Liberace! They called him Mr. Showmanship, today they call him "The Original King of Bling"!
Back in 1981 was when I first met Liberace.We enjoyed a warm and close friendship. I spent time with this legendary icon of American entertainment right up until his death at an early age in February of 1987. To me he was a friend, mentor, coach and above all, an example of professionalism, kindness and decency for me to follow for years to come. As next door neighbors in Palm Springs, California (actually for a number of years I leased a guest house on his estate, thus,"next-door" neighbors) we found we had a great deal in common. I learned a lot from him about music, performance, audiences and about kindness. He was very generous with his advice and guidance. Not just with me, but with many people in his life!
While to me he was first and foremost my trusted friend and neighbor, I was of course aware of his celebrity. He was a legend, an icon, and a "national treasure" in so many ways. Yet around the grounds of his property and around the village of Palm Springs he was really just an average guy. He was without exception, always a complete gentleman to me. Never once was there ever anything inappropriate said or done. No monkey business. Just a great guy and a most cherished friend! He defined class and kindness. He really did. One-of-a kind and one in a million he was!
It was thru mutual friends in Palm Springs, California where I lived that I first met Lee (we called him "Lee") and his then companion, Scott Thorson. We became quick friends and we attended many of the same functions, as well as dinner parties at his magnificent 1920's Spanish Colonial estate in Palm Springs he called "The Cloisters". And so, after several months of always being invited there at "The Cloisters" for one event or another it was suggested that I should really consider moving onto the property, occupying a part of the residence that was once his mother's cottage. Eventually, and a year or so later, I agreed, but insisted on paying rent. A lease was prepared by Liberace associates, Ken Fosler and Vince Fronza, and in March of 1982, I was living in a lavish guesthouse there at "The Cloisters" complete with its own private pool. (Lee even decorated the cottage personally for me). What an incredible experience for a young pianist to have! To this day I consider my years at "The Cloisters" to be among my very happiest ever. So many warm memories. Such a blessing.
His friend and companion, Scott Thorson, was at the time quite a different man than he appears to be today. Lets put it this way: it was not Scott's best period. He had fallen into apparent drug use and his behavior had become erratic and quite unruly. This devastated Lee to no end. Lee was frustrated for sure, but felt helpless in the situation. Then, when things reached a boiling point Lee had his manager, Seymour Heller, oversee Scott vacating his properties. It was not pretty. I was at the Palm Springs house with Lee and a friend of his, Jamie Wyatt, in March of 1982, as that scene was playing out high-atop the Los Angeles/Hollywood penthouse. I can testify as to Lee's deep sadness over the matter (a sadness he took with him to his grave years later). Scott went on to sue Lee in court. Unsuccessfully I might add.
Jamie Wyatt (later known for some reason as Carey James) was a true, dyed-in-the-wool opportunist of the first degree, if we ever saw one. It was amazing! Gold-digger is a nice word for him. At least he would admit to it privately. What he didn't admit to (at least in front of Lee) was the fact that he was actually having an on-going affair with the maid, a long-time female employee whom Lee thought he could trust.Oh, the betrayal! They both went on to quietly take huge sums from Lee. I witnessed it personally. I was disgusted and they both knew it!
With young performers from all walks of life, Lee always took a genuine interest and was generous with his praise and advice. With family and close friends (some that even callously referred to him as "the Golden Goose") he was perhaps generous to a fault. Yes, he was a soft touch when it came to money and unfortunately, was taken advantage of, even ripped off, much too often. Oh, the stories I could tell, hmmm...! Yikes, indeed!
Lee was a good and kind soul who only saw the very best in people, but unfortunately, never the bad. He was endlessly optimistic and upbeat. He was by far the funniest man you could ever meet, believe me! Such a sharp and endless wit! This was a VERY funny man. On every occasion he was certainly the life of the party. Never feminine, always masculine. I believe he loved being a celebrity and loved being rich. He played both of these attributes to the fullest and got the very most out of each and every day thru-out his lifetime.
Surprisingly, he was never as flamboyant or outrageous in real life as he was on stage. He really was a regular guy, quite conservative even, or at least as regular or conservative of a guy as "Liberace" could be. He was an amazing cook and even published a successful cook book! I still use many of his great recipes to this day.
Liberace loved dogs! All kinds! I know for a fact that even he lost count of just how many of his "little angels" he actually had at each of his homes (at one time he had 26 dogs!).
Lee celebrated all the artistic things that life and this beautiful world have to offer. Exotic automobiles were a passion for him, rare important jewelry and historic palatial estates of all kinds decorated in "spare-no-expense" lavish detail were passions of his as well. Nobody could live quite like Liberace could. This man had style!
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Lee developed a profound musical talent at a very early age. After enjoying several years as a successful and much sought-after concert artist all across the nation he told me his first major break came in the early 1950's during the infancy of the new medium of television. It was then that television producer and pioneer, Don Fedderson and his wife, Tido Minor, caught his act at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California. After vacationing at the hotel for a few days of golf they were all set to drive back to L.A., but due to sudden heavy fog and rain they were forced to stay one more night there at the hotel. They wondered what there was to do that evening. They decided to catch the show at the hotel as they'd heard the pianist was outstanding. It was an unknown: Liberace!
Don and Tido were spellbound by the performance and Tido excitedly pressed her husband to consider Liberace for a show of his very own on this yet-to-be-established medium of television. Believe me, Tido really persisted until her husband finally agreed (I came to know Tido very well in the 1980's and both she and Lee would regale me for hours with stories about those early days!). Lee never forgot what she did for him and he literally spent his lifetime showering her with furs, gifts and a loyal loving friendship. He adored her to no end.
When Don Fedderson put Liberace on the air in 1951, history was made both for Liberace and for television itself! Lee's mega-hit TV show went on to receive TWO Emmy Awards and was watched by more people than even "I Love Lucy"! Many new and daring innovations were created back then by Liberace himself and by his superb team. Innovations that we take for granted today. Lee was very much a forward thinking person!
Liberace's television program quickly took the nation by storm and made a household-name and an instant super-star of Liberace. He propelled this popularity into an amazingly popular and profitable concert and stage show career in Las Vegas, throughout the nation, and throughout the world. Liberace continued to break attendance records where ever he appeared, right up to the very end! Attendance records that stand even today.
His lavish and "over-the-top" trademark costumes where a staple of his concert shows. He said to me that these bejeweled outfits were really an expensive joke that got way out of hand (upwards of $400,000 each!). He told me that he would have perhaps preferred not to have to be so outrageous in his costuming, but that his public loved it and demanded it. He was right! Liberace was the first entertainment star to break away from the obligatory black tuxedo and use costumes. He set a major trend in show business that thrives on today. From Hip Hop and Rap performers to Elvis Presley. From Michael Jackson to Elton John. From Cher's now-trademark costumes, to Madonna and Britney Spear's dazzling stage shows, and to literally everyone else who performs on a stage. They all owe a major debt to Liberace, the original "King of Bling", for starting a trend that would serve each of their careers very, very well indeed.
I had been performing with my own band at resort hotels in Palm Springs and thru-out the west coast for sometime when I first met Lee. He would bring people in to hear me wherever I was performing and he had many compliments and kind suggestions and pointers for me. In 1982, he suggested that we establish a schedule of piano coaching sessions. I eagerly agreed and we spent the next five years turning me from a pop/rock musician into a credible feature grand pianist. Believe me, this was most difficult and exhausting work, as Liberace had the very highest of standards in music. For me, these lessons were consistently intimidating and scary.
Lee graciously gave of his time to sit at the white antique Steinway grand piano in his living room (and occasionally at the grand piano in my own cottage there on the grounds of his estate), and instruct me on proper piano technique, music theory, music history, creating proper arrangements of songs, audience approach/technique, and the optimum phrasing of a melody line on the piano to gain a specific desired effect. Also, I learned from Lee the correct structure of a solo piano arrangement itself, as well as his trademark double and triple arpeggio's (which I quickly mastered), as well as how and when to "frame" a melody line. Yes it was grueling at times, and no it was not at all fun (the only part of those sessions that I actually ENJOYED were the excellent croissants that he had flown in from France!). Still I did learn fast, and yes I learned a lot.
In 1984, at the Hilton Hotel in Palm Springs, (where I was appearing) Liberace took to the stage at the end of my show and officially introduced me to the audience as his "latest and finest protege". The audience in attendance erupted in loud cheers and I was embarrassed at the tears that flowed down my face. Even while smiling broadly under the bright spotlights, there was nothing I could do to stop them. The Hilton audience took notice, stood and gave us BOTH a 10 minute standing ovation. A poignant moment in Palm Springs history for sure!
The next year he asked me to join him onstage at the Las Vegas Hilton where HE was appearing. We performed duets on twin grand piano's and again the audience went wild! We joked and kidded each other mercifully and the audience loved it! I then surprised him with an over-sized birthday cake that was wheeled onto the stage and we all sang "Happy Birthday" to him (he insisted on joining me at the piano to play that song... for himself!). A great finish to a great "piece of business" as they say.
Soon after that, Lee asked me to join him on tour. I very quickly thanked him, but I turned him down. I did NOT want to be like all the others in his life, that is to say: "on the payroll". Everyone in his life benefited financially from him. Everyone! I was absolutely hell-bent on NOT becoming one of them! His longtime manager Seymour Heller even telephoned me to talk me into it, but STILL I declined. Yes, I was a martyr. Do I regret that today, you ask? Absolutely, you bet I do!
There are a number of performers across America (three, of which I am one) that can justifiably use the banner "Liberace Protege". In fact, he had a number of Protege's in many area's of the performing arts. Most notably, one Eric Hamelin, who as Liberace's greatest Protege (in my own opinion) reined as Lee's chosen musical "heir-apparent" (it was he who accepted that earlier tour invitation by the way!) and was without a doubt, the finest pianist I've ever heard. What a talent, and such a nice guy too! Eric has a wonderful wife and children and is now prospering beautifully in the business field. I am so proud and thrilled for him, but I remain hopeful he will resume his career in music and so honor Lee's many efforts. Eric tells me he will do just that! Such an outstanding talent is Eric.
In 1985 while I was in Japan doing a film and then a subsequent television series, I received a call from Lee's representative saying that Lee was not doing well and was going to the Palm Springs house ("The Cloisters") for a rest. I flew back to California and immediately called the main house. We talked for a while and he said to me "I've had enough of this ill business... Let's go shopping! Can you come around to the front and pick me up?"
I drove my car right up to his front door and he greeted me looking so shockingly thin and weak I didn't know if we should really venture out or not, but it was what he insisted upon so off we went. He wore a full ankle-length black Sable coat (so Liberace, huh?) so it would not be as obvious to his fans just how thin he had become.
After arriving at the Palm Springs Mall a young girl, about 13 or 14, came up to him and excitedly told him how much she adored him and his music. She was just delightful. Then he uncharacteristically turned on her, chastising her for "disturbing" him while he shopped with his friend. This was so very far out of character for Lee, who was always the most gracious and accommodating star of all time, bar none. He just bolted on without giving the young fan the desired autograph. I remained there with her trying to explain and make excuses for Lee. She said she had seen on television that he had been ill. She asked me if he would be alright. I assured her he would and thanked her for her sweet concern for Lee.
Days later I returned to Japan and the demands of my own work while Lee went on to New York City for his history-making concert appearances at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall. They would prove to be his greatest professional achievements... and his last.
To near the very end of his life, Lee kept Scott Thorson in his will. I know this first hand. Lee even said he had made a gesture of friendship (gifts, telephone calls, etc.) towards Scott just prior to his (Lee's) passing. You know, a great deal of terrible things have been said about Scott over the years, but I have to say for the record, like it or not dear reader: Scott Thorson was right about some things. I have, however, heard him say a few things about his association with Lee that were clearly untrue. Having only met him in 1981, and in recent years seeing him only in interviews, I can say with confidence that Lee would be very pleased and proud to see how Scott is cleaning up his life today. No question about it.
In January 1987, while back in Japan and by now enjoying a career there as a gold record winning recording artist and television star (an accomplishment of mine that Lee was so thrilled about that it frequently brought him to tears) I received a late night call from my family telling me that Lee was now failing fast. I immediately telephoned his Palm Springs house and was told in further detail of his serious condition. He had advanced Emphysema. Once again, I got the very first flight from Osaka, Japan to Palm Springs, California and drove directly to his beloved estate "The Cloisters".
I arrived on February 1st to find the once serene and peaceful estate now full of people. Unfamiliar people. Noisy people. There was such a crowd of his "closest friends" that it almost seemed like a party! An oddly inappropriate party. It really did seem odd to me, and I hated it. By this time, the worlds media had begun to cover the vigil at the house at 501 North Belardo Road and the rapidly growing crowd of loyal fans gathering on the street in front. There were over 500 people at any given moment, day and night, holding a candlelight vigil for Lee. What a sight it was!
Inside, while much of the house seemed oddly busy and active, the Family Room where Lee lay relaxed and at-ease on the sofa remained quiet and still ,except for the occasional barking and playing from his much loved dogs. Eric Hamelin and his family were at the house (my first introduction to Eric); Joel R. Strote, Lee's devoted and trusted longtime personal attorney (and executor of his estate) was there, as was our friend, Tido Minor. I was really blessed to have some unforgettable private moments with my cherished friend, and his last words to me (likely the last words he ever spoke) were poignant and tearful. I try hard not to relive those moments these days as it's so deeply painful for me. Even just writing this right now, it feels like yesterday to me. Hey he was the true-est, best-est friend I ever had! ....You understand.
On February 2nd I noticed on his desk some short handwritten notes he had begun to compose, speaking from the heart to his fans. I was asked to deliver those words to his public and I did. When I stepped out of his front door and onto the circular driveway a mass of eager media approached. I gave interviews to the Gannett News Service and also to network media. I spoke of the many great accomplishments he had achieved in his career, and of his love and appreciation for his beloved fans over the years. National and local California television networks ran that interview for TWO DAYS until it was announced in the late afternoon of February 4, 1987 that this entertainment pioneer, this much beloved show business icon, this "Mr. Showmanship", this true and irreplaceable pal of mine: Liberace, had died (in fact, he actually died much earlier that day at 10:30 that morning). He had died of Emphysema. Did he have HIV/AIDS? Yes, but that is not solely what killed him. He died of Emphysema, with complications from heart disease, and THAT is the truth!
Now, many years later, I continue to benefit greatly from all Lee so generously taught me, and from our rare and privileged friendship. Honestly, not a performance of mine goes by, anywhere in the world, that I don't think of Lee, of his musical instruction to me, his strongly held belief in God, and of the fine example of kindness, decency and professionalism he set for myself and others like me to follow. His many close friends and I feel deeply the loss of such a valued and much, much too brief friendship.
Since Lee's passing, both of Lee's brothers, his sister Angie, his manager Seymour Heller, and his beloved Tido Minor... are all gone.
One of Liberace's legacy is the charitable not-for-profit Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts (funded by provisions in the Liberace Revocable Trust) and has continued to thrive under the superb leadership of Mr. Joel R. Strote, Lee's long-time personal attorney. Mr. Strote also served as the trustee of the Liberace Revocable Trust (Lee's estate) and today he continues to enjoy a very successful and much respected law practice in California. I'm most honored to have his generous endorsement of my work.
Although in the future there will be no doubt be many fine and talented individuals who will lead The Liberace Foundation and the Liberace Museum (such as the brilliant Mr. R. Darin Hollingsworth, its current Executive Director) it will always be their first CEO, personally selected by Liberace himself, Mr. Joel R. Strote, and to whom tip my hat for his many decades of devotion to Lee's legacy.
The Liberace Museum (operated by The Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, and overseen by the talented Mr. R. Darin Hollingsworth, Executive Director) ranks today as the #1 most visited attraction in the entire state of Nevada and I am very proud to be a loyal financial supporter and a long standing member of this fine organization.
I'm most honored to have received the formal endorsement of The Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts and the Liberace Museum, a rare and special privilege of which I am most grateful.
The Liberace Foundation For The Performing And Creative Arts, The Liberace Museum and the terrific Museum Store & Cafe can be accessed by visiting www.liberace.org. It's a great website!
As you can probably well imagine this was not a very easy page for me to write. So many memories of a great and valued friend that is now gone. Looking back it is that unparalleled friendship with Lee that has defined my lifetime and my very personality.
Recently I was approached to write a book. I'm now in the process of doing just that. In it I will finally tell all, not only about Liberace but also secrets about me, Sinatra, and The Presidents: my lifetime.
Thank you so very much for remembering Liberace, and for your wonderfully kind interest in him. He truly was one in a million!
(Please note: Liberace is a registered trademark of the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts. Any commercial use of Liberace's name, voice, signature, photograph and likeness is subject to approval by the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts).
- Steve Garey, Las Vegas, Nevada