Wednesday 9 September 2015

Liberace, Man of Letters

Was anyone in the 1950s indifferent about Liberace? Women gurgled over him. Men were disgusted by him. Columnists teed off of him in various levels of ridicule.

Liberace was around during World War Two—the ad to the right is from March 1945—and played nightclubs with some success before Don Fedderson of KLAC put him on prime time on January 19, 1952. KLAC’s billings jumped. Fedderson sold Liberace’s shows into syndication for $1,500,000 by year’s end, and the pianist became a national phenomenon.

John Crosby of the Herald Tribune syndicate was a respected columnist. But not to Liberace fans. Crosby had little time for the banal and didn’t mind telling his readers. And then he didn’t mind telling his readers about the avalanche of letters he received from Lee’s overly-ardent admirers (Liberace, in turn, cattily gave his feelings about Crosby’s reviews, both in public and on stage). Newspapers even commented about it in the editorial section. So did Crosby’s fill-in columnists.

Here’s the column that started it all. It appeared on February 13, 1954. Tony Wons, in case you’ve never heard of him, read poetry on the air in the 1930s.

Hard Round Pebbles
By John Crosby

Well, radio had Tony Wons and survived. I confidently predict that television will survive Liberace, too. These are just growing pains, kiddies. Sometimes, a man wonders, though, whether the women of this fair land are people or whether some other designation ought to be given them—say, plips—to distinguish them from the rest of us.
The things women go nuts over resist rational interpretation and way up on the head of the list—strenuously resisting any form of explanation—is Liberace. Still, there’s no arguing that the dames go for this guy. His audience is two-thirds female. (I don’t know how the one-third males got in there. Dragged, I expect. You notice it took two gals to drag each man in.)
If women vote for Liberace as a piano player—and they sure do—it raises grave questions about their competence to vote for anything. I’m not suggesting that we repeal the Nineteenth Amendment, exactly, just that maybe we think about it a little bit.
Liberace—his dimples, his flowing curls, his flashing teeth, and (only incidentally) his piano—are now on 134 television stations, delighting heaven knows how many elderly and teen-age plips and infuriating heaven knows how many men. The program opens with Liberace banging away on his piano in almost total darkness; then the lights come up gradually and there is Liberace, bathed in illumination like a minor revelation. If you think he can play the piano any better with the lights on than with them off, you’re kidding yourself, chum. He does just as well in the dark as he does in the daylight which is to say not very well.
The Liberace repertoire deserves special mention of its own. It isn’t true, as an embittered friend of mine once said, that Liberace just plays “Lady of Spain” over and over again in different keys. He has lots of other numbers, most of them “The Warsaw Concerto.” He plays them heavily with little theatrical flourishes and rills and usually ending with one finger scampering the length of the keyboard.
Bless my soul, if it didn’t bring back memories of a dear departed auntie of mine who played that way. Auntie had almost as much hair as Liberace but no dimples and she died, unfortunately, before television was invented. Auntie would have loved Liberace.
While he’s playing other dim figures float around him—a girl with a tambourine, or men with violins, or what have you. Liberace’s counterpoint to an electric guitar reminds me of a statement Joseph Conrad made about another piano player in “Victory” who, he said, rained notes like hard round pebbles on the defenseless skulls of the onlookers.
Once in awhile, Liberace raises his lungs—he has a voice like an unsuccessful contestant on the Amateur Hour—in song and on these occasions you are thankful that nobody has written words to “The Warsaw Concerto.” He does comedy numbers, too, horrible enough to drive Victor Borge right back to serious music and in these he is likely to do great violence to some of the finest music Wagner ever wrote by affixing silly lyrics to them.
Still, he’s on 134 television stations as millions of plips swoon from New York to Amarillo. Just after he faded back into the darkness singing that he’d be seeing me when the night is new (Like fudge he will!), I got out some of the records of Buddy Weed, a pianist who has more talent in his index finger than Liberace in all ten, and played them. They were wonderfully soothing.

In came the letters. A week later, Crosby was out with another column.

Fans Stand By Liberace

I don’t usually pay much attention to letters. The letter writers, it is my considered opinion, wield entirely too much influence in our fear-ridden society already. This is the age of letter-writing. Never before in recorded history have so many people leapt to their escritoires to pen a missive to someone they don’t know, expressing an opinion on the letter receiver’s act at the Palace or his yesterday’s column in The Daily Bladder or his appearance on the Milton Berle show.
The world, I’ve arbitrarily decided, is divided into two classes of people—those who write letters and those who receive them. If you have a column or a television show, you receive letters. If you haven’t, you write ‘em.
I’M A LETTER receiver and we letter receivers get to loathe mail, even the nice mail, simply because there’s so much of it. How do so many people have so much time? Every time Arthur Godfrey opens his mouth 30,000 letters pour in. Just think of the man-hours—or more probably woman-hours.
Of course, there is a good deal of polite lying about the amount of mail anyone receives. If an entertainer says he gets 10,000 letters a week, you may assume that on a good week, he gets maybe 2,000.
The letters fall into two categories. Category 1: You are a prince among men. Category 2: You are a louse. Both opinions are wildly exaggerated. The general idea of the game is to keep category 1 well ahead of category 2. This isn't hard. When I first started this column about eight years ago, I kept a count of the mail and it ran anywhere from 5 to 1 to 8 to 1 in my favor. I haven’t done that in some time, but I should guess that ratio hasn’t changed much.
That is, until I wrote a column about Liberace. Then the roof fell in. Brother, there hasn’t been vituperation like that since Cicero delivered the Philippics in the fifth century B.C. The nicer letters started out: “Drop dead.” The not-so-nice ones—well, never mind.
OUT IN INDIANA, The Indianapolis News printed the Liberace column on page 1 and then sat back to await the storm. It struck. The News switchboard was inundated with calls from infuriated women and the letters started arriving the next day. (“John Crosby is the most terrible writer I have ever read. He is rotten, disgusting.” That’s one of the more restrained letters.)
The Indianapolis ladies dug up the telephone number of a local resident who was unfortunate enough to be named John Crosby and his telephone rang through the night with calls from irate Liberace fans. (From the New York John Crosby to the Indianapolis John Crosby, a heartfelt apology.)
Last night The South Bend Tribune—the Indiana girls seem to be madder than the others, though they’re pretty mad even in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love—called long distance to say the tempest had engulfed them, too.
WHAT’S WITH these girls anyhow? It isn’t just the quantity of indignation (which is prodigious), but the intensity of it which bemuses me. You can't tell me that many women get that furious over a matter of disagreement as to the merits of a piano player, any piano player. (In that regard, I still think Liberace plays piano as if he were wearing boxing gloves. I could phone local 802 of the musicians’ union and dig up 100 piano players I’d rather listen to.)
YOU THINK MAYBE it’s the maternal instinct this man arouses? I give up. I just think it’s news that a piano player—any piano player and especially THIS piano player—can evoke such a furious defense.
You suppose maybe in 10 or 15 years, I could venture into Indiana without being torn to pieces? I like Indiana.

The brutal criticism Liberace received in the press never affected his popularity. He connected with, and pandered to, his audience, through careful choreography. Boy bands today do the same thing to girls, who become as ridiculously and irrationally vitriolic as Liberace’s fans 60 years ago if you stoop to ridicule their fantasy lads. Lee moved from syndicated TV to Las Vegas where audiences added to his incredible wealth. Indeed, there’s still a fascination about him. In the end, people (critics notwithstanding) found nothing wrong with his combination of classics, camp and corn, and discovered it could even be entertaining.


  1. I searched for Tony Wons on the Interwebs and couldn't find much. I hope he was the inspiration for Percy Dovetonsils.

  2. About one of your final comments Yowp:
    Boy Bands in 1971 such as The Osmonds also did what Liberace did and paved the way for the ones later (only without the scandal...)..(Girls have also always known when a celebrity is NOT worth their time...I've read online how countles 5-15 year olds are ticked off by Juatin Beiberto no longer care for him..

    As for Don Fedderson:
    Don Fedderson also had an important career switch in 1954-55 when he turn to just producing, shows that woluld have kind of an animaion conneciton in a few cases-The Millionaire (starring Marvin Miller as the one screen lead character and Paul Frees as the offscreen voice of the almost unseen title character), some shows with Betty White when she was still just starting her television career, the first half of the body of Lawrence Welk's TV show, and then the two iconic ones with just a widowed dad-My Three Sons (sharing, of course, the by that time ubiquitous Capitol Hi-Q muisc at its peak) and then Family Affair in 1966, then finally the lesser rememebred of the trilogy of such sitcoms, "To Rome with Love", which substituted John Forsythe for Fred MacMurray in a part female "My 3 Sons"-with three daughters, and with the gimmick of relocating to Rome...SC

  3. Of course, Liberace's famous riposte was "I cried all the way to the bank."

    His brother George became an infamous "song shark" (you know, the ones who perpetrate the "we turn your poems into songs" type of hustle).