Saturday, August 25, 2012

Liberace: Great Personalities (Guild Films/TV, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Gold Diggers of Broadway I ran Charles a 1954 episode of Liberace’s TV show called “Great Personalities” which tied in with the film because, a quarter-century after making Gold Diggers of Broadway, Nick Lucas appeared in it and once again sang “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips.” This was something of a cheap-jack production because it purported to pay tribute to great performers of the past — only quite a few of them were not quite as “past” as the show made out: Liberace kicked things off with a medley of “When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “Some of These Days,” “Love in Bloom” and “If You Knew Suzie” that paid tribute, through elaborate posters (and a squawking clarinet sound on “When My Baby Smiles at Me”), to the four people most identified with those songs: Ted Lewis, Sophie Tucker, Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor, respectively, all of whom were still alive when this show was done but none of whom was going to appear on it for what pittances Liberace’s producers, Guild Films, could afford to pay (and Benny was a major TV star on the CBS network, which would have looked unkindly on his appearing on a non-network syndicated show like Liberace’s). Lucas, who in 1954 as well as 1929 was a surprisingly good guitarist, sang “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” in the same high falsetto tenor he used in the movie — whatever you think of his style, his voice and guitar chops had both held up quite well — and the other guest star on the program was also someone who’d reached her peak in the 1920’s: Gilda Gray, a white blues singer and dancer who was apparently the first white person to dance the shimmy on stage.

She sang “St. Louis Blues” on the program and Liberace identified her as the first white person to record it (which she wasn’t: Al Bernard sang it with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1921, just seven years after W. C. Handy wrote it), and I suspect Liberace’s interest in her was largely because, like he, she was of Polish descent: her birth name was Marianna Michalska and her parents emigrated from Warsaw when she was eight and raised her in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — also Liberace’s birthplace. Liberace also paid tribute to a couple of other famous Poles on the show: he played Paderewski’s “Menuet Antique” (he pronounced “Menuet” as “minuet” and did one of his most annoying things: instead of playing the piece as the piano solo Paderewski wrote, he dragged in four violinists led by his straight brother George and they added totally unnecessary parts; I started cringing every time they began to move their bows towards their strings, dreading what was about to happen) and he also played a Chopin nocturne, delivering it come scritto as a solo piano piece and playing it with the right delicacy and phrasing. I’ve heard occasional recordings of Liberace playing classical piano pieces as written (including a beautiful rendition of “Claire de Lune” by Debussy) and he was clearly at his best when he played that way: though no one was going to mistake him for Rubinstein, Horowitz, Gieseking or Arrau in that repertoire, it’s clear that playing “straight” classical brought forth a simple eloquence and phrasing from him that eluded him when he was playing pops (especially when he sang in that annoying voice that was once described as “a dormouse with adenoids”) and is about the one genuinely moving aspect of a performer whose persona was generally so obnoxious it’s not surprising director Tony Richardson took full advantage of it by casting him as an unctuous undertaker in the 1966 film The Loved One.