How did this happen? A history of "a la Liberace!" in two acts
Have you seen "The Muppet Movie?" I'm talking about the 1979 film where Kermit decides to make it big and discovers all of his Muppet friends along the way. That's the kind of story I'm about to tell you. Before Liberace had ever entered my mind there were "The Birthday Shows." Every January I created, hosted, and played piano in my own variety shows that happened to land around my birthday. (January 22nd, and this year I just want money.) Each year was a different show with different acts: ballet dancers, classical musicians, puppets, opera singers, etc. I was a sort of Dean Martin who held the shows together by hosting and playing piano for each act. These performances were sell-outs and garnered quite a following. But the 4th year birthday show... that was the one that turned my life sideways.
I wanted that 4th show to be something different. It needed a new direction and it had to possess something that the audience would never see coming. That "something" came in the form of Jillian Snow Harris. Now, I had seen Jillian perform as Liza Minnelli once at a talent show. To say that I was WOWED by her performance is an understatement. Watching Jillian was more comparable to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita witnessing "the splendor of a thousand suns." (Dramatic, isn't it?) Jillian had the physicality, vocals, and soul of Liza. One might ponder if there had been a previous deal with the devil. Whatever the case, I got in touch with Jillian and asked her to play Liza in the 4th Birthday Show. If you saw that one, you know she said, "yes."
My friend Sammuel Hawkins can do just about anything: play musical instruments, costume, build old microphones and speakers. And he does a damn fine Truman Capote impression. He and I were together one night taking in a jazz concert at Vie de Boheme when I asked him to play Capote in my 4th birthday show. He agreed. Great! Now I had a Liza and a Truman! But as that jazz concert continued, I started to think eccentric thoughts. Should I perform as myself or have a go at my own impersonation? Intermission came and I brought up my conundrum with Sammuel. It didn't take him long at all to say, "You should perform as Liberace! In fact, I could make your costume." Upon hearing this, I did not immediately witness 'a thousand suns' as Arjuna had. Who was Liberace? I only knew a little: He was one hell of a pianist who wore lots of rings and draped himself in heavy, elaborate outfits. But maybe that's all I needed to know, because the idea stuck with me and I thought, "Come hell or high water, that's what I'm going to do!"
Liberace for Beginners
Impersonations require 'the look.' But becoming Liberace was going to take everything I had ever learned: piano skills, comedy, improvisation, and guts. Thanks to Sammuel, the costume was already underway. I needed to work on Liberace from the inside-out.
YouTube. Yup, that's where we all go to see and hear whatever we want. I typed in 'Liberace' and there he was in Las Vegas, Monte Carlo, London, at home, on Johnny Carson and Oprah. Try it yourself! You won't be disappointed. It didn't take me long to discover some of his more iconic piano pieces, namely his "Chopsticks" and "Boogie Woogie." I have a good ear. It's something I take for granted. And that's how I started to learn his music - by ear. Listening, rewinding, listening, rewinding. The average person would have chucked their computer out the window after five minutes, but not me. I'm a go-getter, and like I said, "... come hell or high water." I also payed close attention to his onstage mannerisms and vocal cadence. He has a charming way of speaking to his audiences. He's the boy next door. He'd be over in a second if you needed cream and sugar. This resonated with me. I'm a small town Wisconsin boy. Turns out, so was Liberace.
Life was good! I was memorizing music, Jillian was perfecting her already-perfect act, and Sammuel was constructing a costume and rummaging through rings. Samm also provided me with my first candelabra. He owned several. (Did I mention that Samm can do anything?)
At this point my love affair with Liberace started to blossom. So much in fact that I bought his first autobiography, cleverly titled, "Liberace: An Autobiography." My intention for "The Birthday Show" was to perform as "Mr. Showmanship," the genius on stage, but I wanted to know more about him through his own words. His autobiography is a delightful read that spans his childhood through his 1950's television series, Las Vegas appearances, and international tours. There are photos of him with Shelley Winters, Dean Martin, Carol Channing, and Queen Elizabeth. And there's Chapter 9. ??? What could be so important about Chapter 9? Well, a certain individual is mentioned in that chapter who would later become Liberace's arranger and Music Director. A man who would spend the next 13 years of his life being involved in around 5,000 Liberace shows. A man who... happened to live in the same city as I.
Little did I know, luck was about to land on my Liberace doormat.