Christmas at Liberace's
By, Justin Ayars, JD
"You know what the golden rule is?" Liberace asked me with his nasal, high-pitched voice as I stared up at him as a young child in Las Vegas. "It's that everyone should be nice to each other," I said, with a level of certainty beyond my years. "No," he cackled waving his golden, diamond-studded rings in front of my eyes, knowing full well that my attention could not be diverted from my absolute favorite ring in his collection—the one shaped like a giant grand piano. "It's whoever has the gold makes the rules... and look who has all the gold!"
For the uninitiated (sadly, some people don’t know who Liberace was), Władzio Valentino Liberace (or “Lee” as his friends knew him) was born into a poor family outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1919. He began playing the piano at age 4. After playing in speakeasies during the Great Depression, Lee began performing in a sleepy little desert town called Las Vegas. His musical repertoire included a unique mix of classical, boogie-woogie, movie themes, cocktail jazz and sentimental ballads. He knew thousands of songs and could play almost any request on demand. As Vegas grew, so did Liberace’s fame. In the early 1950’s, Lee had his own variety show on television—a medium still in its infancy. In many respects, Liberace was the first TV star. His television program, coupled with his growing fame in Vegas, catapulted Lee into stardom. In 1955, Lee opened at the Riviera in Las Vegas making $50,000 per week ($439,723 in today’s dollars), thus becoming the city’s highest paid entertainer.
As Lee was beginning to make it big (really big), he also began to craft an image of himself that would come to redefine show business. In the 1950s, every concert pianist performed at a black grand piano wearing a traditional black tuxedo. Not afraid to break from tradition, in 1952 Lee walked out on stage at the Hollywood Bowl in white tails “so they could see me in the back row.” Returning to Vegas, he added a gold lamé jacket to his concert wardrobe. Lee recalled, “They crawled out of the woodwork when they saw it!” Soon, Elvis Presley was wearing a suit of gold lamé. “What started as a gag became a trademark,” Lee once said in an interview, "and trademarks are hard to come by in show business."
Over the years, his trademark grew to include outlandish entrances, including riding on stage atop a massive elephant or in a Rolls Royces covered in tiny mirrors resembling a disco ball. His wardrobe expanded to include some of the most elaborate and expensive costumes ever made and jewels that could put half of America through college. At least six times during each performance, Lee would leave the stage announcing that he was going "to go slip into something a little more spectacular." Each time he made another grand entrance in a new outfit, he'd invite a few women on stage to admire his furs and diamonds. "I'm glad you like it," he cracked, "you paid for it."
Lee regularly defied gravity by floating towards the theatre’s balcony in a hot air balloon and swooping over his adoring audiences on a flying harness. Soaring over a sold-out house during his debut at Radio City Music Hall in April of 1984, the rustle of his 135-pound, $300,000 Norwegian blue shadow fox cape, which included a 16-foot train studded with bands of Austrian rhinestones, was completely drowned out by the crowd’s “oos” and “ahs.” "Well, look me over," he said with a boyish grin. "I don't wear this to go unnoticed." The audience roared with delight, completely intoxicated by the gleeful absurdity of it all. “My costumes are a joke,” Lee told one reporter. “A $5 million joke. And people love it!”
Why did Lee feel the need to put on such a spectacle? “The public in today's world needs all the fantasy it can get,'' Liberace once said. ''That's why we have entertainment, to make people forget all the troubles of the world. I like to feel that I run the gamut of emotions in my shows. It isn't all spectacle and laughter; it's a combination with tears and pathos.'' Lee’s musical prowess, over-the-top costumes, novel stage 2 antics and ability to woo audiences across the globe made him the world’s highest paid performer in show business for over 40 years and earned him the title, “Mr. Showmanship.”
Not everyone enjoyed Liberace’s unorthodox musical repertoire and over-the-top showmanship. In 1956 a British tabloid called Liberace a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scentimpregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” The writer concluded that Liberace was “the biggest sentimental vomit of all time.” Lee famously responded to this harsh critique by saying, “I cried all the way to the bank.” He later amended his response: “Remember that bank I used to cry all the way to? Well… I bought it.”
Growing Up with Liberace
Mr. Showmanship was not just a cultural icon; he was a family friend and godfather figure to me and my brother. My father, a classical pianist, conductor, composer and musical arranger, had worked his way through the music and showbiz circuit from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. During this time, he worked with some of the biggest names in show business and even toured with Elvis Presley. In 1973, Liberace hired my dad as his conductor and musical director. For the next 13 years, my dad served as Lee’s musical right-hand man and an integral part of the most influential inner circle in the showbiz industry.
My mother, a Washington, D.C. insider, is a classical pianist who was trained by the protégé of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In the late 1970s, she attended a Liberace concert and was reluctantly dragged backstage where she met my dad. It was love at first sight. Within months, she moved to the West Coast and found herself thrust into the extravagant world of Liberace’s inner circle. After my parents were married in 1979, they moved into a house next to the 18th hole of the Hilton Hotel’s golf course in a gated community just one block off the Las Vegas strip. A few years later, on the day I was born, Liberace announced my birth on stage at the Las Vegas Hilton and the Las Vegas Sun newspaper welcomed me into the world as the newest member of the “Liberace Family.”
In the first half of the 1980s, our neighbors in Las Vegas were among the who’s who of show business, including Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis. Other stars, including Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Diahann Carol, Sammy Davis Jr., the Rockettes and many others, were figures in our lives over the years and sometimes guests at our home. My younger brother and I were the only children in this celebrity in-crowd. As we ran through the throngs of entertainers at various homes across town (including Lee’s), we were oblivious to the number of famous people we happened to trip over. Part of me regrets not being older during those years so that I could fully appreciate the grandeur of the era and my family’s place in the middle of it all.
Like many superstars, Lee guarded his privacy as fiercely as the Soviets patrolled the Berlin Wall. When not on stage, Lee could often be found sitting alone in the corner with a bottle of Smirnoff vodka and a glass of ice. He insisted that people within his cadre not take pictures of him when he was not on stage. That said, some of the photos in this article are extremely rare and I’m lucky that my mom managed to snap a few candid shots when she could.
Christmas with Liberace
Typically, Thanksgiving was the end of Lee’s performing season. My dad recalls, “Around Thanksgiving I would get word from Seymour Heller (Liberace’s manager) about what next year’s calendar would look like. After Lee and I said goodbye before Thanksgiving, we didn’t see much of each other until late January.” Lee would make occasional appearances at his restaurant, Tivoli Gardens, and sometimes attend smaller holiday parties. Generally, however, “he kept a low profile,” my dad explains.
One year, my parents hosted a big Christmas party for the neighborhood. Although Lee was no stranger to our house, my mom recounts that his appearance at this particular party was out of the ordinary because “it was mainly just plain, neighborhood people in attendance—doctors, lawyers, casino pit bosses, the bandleader from the Hilton (who was a mobster), rich retirees and a handful of celebrities, including Lola Falana—not the high show biz people he normally surrounded himself with. He stayed for a short while drinking his usual straight Smirnoff on the rocks. He’d been in show business so long that he didn’t get invited to normal neighborhood parties. He was clearly outside of his comfort zone.”
Although Lee “didn’t perform much during the holidays,” my mom recalls, “he did throw Christmas parties at his house.” For my mom, one Christmas party in particular stood out from all of the others.
In 1981, Lee hosted an intimate Christmas dinner for about 12 people at his house in Vegas. Guests included George and Dora Liberace (George was Lee’s brother and his wife, Dora, used to run the Liberace Foundation & Museum); Dominick Allen (a musician who regularly performed with Lee) and Kathy Lee (Dominick’s girlfriend at the time); Dominick’s parents; your father and me; a stripper named Suzy Midnight; and, two other women. Not to be rude, I wanted to present our host with a gift. When I went shopping before the party I thought, “What on earth do you get Liberace for Christmas!?!” I ended up buying a 3-foot tall ceramic white dog. I diligently wrapped it in magenta pink foil and placed it under Lee’s Christmas tree upon our arrival.
Unable to find a babysitter, we brought you with us, showed you around and then put you to sleep in a side bedroom where Liberace’s sister, Angie, stayed. After a lovely dinner, it was time to open gifts. Liberace instinctively moved to open the gift from me first. He loved the wrapping and simply adored the gift! Instead of “re-gifting” the present to someone else—a practice he turned into an art form—he gave it a permanent home in his front hallway! Lee, ever the gracious host, showered his female guests with particularly lovely gifts. Dora Liberace received a $5,000 gift card for Neiman Marcus. Kathy Lee received a gorgeous cocktail ring with huge emeralds. When it came time for Lee to present me with a gift, I was expecting something equally lavish. The room was filled with electric anticipation as Lee walked over to me and handed me a beautifully wrapped gift. As the wrapping paper and ribbon fell to the ground, the room went silent and a wry smile crept across Lee’s face. To my dismay, Lee had not given me an extravagant gift; rather, he gave me a doorbell that played 87 different tunes! I was not amused. Who gives someone a dumb doorbell?!? My stupefied dinner companions looked back and forth like spectators at a tennis match between me, as I held my new doorbell in disbelief, and Lee, who was sardonically smirking. I politely smiled and thanked him for the generous gift. The evening continued without further incidents… or doorbells.
I never installed the doorbell. It sat in its box for years collecting dust until I finally threw it away when we moved to Virginia. Anyway, after the party and despite my disappointment, I sent a note to Lee thanking him for a lovely evening and for the thoughtful gift. Some weeks later, Lee mentioned that he thought my thank you note was very sweet. In fact, he told me that I was the only person who had sent him a thank you letter. He also admitted that he liked the present I got him the best. Too bad I couldn’t say the same for that damned doorbell!
At this early point in their relationship, my mother believes that Lee was testing her resolve as the only non-show biz member of his inner circle. Although it took a few years for Lee to warm up to this East Coast “outsider,” my mother became one of the very few people that Lee actually opened up to emotionally. To this day, she remembers him very fondly and laughs about the infamous Christmas party of 1981.
Liberace was Mr. Showmanship. His impact on musical entertainment cannot be overstated. Performers today, ranging from Lady Gaga and Elton John to Madonna and Beyoncé, have been inspired by his talent and ability to connect with audiences. “Lee was totally at home on stage. It was where he felt the most comfortable,” my dad explains. “But,” he continues, “I tell people that if you take away the lifestyle and the bling, you still have a guy who was an incredibly talented musician. As a member of the Advisory Board for the Liberace Foundation, my goal is to help people remember this.” As a child, Lee would tell me, "Know your audience." Although I did not understand the universality of his words at the time, I have adopted this motto as my mantra. I consider myself very fortunate to have been a part of the “Liberace Family,” to have spent my early childhood in a world that very few people get to experience and, of course, to learn about the Golden Rule from Mr. Showmanship himself… as I played with his shiny rings.