m Jake Shears, and when I was dreaming up costumes and stage designs for Scissor Sisters, the outrageous, over-the-top looks of Liberace paved the way on a glittery path. His showmanship inspired other performers like Elton John, Lady Gaga and Cher to wow audiences with wild wardrobes, eye-popping glitz, and grandeur. Would Gaga have entered the Grammy’s encased in an egg if decades earlier Liberace hadn’t started his Easter show at Radio City Music Hall by springing from a gigantic Easter egg?
And count me in as number 3. And I actually jumped out of an egg myself at an early Scissor Sisters TV performance many years ago, so eggs all around! I’ll never forget when I went into the Liberace museum in Las Vegas when it was still up and they had the largest rhinestone in the entire world in a glass case, and I’ve never been the same since.
But Liberace was far more than a showman with crazy costumes and gimmicks. He was a very accomplished piano player as comfortable with classical compositions as he was with the popular music of his era. Although critics often scoffed at his playing, he responded, in his words by “laughing all the way to the bank.”
He commanded the stage in Las Vegas for two decades, toured internationally, and starred in his own television variety show, which lasted four years and had 35 million viewers at the height of its popularity. It has been reported that during his hey-day in the 1950s to the 1970s, Liberace was the highest paid entertainer in the entire world. He won two Emmy Awards and six of his albums went gold.
Although he never came out publicly as gay, “his closet had walls of glass,” as the head of his foundation is fond of saying. Anyone who didn’t know this man was gay had willful blindness. Yet he sued a British magazine for libel in 1956 when it clearly implied he was gay. He managed to win that lawsuit and later settled another one with a US magazine that suggested his theme song should be “Mad About the Boy.”
In 1982, Liberace’s 22-year old former bodyguard and chauffeur, Scott Thorson, sued him for support, claiming they had been lovers and lived together for five years. The case settled out of court and Thorson wrote a tell-all book about their life together in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
When Liberace died in 1987, his doctor reported the cause of death as a heart attack, but a coroner’s report showed that he died from AIDS-related pneumonia. Two of Liberace’s alleged former lovers also died of AIDS.