Liberating Liberace

The most fabulous musician of all time helps America see queerly in a new video collection

You're barely a minute into Liberace's 1978 TV special, Leapin' Lizards It's Liberace, before you're wallowing in it. Wouldn't do to keep the customers waiting. We first see Lee, as his friends called him, plinking the ivories in his mansion--in his bedroom; in the tub; along the wall of his pool; on a cake; even in the center of his walk-in closet--before he's whisked off to the Hilton in the diamond-encrusted, "88 Keys"-plated limo that delivers him onto the stage. His driver, a piano "virtuoso" named Vince Cardell, winged perm frosted with gray, looks like an aging gigolo--handsome, with a very '70s hot-tub/Mac Davis chic.

Hopping out of the car, Lee confides to the crowd in best folksy manner that his ridiculous automobile "really stops traffic when I shop at Safeway." And then...then it's time for what we've all been waiting for, the real showstopper, the talent that shot him from New York drag bars to stardom on the budding Vegas strip in only four years: Yes, it's the first costume change, before he's even broken a sweat! It is spectacle as artistic principle, excess as worldview, fabulousness for the sake of fabulousness. "Let me slip into something more spectacular," he purrs, and damned if it isn't so.

But, to inquire politely, just what the hell is going on here? Dead since 1987, Wladziu Valentino Liberace is bangin' and grinnin' all over again on three videotapes available from Rhino: In addition to Leapin' Lizards, there's a Valentine's Day special and a concert with the London Philharmonic. The box set comes in a sparkly case with a nifty fold-out Lee dancing atop a keyboard; and over the top is clearly the way to go. But what's really for sale is a fascinating then-and-now glimpse at the vagaries of gayness in mass entertainment well before the age of Ellen.

The forbidden outpost: Is Liberace, the Columbus of camp, trying to tell us something?
The forbidden outpost: Is Liberace, the Columbus of camp, trying to tell us something?

The earliest of these concerts is nine years after Stonewall, but to the leisure-suited armies who made the Vegas pilgrimage, the drag queens rioting in Greenwich Village might as well have been walking a catwalk in Moscow. The segments of the audience we can see suggest that even the crowd's hippest members weren't having much truck with this whole '70s thing. (It's not hard to figure why the world's supreme blue-haired granny, England's Queen Mum, was a devoted Liberace cultist from his first visit to the U.K. in 1956.) And the mob bosses who paid Lee's salary certainly didn't want any of that fairy stuff messing with the bottom line. So the whole project sounds unpromising, to say the least: Liberace as the gay Uncle Tom, bowing and scraping for the straight folks' delight.

Yet little glints of queerness keep shining through. "I'll tell you one thing about this outfit," Lee smirks while done up in full fabulousness: "You'll never see anything like it on Grizzly Adams." With waters ejaculating mechanically behind him, he expertly treads the line between in-joke and self-parody, his identity dancing briefly into sight and then slipping away before you can pin it down. He plays a stripper's bump-and-grind while taking off his robe; tells Lola Falana and Sandy Duncan to "come in with your big cadenzas"; asks older women to feel the fine cut of his pant leg, then pleads "do the other one; I don't want to be frustrated"; says Lee is "one of my nicer nicknames--I have others." What are they? What does innuendo mean when it's delivered by someone who clearly will never follow it up? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.

There's a real expertise here, one honed over years spent calibrating just how much you can imply without bringing down the wrath of bigots and homophobes. Sure, he's different, his fans always argued, but not, you know, weird or anything--just sort of...odd, like (insert name of bachelor uncle here). And seeing him toe that line is heartbreaking and enthralling at once: heartbreaking because you grieve for a career, for an emotional life spent orbiting such a limited space; enthralling because the world rarely displays such a degree of expertise anymore--it's as quaint as watching an ace telegraph operator tap out his lost trade.

Exploding into dimensions beyond bathos, Liberace is the Columbus of camp, a discoverer of worlds where cheese, sincerity, and parody merge into some unholy trinity in which no one, probably not even Lee himself, can tell joke from truth. As his favorite Mae West quip had it, "Too much of a good wonderful!" (And by the way, a mere 20 bucks buys a snazzy shirt at the Liberace Museum in Vegas bearing that motto.)

What is too much? Put it this way: He dares to start a medley with "Send in the Clowns," a strong contender for the coveted post of corniest song of all time, then adds insult to injury by having a little clown mannequin walk out onstage, blow up a balloon, laugh, cry, and, most horrible of all, cavort. And, well, it works...or you surrender, which amounts to the same thing. By show's end, he has pretty much had his way with you.

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