13 Fabulous Facts About Liberace

Terry Disney/Getty Images
Terry Disney/Getty Images

Known as Mr. Showmanship, Wladziu Valentino Liberace made millions of dollars entertaining audiences with his flamboyant performances. Although his epic materialism is often most remembered, there’s a lot more to Lee—as his friends called him—than rhinestone costumes and his love of candelabra on pianos. In honor of what would have been his 100th birthday on May 16, here are 13 facts about the entertainer.

1. Liberace was a child prodigy.

If YouTube existed in the 1920s, videos of a young Liberace expertly playing the piano would definitely have gone viral. Born in Wisconsin on May 16, 1919, Liberace started playing the piano when he was just 3 years old, and began proper lessons soon after. He quickly learned to play by ear, replicating the songs his older siblings were playing. It became obvious that he was a prodigy, and by the time he was 7, his father—himself a professional musician who once toured with John Philip Sousa's concert band playing the French horn—enrolled him at the Wisconsin College of Music.

2. Walter Busterkeys was Liberace's teenage stage name.

As a teenager, Liberace played piano in clubs, movie theaters, symphonies, and classical music competitions around Wisconsin and the Midwest. Because his full name—Wladziu Valentino Liberace—wasn’t the most stage-friendly name, he performed using the name Walter Busterkeys. But around 1940, he decided to go mononymous—he told people that it was because his idol, the Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski, only went by his last name.

3. Despite Liberace's success, critics disparaged his piano playing abilities. 

Liberace described his songs as classical music without all the boring parts. Because he incorporated aspects of pop music into his classical piano playing, classical music purists didn’t like him. And because his shows relied heavily on showmanship and spectacle—gimmicks, costumes, and jokes—critics disparaged his talent as a pianist, arguing that he opted for easy piano trills and showy techniques rather than artistry.

4. Liberace popularized the phrase "laugh all the way to the bank." 

In 1954, Liberace wrote a letter to a critic who had written a scathing review of his show. He (sarcastically) thanked the reviewer and said that he and his brother “laughed all the way to the bank” after reading it. 

5. Liberace's house really did have a piano-shaped pool. 

Liberace sits at a grand piano
Keystone Features/Getty Images

Because he was raking in the dough, Liberace’s homes featured elaborate designs and ostentatious furniture. His Sherman Oaks, California home, which he lived in with his mother in the 1950s, was no exception. The whole house had a music theme—musical notes on the iron fence, musical staffs above the front door, and his famed piano-shaped swimming pool. The pool had black and white piano keys painted on the concrete, making it look like a giant grand piano.

6. Liberace played a pair of twins on Batman in the 1960s.  

After his variety television show (called The Liberace Show) aired, he appeared in two episodes of Batman in 1966. Liberace portrayed a concert pianist and his evil twin, making for some delightfully campy viewing.

7. Liberace was an early champion of Barbra Streisand. 

In 1963, Liberace invited a 21-year-old Barbra Streisand to be his opening act for a month of shows in Las Vegas. He was a big fan of hers, but when his audience didn't respond to her after her first two nights, Liberace took matters into his own hands. In a move that was mostly unheard-of for marquee acts, he went on stage each night before her set to introduce her. He warmed the audience to her, and when they realized the young songstress had been personally chosen by Liberace, they paid more attention. Soon, Streisand was winning rave reviews.

8. One of Liberace's costumes almost killed him.

During a Pittsburgh show in late 1963, Liberace was rushed to the emergency room after collapsing. His costume, which he had cleaned himself with carbon tetrachloride prior to the show, leached the chemical into his skin, and he had been breathing it all day in an unventilated room. “By the time I got through my first number,” Liberace later wrote in his autobiography, “everything began going in circles … I had never felt so terrible in my life. I rushed offstage.” Although doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of surviving—he even received his last rites—he managed to survive the health crisis.

9. For decades, Liberace denied being gay. 

Liberace sitting on the hood of a 1960s car
Central Press/Getty Images

Although Liberace was gay and promiscuous in his private life, he publicly denied being a friend of Dorothy. When a newspaper and tabloid published articles implying he was gay in the late 1950s, he sued them for libel and won. Even after his former lover Scott Thorson sued him for palimony, Liberace denied that he was gay. When he died in February 1987 at age 67, his spokesman announced that Liberace died due to congestive heart failure, but the county coroner’s autopsy proved that he died of AIDS-related pneumonia.

10. Betty White was Liberace's close friend.

In 2011, Betty White revealed to CNN that when they were starting their careers, sometimes the television producer whom they were both working with would have Liberace escort her to events (which many have interpreted as White acting as a beard for the closeted Liberace). White recalled an incident when he accompanied her to a movie premiere one windy night, and instead of reaching his hand out to help her get out of the car, Liberace was focused on keeping his hair in place. She called him a sweetheart and a “great and dear personal friend.”

11. Liberace published a cookbook.

Liberace owned Tivoli Gardens, a restaurant in Las Vegas, and he turned his love of food into a successful cookbook. 1970’s Liberace Cooks! featured recipes for pierogi, squid casserole, braised oxtails, and even calves’ brains in black butter.

12. His first (and only) starring film role was a massive failure. 

Sincerely Yours was a 1955 film starring Liberace as a successful concert pianist who goes deaf. But the movie, distributed by Warner Brothers, was a huge flop. It was so bad that at the 1982 Academy Awards, Liberace joked that “I’ve done my part for motion pictures—I’ve stopped making them.”

13. He invented a disappearing toilet.

Liberace designed a retracting toilet that folded into the wall of a bathroom. “There's just no reason why you should walk into a bathroom and see a toilet," he told Rolling Stone in 1981. "It's unglamorous.” Although he had a patent on the rotating toilet, it didn’t take off.

7 of the Best Double Features You Can Stream on Netflix Right Now

Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in Rocky (1976) and Liev Schreiber in Chuck (2016).
Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in Rocky (1976) and Liev Schreiber in Chuck (2016).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and IFC Films

For many of us, movie night can turn into a movie marathon. If you’re logged into Netflix and pondering what to watch, check out these double feature suggestions that each offer a perfect pairing of tone, topic, or an ideal double dose of Nicolas Cage.

1. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) // The Highwaymen (2019)

In Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway star as the famous outlaw couple who livened up Depression-era America with their string of bank robberies. More than 50 years later, The Highwaymen shifts the focus to the retired Texas Rangers (Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson) charged with bringing them down.

2. Rocky (1976) // Chuck (2016)

Sylvester Stallone's rousing story of underdog palooka Rocky Balboa pairs well with the biopic of the man who partially inspired Stallone's screenplay. Chuck details the boxing career of Chuck Wepner, a determined pugilist who was given virtually no chance against Muhammad Ali but wound up winning the respect of the crowd. Liev Schreiber stars.

3. Deliverance (1972) // The River Wild (1994)

Water-based getaways become cautionary tales: In Deliverance, Burt Reynolds delivers the performance that turned him into a movie star, a rough and rugged outdoorsman confronted by a group of sinister locals in the backwoods of Georgia. Things don’t get appreciably better in The River Wild, with Meryl Streep as a matriarch forced to navigate the rapids under the gun of criminal Kevin Bacon. Together, the two may have you rethinking your vacation plans.

4. All the President’s Men (1976) // Kill the Messenger (2014)

Newspaper reporting comes under fire in both of these films based on true stories. All the President's Men features Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters tasked with uncovering the Watergate conspiracy. Kill the Messenger stars Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb, the journalist who found a suspicious connection between drug smuggling and the CIA.

5. Carrie (1976) // Gerald’s Game (2017)

After a bad stretch of mediocre adaptations, Stephen King’s work has been seeing an onscreen renaissance. Check out two of the best: Carrie, which stars Sissy Spacek as a telekinetic teen with an overbearing mother and an awkward social life; and Gerald’s Game, which casts Carla Gugino as a woman trapped in handcuffs amid supernatural activity.

6. National Treasure (2004) // The Trust (2016)

Fitting in the very narrow genre of “Nicolas Cage heist movies,” both National Treasure and The Trust are terrific on their own: A double feature contrasts Cage at his blockbuster best with his indie film shades of grey. As Benjamin Franklin Gates in National Treasure, he tries to run off with the Declaration of Independence. In The Trust, he and Elijah Wood are cops targeting a drug money stash. Fans of a more subdued—but still excellent—Cage should find a lot to like here.

7. Inglourious Basterds (2009) // The Imitation Game (2014)

Two very different tales of World War II oscillate from the cerebral to the Nazi-smashing. In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino offers a revisionist take on the men and women who resisted the Reich. In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch is real-life scientist Alan Turing, whose work with computers cracked a German code that helped end the war.

How Mister Rogers Used King Friday to Make Friday the 13th Less Scary for Kids

Getty Images
Getty Images

King Friday XIII, son of King Charming Thursday XII and Queen Cinderella Monday, is an avid arts lover, a talented whistler, and a former pole vaulter. He reigns over Calendarland with lots of pomp and poise, and he’s usually correct.

Fans of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood may also remember that the monarch was born on Friday the 13th, because his birthday was celebrated on the program every Friday the 13th. Though the math isn’t perfect—according to Timeanddate.com, Friday the 13th sometimes happens two or three times a year—the heartwarming reason behind the unconventionally-timed birthday celebrations absolutely is.

Fred Rogers explained that he wanted to give children a reason to look forward to Friday the 13th, instead of buying into the negative superstitions that surround the dreaded date. “We thought, ‘Let’s start children out thinking that Friday the 13th was a fun day,’” he said in a 1999 interview. “So we would celebrate his birthday every time a Friday the 13th came.”

Rogers added that the tradition worked out so well partially because the show was broadcast live, and viewers knew to anticipate an especially festive episode whenever they spotted a Friday the 13th on the calendar.

Speaking of calendars: There’s an equally charming story behind the name Calendarland. In the same interview, Rogers disclosed that King Friday once asked children to write in with suggestions for his then-nameless country. One boy posited that since King Friday was named after a calendar date, his realm should be named after the calendar. Then, the lucky youngster was invited to the set, where King Friday christened him a prince of Calendarland.

King Friday might be king of Calendarland, but Mister Rogers is definitely the king of understanding how to make kids feel safe, smart, and special.

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