The life and uniqueness of the incredible “Mr. Showmanship.” Casey talks with Liberace expert David Saffert… and then a little bit to Liberace himself!
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Casey Bozell 0:08
Today on keep classical weird we talk about the classically trained pianist and pop culture phenomenon Liberace and near the end of the episode I actually get to talk to Liberace himself. Are you familiar with the, with the podcast form of media?
Liberace (D. Saffert) 0:27
Would you say the podcast? I’m learning? I’ll say that I’m a slow learner when it comes to television sets and eight tracks and Walkmans. I’m doing my best.
Casey Bozell 0:52
Welcome friends to episode nine of keep classical weird. I am your host Casey Bozell, and today we’re talking about Liberace. Now, Liberace passed away when I was very young. So I only associated his name with a few splashy things like the fact that he wore rings on his fingers when he performed and had a candelabra on the piano. But his life was, of course, so much more intricate than that. He was quite a singularity in the music scene, and I wanted to know more. So I reached out to interview Portland’s own Liberace expert, David Saffert.
David Saffert 1:26
Liberace was born in 1919. On May 16, in West Allis, Wisconsin, which at the time, I think was just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but now, you know, as cities grow, it’s a suburb he always told people he was born in 1920. He thought that was easier for people to remember than 1919 and I think that’s so funny like why 1919 is pretty easy to remember who we know is Liberace when when he was born, his name was Wladziu Valentino. Liberace,
Casey Bozell 2:01
Could you spell that first name you just said?
David Saffert 2:04
Okay, I think I think it’s W L and the L hat. So it’s polish. So the W is a V sound, the l had a little slash through it, which gives it a word like a W sound. W. L A D Z I U, you, I think, is how,
Casey Bozell 2:30
wow, I wonder why he didn’t think Americans would catch on to that.
David Saffert 2:35
When he got to be pretty well known when he got his TV show. Then he just legally I believe went under Liberace. And even at that time, people couldn’t pronounce his name. Even with Liberace people called him Liber – Ace. Right, Italian, his dad was Italian his mom was polish. So Wladziu was polish. Liberace was Italian. But people just didn’t necessarily they’d like right away. They didn’t say Liberace. I would look at it to probably go Oh, Liber-Ace. But yeah, he would. He always tried to get people to say his name right.
Casey Bozell 3:13
Liberace his father Salvatore played French horn with the Milwaukee Symphony, and raised all three of his children in a musical family. Liberace showed promise early on the piano, and got a huge scholarship to study and travel as a performing musician. But his identity as we really know him now can actually be traced back to a specific night after he gave a particular concert. He was known from then on as Mr. showmanship,
David Saffert 3:40
So he’s there in LaCross. And I guess at the end of his classical concert, he’d have an audience request section, which I find amazing. I can’t Can you imagine like have an audience request section? They’re like, Hey, would you play the second movement to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto? Like,
Casey Bozell 3:57
that’s not on my list today. Thank you.
David Saffert 3:59
Oh, I feel I can’t imagine either, like, Hey, would you play Chopin’s Nocturne? D flat, or I’m like, What? But he would do this at the end of his concerts in one night in LaCross. An AUDIENCE MEMBER requested a song called three little fishies. And now I know this song, because I did an Andrews sisters review and Andrews sisters sang this song. And it’s, it’s not much of a song. It’s like, ever heard this?
Casey Bozell 4:29
No, I don’t know it.
David Saffert 4:30
[singing] Three little fishies, dah dah duh duh da da dum. Can’t remember how it goes. It’s silly. It’s almost a children’s song. And so he considers it he’s like, okay, so he plays it. And then he realizes, you know, this is too easy. I can’t end on this. This is like, this is child’s play. This is like the EZ note version. You know what he’s like? So he decided to play it in a couple different styles. He thought I’m gonna play three little fishes. The style of Beethoven in the style of Strauss, you know, the waltz King, and the style of I don’t know, Haydn or something, and it just improvised his way through it and the audience went crazy. And he got, like, not only applause but laughter and hooting and hollering. You know, as a classical musician, how often do you get a response where people are like, who do we get like the plus polite applause? Well, he’s like, I need more of this. And what how, like, he loved it. And so he started incorporating more popular music of the day into his programs, but he kind of crafted it the way he did three little fishes. He had a version of Mac the knife, which is Kurt Weill, you know, originally from Threepenny Opera. But he would do that in classical styles. And suppose it was a gateway of, I guess, bridging classical music and popular music at the time.
Casey Bozell 6:11
From that night in La Crosse, Wisconsin, his popularity took off. And with a soaring popularity, another rapid trajectory came through in his shows, his increasingly extraordinary sense of fashion.
David Saffert 6:26
His TV shows in the 50s, he always had black tails. But there was a point where he was playing at the Hollywood Bowl with an orchestra. And he he was standing at the top looking down and he started thinking, he thought, Oh, my God, here’s all these all these musicians are in black tails. I’m playing a black piano, who’s going to see me if I’m also wearing black tails. So he decided to wear white tails, which was a huge statement. We wouldn’t think anything about that today. But especially a huge statement because at that time, too, you had people like Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington wearing white tails and, and he wants to wear white tails as well. So that was a very big statement. So once he once he did that, the reviews came out and they were like, “Liberace came on in white tails!” Like I think even before any talking about any of the music, it was his wardrobe was talked about first. Well then, he wanted to go further. And his costumer who made his black tails for his TV series, started to get a little more creative just with the idea of tuxes so you know, change the colors a little bit, but kind of kept it tux coat looking. But then it didn’t take long. I mean, he kept having he kept wanting to top himself. But topping himself suddenly became Las Vegas and sequins and rhinestones and feathers. And it’s just a bit and lighting your outfits too. You know, he had these capes and outfits that had light bulbs, basically. I mean, maybe, maybe more like Christmas lights.
Casey Bozell 8:21
David Saffert 8:22
But he did have the battery packs, you know, inside these capes. I can’t imagine I don’t even know what they what they weighed. And he always said he said he had every his weight would fluctuate. So he said that he had his outfits in three sizes. He’s– I don’t know if this is appropriate by today’s standards. But he said he said his outfits were in thin, fat and impossible. [laughter] There’s this famous outfit he wore at Radio City Music Hall where he comes out he looks like like a gigantic bird, the amount of feathers and I think he came out of like a Faberge egg to there’s like some human sized Faberge egg that opens up and he comes out. Like, that’s so funny to think how do you go from black tails, traditional classical music
Casey Bozell 9:22
I mean, that’s like a that seems like a Lady Gaga entrance. That seems like a very over the top–
David Saffert 9:29
Totally. And we can we can completely credit. You know, a lot of people ask like, Hey, is elton john Liberace must have gotten it from elton john. It’s like, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Liberace did all of this first,
Casey Bozell 9:44
Liberace, his musicianship rapport with an audience and incredible spectacle was able to appeal to people far and wide. He did a great job making everyone feel comfortable and welcome.
David Saffert 9:56
Everything I get from all these people is that he was the most he was the warmest, most generous, wonderful human being, whether onstage or not, and I love watching videos after after his performances he’ll be out signing, you know, signing books or merchandise and just, it’s the same warmth on stage that you see offstage the women, the women loved him. Some of the men loved him but but the men usually got dragged the women to be like, we’re going to go see Liberace and then men were like, you, you go do that. And they’re like, You’re coming with! And so there’s all these all the I’ve seen these videos to where they talk to these men outside, you know, and they go, you know, I got drug here, but I am so glad this was the most wonderful show. They go I would totally come back and see this this gentleman perform again. He had a way of just like making everyone so happy in the audience, even those people that didn’t want to be there.
Casey Bozell 11:02
For a long time. In my childhood, at least the name Liberace, however much it should have been synonymous with generous human, fantastic musician, was actually code for someone who was in the closet. And to his dying day, Liberace never came out. Now, there may have been many reasons as to why but the era in which he flourished, was not a kind one to any queer identified individual.
David Saffert 11:27
Today, we’re so used to you know, my God, if you look at Netflix, there’s a whole, you know, LGBTQ themed, I mean, like, you know, we have that but in the 80’s, what did we have for TV or movies? And if they weren’t, if they were homosexual characters, they either commit suicide. Something terrible, the relationship never worked out with the same sex partner. There was always just like, or, or they were the joke, they were the butt.
Casey Bozell 11:59
Right? They were like the punch line.
David Saffert 12:01
Yeah, it’s so interesting. I have because I have a lot of books of his and like picture books. Where here he is with like, say, Scott Thorson, who was who was probably the most famous lover of his I mean, they made the movie about it. They made Behind the Candelabra with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, and you see, you see Liberace and this other guy, and they’re both wearing matching like white snowy beaver coats.
What part of you would say, Oh, that’s adorable. They can’t be they must not be a couple. I don’t know, I should I don’t want to generalize. But when I look at these pictures of him and the guys that they were always in the pictures with him, Scott Thurston Scott was on stage with him, you know, driving him, driving him on stage in his Rolls Royce. And Liberace definitely, like he wanted to be remembered as a piano player. And he, he did not want to be known at all as homosexual. And unfortunately when he died, you know that his manager just told everyone Oh, yeah, he was. Lee was doing this particular diet. It was something to do with like a watermelon diet had to do with like, anemia or something. And a bunch of the media were like, We demand an autopsy. And they somehow they got, they got the autopsy. And it came out I think just a few days later. No, in fact, Liberace did die from complications due to HIV. But they wouldn’t have they would not have even known. We wouldn’t have known we would still be speculating to this day.
Casey Bozell 13:54
So wait, the media asked for an autopsy.
David Saffert 13:56
I believe it was the media and there was a lawyer. Somehow a lawyer got involved. And yeah, they demanded an autopsy. And they went back and forth between Liberace’s people and this other lawyer, you know, like, No, you can’t have it, we demand it. No, you can’t have it. And finally, somehow they got it. And and, and then, you know, connect the dots. Especially at that time, you know, I mean, I mean, what an unfortunate time, but yeah, Liberace, he never came out. And you always wonder like, Is it because like, was he afraid to tell his family? Was he afraid? Here’s all these women, you know, that came to his audience. I mean, was he afraid he was going to lose his audience? And I have my own theory. If you want to hear it?
Casey Bozell 14:45
I would love to hear your theory, of course.
David Saffert 14:48
Well, I think that he he kind of screwed himself. Back in the late 50s. He got over to– he did a couple command performances for Queen Elizabeth and There was one and England loved him, loved him. And in the late 50s, he went over there and someone from a particular newspaper, who actually had a pen name, his name was casandra had written a preview article about Liberace coming to perform in England. And he said something he was very against Liberace, very against his playing very against him as a person and said some things that today we’d look at it and go, Wait a minute, I don’t understand, like what’s wrong this? But the language he used basically outed Liberace, and he said things like, I don’t like fruit flavored, was there. And it’s stuff that today we just be like, okay, I don’t I don’t know that that phrase, but they but there were things that he he was basically telling the world. This guy is homosexual. And Liberace got there. And apparently his mom saw the article and Liberace was like, Oh, my, like his mom just like gets stressed her out. She didn’t know. And he still like he wanted to keep this to himself. And so he sued the newspaper. And he had all of these, I don’t remember how long this went on for, but he had he had like a British trial. So he talks about, you know, the powder, the wigs, and everything that he said, he talks about, he talks for chapters in this one book of mine about this trial, basically, him trying to say, you know, trying to say I am I am not homosexual, he gets asked that. So, so he swears in and he does get asked by the judge, are you homosexual? And he said, No. And then he won like he won a big sum of money for it. But what I think it did was because of that trial, and because under oath, he said, I am not homosexual. I think that set the stage for the rest of his life that he couldn’t he couldn’t say.
Casey Bozell 17:21
Now at this point in the interview, I asked David, who has a very special connection with Liberace, if I could speak to him directly. So here’s a clip from that fun conversation. Thank you so much for being on this podcast. Mr. I can I just call you Liberace?
Liberace (D. Saffert) 17:41
Casey, you can call me Li.
Casey Bozell 17:44
Liberace (D. Saffert) 17:45
That’s what all my friends call me in. I know, we’ve only known each other for a couple of seconds, but I already feel like a friend of yours.
Casey Bozell 17:52
That’s so sweet. I feel like a friend of yours, too! Thank you!
Liberace (D. Saffert) 17:57
Isn’t that marvelous?
Casey Bozell 17:58
So this is, you know, a strictly audio format that we’re doing here. So would you–
Liberace (D. Saffert) 18:06
Oh, it’s more like a radio interview.
Casey Bozell 18:08
It’s more like radio.
Liberace (D. Saffert) 18:09
Okay, then I understand. Sure.
Casey Bozell 18:11
Okay. Yeah. Yeah. So, so if you were, you know, on the radio, I’m sure you’d want to know that your listeners at home would want to know what you’re wearing right now.
Liberace (D. Saffert) 18:22
I’ve been told I have a I have a face for radio. You know. Right now I’m going to tell you, I’m just in my pajamas. Which which is a smart pink sequin pants suit. I left the cape off because I’m, I’m coming to you from Palm Springs where it’s about 108 today. And so I’m just, I’m just wearing as light of an outfit as I can. Sequins don’t breathe a whole lot.
Casey Bozell 18:51
I was going to ask so are you planning to? like is this you’re wearing pajamas? Is this what you wear to bed?
Liberace (D. Saffert) 18:59
Oh, I haven’t tried it yet. You know, I just like to be seen. I hope that if people pass the House that they can look inside and see what I’m wearing. I think it’s important to be noticed and recognized and seen.
Casey Bozell 19:13
That would be the way to do it.
Liberace (D. Saffert) 19:16
Casey Bozell 19:21
I’d imagine! So you I mean you’ve had so many so many concerts all around the world you’ve played so much music What if you could point to one specific piece that you think was your favorite to play what would that be
Liberace (D. Saffert) 19:35
you know as much as I enjoy playing the popular music The Broadway tunes and and you know today’s greatest 70s hits. I really I really enjoy Chopin You know, my my mother was Polish and and as a child Paderewski was my favorite piano player. And of course, Paderewski was very well known for playing Chopin. Probably the greatest piano composer that ever came out of Poland. So I feel a great connection with him. And anytime I can play a Chopin, Polonaise or Nocturne Well, I just feel right at home.
Casey Bozell 20:22
Oh, that’s so nice. And I imagine your audience just adores hearing Chopin too.
Liberace (D. Saffert) 20:28
Well, they put up with it, and then I give him the razzle dazzle, you know?
Casey Bozell 20:35
Oh, my goodness, as you mentioned your mother. Um, I know that. She’s, I know that she too is a fan of yours and comes to your shows and
Liberace (D. Saffert) 20:45
definitely my biggest fan, she she would come to as many of my shows as possible, you know, I’d give her half off tickets. That’s a joke, no, you know, my, she would she would come so often. And I would point around in the audience, and she she’d have a good time and and, and I wanted the audience to be friends with her as much as I wanted them to be friends. With me. Yeah. God bless her.
Casey Bozell 21:15
Oh, that’s so lovely. That’s so lovely that she’s so supportive of your shows.
Liberace (D. Saffert) 21:19
She’s– She was awfully supportive. I mean, she’s she’s gone now, but, but she still looks down and tells me what to do. How to spend my money.
Casey Bozell 21:34
Oh, my goodness. Is that any? any recent requests or recent recent demands of how to spend your money as
Liberace (D. Saffert) 21:46
from my mother? You know, no, I I love houses. I’m always on the lookout for another for another house. or condo? And But no, at this moment, no.
Casey Bozell 22:07
All right. Always on the look how many houses?
Liberace (D. Saffert) 22:11
Well, right now I? I’m down to five?
Casey Bozell 22:14
Liberace (D. Saffert) 22:15
Yeah, I had to get rid of a few. But there it’s a lot to maintain. You know, it’s, it’s almost impossible to live in seven houses at the same time. At least that’s what I’m told.
Casey Bozell 22:31
Almost impossible, but not but not quite.
Liberace (D. Saffert) 22:34
No, but I’m doing my best. No, but I do love my palm springs home. And that’s where I’m coming to you from right now.
Casey Bozell 22:43
I love it. I love it. Um, what is your when you’re performing? What is your favorite thing to do with an audience?
Liberace (D. Saffert) 22:53
I would say just merely giving them my piano playing. When I’m giving them the music. I think I think that’s the most important. I think music is so universal, don’t you?
Casey Bozell 23:09
Liberace (D. Saffert) 23:10
Anyone can really enjoy any kind of music that we have. And so that’s, that’s number one is I want to give them this, this joy of music. And of course, of course, I want to tell them about my rings. I like I like to get you know, in front and just let them check out the rings and the fur coats and but but really, I think it comes down to the music for me.
Casey Bozell 23:37
That’s wonderful. One of you get you get such a wonderful response from your music. You bring such a great, such a great presentation to your audience.
Liberace (D. Saffert) 23:46
Thank you, Casey.
Casey Bozell 23:48
I really thank you for your time. And thank you so much for for coming on my little podcast.
Liberace (D. Saffert) 23:54
Well, I wish I could stay longer. I’ve got about 27 dogs at this home. And it’s lunchtime.
Casey Bozell 24:02
Liberace (D. Saffert) 24:03
And they just won’t have it if I don’t feed them.
Casey Bozell 24:06
Oh, well then please go go feed them and thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.
Liberace (D. Saffert) 24:11
Thank you, Casey. I forgot what radio station This is gonna be on but I– you’ll let me know. Right.
Casey Bozell 24:18
Liberace (D. Saffert) 24:19
Casey Bozell 24:23
And that’s our show for today. Many thanks to David Saffert and Liberace for showing me such a fun time. Our theme music is composed by Thomas barber a spectacle in his own right check out his stuff at Thomasbarber.com Web development support is provided by Tina at citybeautifuldesign.com keep classical weird is created and edited by me Casey Bozell, find us on Facebook, Instagram and Patreon. Feel free to reach out and email us with questions, comments, and even episode ideas at keep classical email@example.com thanks so much for listening everyone. Stay safe and stay Weird
Transcribed by https://otter.ai