Liberace: The Evangelist of Kitsch

Liberace: The Show, the Book, the Legend

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Finally it was impossible to make fun of Liberace because he was having too much fun making fun of himself. He was in on the joke; he may have created it. In doing so he exploited the show-biz principle that nothing succeeds like wretched excess. And soon members of the rock glitterati from Little Richard to Elton John, Alice Cooper to Patti LaBelle, were raiding the wardrobes Liberace had stocked. He gave audiences what they never knew they wanted: a polyester blend of classics and crass, of Van Cliburn and Van Halen. Oh, yes -- and their money's worth of high dazzle.

Every appearance and artifact now buttress the Liberace pseudo story. The anecdotes in his new book are buffed beyond belief; there is nothing, for example, about the 1982 palimony action brought against Lee by his former companion-chauffeur-bodyguard, which was dismissed in 1984. He does reveal that 50 years ago he lost his virginity to a chanteuse at Milwaukee's Club Madrid named Miss Bea Haven ("Say it fast," Lee advises). He tells of a night "when I was very near death" in a Roman Catholic hospital and "a very young and lovely nun, wearing a white habit," visited him and sped him toward recovery; the mother superior later told him, "There are no nuns in this hospital who wear white habits." The rest of the book is less miraculous: lists of his favorite stars and soap operas, reminiscences of Elvis Presley and Ronald Reagan from the '50s, and the recipe for Liberace's Sticky Buns (feeds 18). It is a tell-nothing autobiography, but, as Lee jokes to his Music Hall devotees, "I figured I'd better write it before Kitty Kelley did."

They lap it all up, these ladies of a certain age and young gentlemen of a certain persuasion. They laugh when, as he sits down on his studded coattails, he says, "No kiddin', if the rhinestones are turned the wrong way it'll kill ya." They give Lee's new "friend, valet and chauffeur" three separate ovations. They sing along to Let Me Call You Sweetheart and You Made Me Love You. They cheer when he summons a woman from the audience to dance onstage with him. His duet with the mechanized Dancing Waters earns aahhs. And at the end, when he comes to the stage apron to shake hands with the audience, his elderly fans rush down the aisles with a fervor not seen since the last stampede at the Social Security office. This evangelist of kitsch takes one more bow, waves and vanishes. Friends, that's entertainment.

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