Liberace and Me
The following story was published in our 2013 issue of G Magazine – GayRVA’s print publication. Check out the entire magazine here.
“You know what the golden rule is?” Liberace said in his nasal, high-pitched voice as I bounced upon his knee. I was a young child, and we were in my father’s Las Vegas home. “It’s that everyone should be nice to each other,” I said, with a level of certainty beyond my years. “Treat others as you want to be treated.” ”No,” he cackled waving his golden, diamond-studded rings in front of my eyes. “It’s whoever has the gold makes the rules… and look who has all the gold!”
Władzio Valentino Liberace, who preferred the name Liberace (or Lee when amongst friends), was one of the largest icons of twentieth century entertainment. Dubbed “Mr. Showmanship,” Liberace’s impact on musical entertainment, ranging from classical piano to today’s Top 40 charts, can be seen on stages and screens the world over. To pass him off as a Las Vegas showman undercuts his many contributions to not only the arts, but to gays in the arts as well. But beyond that, Liberace, or Lee as I knew him, was a close family friend and godfather figure.
My father, a classical pianist, conductor, composer and musical arranger, had worked his way through the music and showbiz circuit from the late 1950′s through the early 1970’s. He wrote music for and conducted various symphonies around the world, orchestrated live musical acts at major venues ranging from Radio City Music Hall to the Vegas Strip, and even toured with Elvis Presley as his piano and organ player. Although my father was never the front man of any one musical group during the Rat Pack/Elvis/Beatles heyday, his innate musical prowess led him to behind-the-scenes fame and garnered him an international reputation as a showman in his own right.
By the time I was born, Las Vegas had established itself as the nation’s entertainment capital and my dad had secured his position at the top of the entertainment industry. In the late 1970’s, my mother, a Washington, D.C. insider, attended a Liberace show and was reluctantly dragged backstage to meet the stars. While backstage, my mom saw my dad for the first time. It was love at first sight. They started dating, and before she knew it, she had packed her bags and moved to the West Coast with my father. There, she found herself thrust into the inner circles of the biggest names in show business.
After my parents were married in 1979, they moved to a big house on the 18th hole of the Hilton Hotel’s golf course, in a gated community just one block off the Las Vegas strip. A few years later, on the day I was born, Liberace announced my birth on stage at the Las Vegas Hilton. The Las Vegas Sun newspaper welcomed me into the world as the newest member of the Liberace Family.
During this time, our neighbors in Las Vegas were among the who’s who of show business, including Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis. Other stars, including Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Sammy Davis Jr., and all of the Rockettes, were regular figures in our lives over the years, often as guests at our home. Streisand and my father would share meals and put on little shows in our living room (he went on to help Streisand write a number of songs) while I played with toys by the piano. Of course, at the center of this superstar ring was Lee, the man behind the candelabra who had become much more than a guest in our home.
Sadly, I was unable to appreciate the rare glimpse I had into mega-stardom. Although the parade of celebrities that came through my Las Vegas home seemed rather normal from my childhood perspective, part of me regrets not being older during those years so that I could fully appreciate the grandeur of the era and my family’s place in the middle of it all.
My brother, two years younger than myself, and I were the only children in this celebrity circle. As we ran through the crowds of entertainers at our home and others’ homes (including Lee’s fabulous house), we were oblivious to the number of famous people we happened to trip over. Lee even brought us both on stage at Radio City Music Hall for his Christmas show one year (yeah, we were adorable and the crowd loved us). All during this time, Lee was nothing but caring and generous to me and I thoroughly enjoyed having him around.
Interestingly, it was Lee who would inevitably teach me the most about having a good work ethic. Liberace often performed five shows a day, each with numerous costume changes, dramatic special effects and high-wire flying antics. Anyone else performing just one of his shows would need a shot of whiskey and a nap after each performance, but Lee was always ready for more. He lived to please the audience.
Liberace was larger than life. He drove Rolls Royces covered in mirrors onto the stage, wore the most elaborate and expensive costumes ever made, and covered himself in jewels that could put half of America through college. He even defied gravity as he flew over his adoring audiences, either dangling from wires or floating towards the balcony in a hot air balloon. Lee could work a room like Bill Clinton. In addition to being a virtuoso on the piano and a master showman, he was an expert in the art of engaging others and making his audience feel special. It’s important to remember that while his stage antics and bling certainly added to the show, it was his fingers that were the real magic. And not just because of the rings… although those rings were quite impressive.
Not surprisingly, Lee’s private life was very different than his public life—he guarded his privacy and rarely let anyone in. My mother was one of the very few people that Lee actually opened up to, especially after his mother died. My parents’ house had become a kind of escape for the international superstar. Lee was based at the Vegas Hilton (just like Celine Dion is based at Caesar’s Palace), which was right next door to our home on the golf course. Sometimes, Lee would trek the short distance to our place, sneak in the back door by the pool, and enjoy not being in the limelight, albeit briefly. He insisted that people within his inner circle not take pictures of him when he was not on stage (the photos in this article are very rare and I’m lucky that my mom managed to grab a few shots when she could). Lee wasn’t a solemn man, but there were times when I would find him alone, sitting in the corner with a bottle of vodka–Smirnoff–and a glass of ice.
Lee’s journey to celebrity was impressive in itself. Every concert pianist in the 1950’s (when Lee started becoming famous) was known for giving staunch, conservative performances in a black tuxedo. Lee, on the other hand, had a different approach to performing live classical music. Imagine attending a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in the mid-1950′s, where you witness one of the world’s greatest piano players (Liberace) walk out on stage in a gold lamé jacket. That “scandal” began a lifelong career of over-the-top costumes that came to define show business for generations to come. “My costumes are a joke, a $5 million joke. And people love it,” he told one reporter. Rhinestone-covered cowboy costumes, white llama fur with a 16-foot-train. “I don’t dress like this to go unnoticed,” he’d say.
Performers today, ranging from Lady Gaga and Elton John to Madonna and Beyoncé, have been inspired by the talent and pizzazz of the original “Mr. Showmanship.” Liberace used a single name as a pseudonym long before Cher, Madonna, or Prince ever took to the stage. 30 years before Gaga’s egg antics, Lee entered the Radio City Music Hall stage inside of a man-sized Fabergé egg. He’d have as many as 30 trunks of costumes with him when he toured, and each costume topped the next.
But this man of myth and legend that everyone knew as the world’s highest paid entertainer was very different than the man I knew. To me, he was a hard worker, one who would nearly kill himself for the audience in order to put on a great show. As a child, he would tell me, “Never forget your audience.” Although I did not understand the universality of his words until later in life, that motto was one of the biggest lessons I took from him. Whereas Lee applied his own words on stage, I have since applied them in everything that I do, ranging from practicing law and starting businesses to interacting with others and working to build a better community. “Never forget your audience” – I hope Lee would be proud that I have taken his instructive words to heart.
Ok, I have to talk about the recent HBO movie about Liberace, Behind the Candelabra. Lee and his relationship with Scott Thorson was a very familiar topic in our household. The movie, which was based entirely on Scott’s memoirs (which, he penned after Lee effectively accused him of being a gold-digger and practically wrote him out of the will) painted an interesting, although incomplete, picture. Lee was a much kinder, warmer man than the character played by Michael Douglas in the movie. Scott (who also happened to be my mom’s best friend in Vegas, since they both came into Lee’s inner circle at about the same time), on the other hand, started messing around and getting into drugs towards the end of Lee’s life, neither of which pleased Lee. The movie, however, did accurately portray the ups and downs of their romantic relationship. I highly recommend that everyone watch this movie in order to get a slight glimpse into the life that I knew back in the 1980’s.
At the tender age of seven, though, I was not privy to much information surrounding Lee’s romantic relationship with Scott. I remember Scott being around Lee when we were living in Vegas, but the topic of homosexuality was never discussed, nor would it have been the best conversation for a child. Later in life, however, my parents told me about Liberace’s homosexuality, and explained how he had taken Scott on as a lover in the late 1970s. Although Liberace’s homosexuality had no impact on me whatsoever as a child, I find it interesting that my own sexuality (as well as my brother’s) is not dissimilar from his.
At the end of the day, Liberace will be remembered for being many things: a brilliant pianist, the defining figure in show business in the twentieth century, a master showman whose style would influence musicians for generations to come, and one of the wealthiest entertainers to ever walk the face of the planet. However, to me, Liberace was just Lee—a very sweet, gentle man whose compassion, generosity, and work ethic helped shape who I am today. I consider myself very fortunate to have been a part of the Liberace Family, to have spent my early childhood in a world that very few people get to experience, and of course, to learn about the Golden Rule from Mr. Showmanship himself… as I played with his shiny rings.
-Justin Ayars, JD
Photos via the Ayar’s Family
The LGBT community in Richmond may be a series of islands, but one thing that binds every person in town is hope for success. LGBT businesses and their allies can face unique challenges when integrating into the larger community, but The Richmond Business Alliance aims to change that. Justin Ayars, President of the Richmond Business Alliance (RBA) and owner [...]March 21, 2013
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