The Night I Danced with Liberace




The Night I Danced with Liberace by Richard E. Cytowic

Onstage with Liberace

May 26th, 2013 reset - +

MY HUSBAND AND I HAD A CHOICE of marrying in either California or Massachusetts in July 2008 — the only two states where it was then legal. The West won and we set off, not knowing that we would be one of only 18,000 same-sex couples to marry in the big blue state before Proposition 8 foreclosed that option four months later.

We flew into Las Vegas because it was inexpensive and an easy shot from Reagan National in Washington, DC. And, let’s face it, Vegas is fun. It seemed apt, too, because in the nation’s psyche Las Vegas is irrevocably entwined with the nuptial business. A place that has drive-through wedding chapels is a destination accustomed to newlyweds.

For two days we relaxed at Caesar’s Palace. Caesar’s had become a favorite, and they gave us good comps. We settled into our routine of playing roulette and the slots, snaking through flashing aisles until we hit upon “Cleopatra” or “Little Green Men.” We played until we got a decent payout and a dopamine rush, and then we moved on. Who knows how these silly attachments take root, but in having “our” favorite casino and “our” favorite slots we were like any other couple bobbing in the sea of Vegas tourists. We may have been en route to get hitched, but we’d already been together 11 years and domestic routines had sunk in.

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The first time I had visited Las Vegas, two years earlier, I wasn’t prepared to like it. I had decided in advance that it would be unbearably tacky, even though my other half had raved about an earlier visit he had made. I just had to see the place, he insisted.

And so I did. Sensory overload was my first impression, as every 100 feet along the Strip a different visual display and a fresh cacophony of sounds insisted on my full attention. In an attempt at wit I mocked the enterprise as “people with no taste trying to make an impression.”

But then we watched the Bellagio fountains at dusk, took in Cirque du Soleil’s O, checked out the other casinos and the mind-boggling light show at the old Frontier Station. I looked at the crush of people around us, each of them so obviously wanting to be there, each of them enjoying a palpable good time. I became sold. Glitz or not, this was a slice of the real America.       

Further surprises lay in store. The next morning at the Enterprise rental counter, a Gen-X girl with upswept hair held in place by a rubber band waited on us. Chewing bubblegum furiously, she told us she was from Michigan and had been in Las Vegas only a few months.

“Where’re you goin’?” she asked, chomp-chomp-chomping away.

“Palm Springs.”

“You’re goin’ to Cali?? Oh, cool? What for?”

“To get married,” we said.

“Cool? I’m gonna upgrade you.”

Similar overtures would occur throughout our stay. An Asian waiter gave us free desserts. The middle-aged woman who took tickets at the Atomic Test Museum waived us through. People kept showering us with small gestures. Gay marriage was barely a month old at the time, so maybe we were pioneers, the first couple anyone had met. We weren’t hiding the fact nor making a fuss, just telling the facts in an everyday way. Yet we were moved by strangers’ small expressions of support. Our respective families had merely sent a card.

Departing Vegas, we headed southwest down Interstate 15 into California. Initially, our ceremony was to be held in the Victorville City Library. It was the first town after crossing the Mohave, and reasonably close. But Victorville, home to an army base, had made homophobic rumblings, and the county decided to nix satellite resources and instead send applicants to San Bernardino, the county seat.

We came up with a better Plan B that put us in Palm Springs, a much more gay-fabulous arena. We had an appointment to pick up the license in Indio, which had Riverside County offices. From Indio we backtracked to Palm Springs, where we had a reservation at city hall for the actual ceremony. The young clerks behind the counter were excited to see us. Apparently, we were an event.

“You ready?” one asked as a dozen pairs of eyes looked on as if we were exotic hothouse specimens.

“We need to change clothes first.”

In the men’s room we divested our shorts and T-shirts for something more decorous. It was there, enacting the investiture in a municipal rest room with yellow tile, domestic yet symbolic nonetheless, that the immensity of what we were about to do struck us.

The city clerk, clearly gay, shepherded us into a room decorated with flags, palms, and a plastic potted rhododendron — a governmental nod to décor. He asked where we were from, how long we’d been together, how we had met. He asked if we’d brought along a ceremony we had written ourselves. We told him no. Whatever was standard would be fine.

“Shall we begin?” he said.

We held hands while the clerk, who doubled as the deputy commissioner of civil marriages, read aloud. “Marriage is an honorable estate,” he began, “not to be entered into lightly. It provides the encouragement to risk more, and thus gain more.” The words were sweet, poignant. We both felt far more emotional than we had expected.

Witnessed by a female staff member and the fake rhododendron, the ceremony affirmed that we “had consented together in wedlock,” and, with an exchange of rings, spoke of pledging our lives to one another. As we listened to the vows time seemed to dilate — as if we were standing outside of it, the moment paradoxically ordinary yet extraordinary at the same time. Then came the words “I do,” like a benediction hovering above. And then we were done.

The staff took photos before we changed back into desert attire. We even posed for campy snaps with the cardboard cutouts they had of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, big Palm Springs figures honored with their own street names. Downtown, on a main drag cheerily named Sunshine Street, we celebrated over lunch. Neither of us drank so, in lieu of Veuve Clicquot, the normality of eating BLT clubs with french fries at a quotidian diner was enough. It was, in its way, a celebration of normalcy. We were now free to be just as boring as millions of other married couples.  

Outside, the snow-capped San Jacinto Mountains and the desert floor swept with palm trees made for a heightened contrast. We left that paradise for another one before we had to return the car: a town named Paradise, just east of Las Vegas’s famous Strip, where we were making an offbeat pilgrimage.

Paradise, Nevada, is home to the Liberace Museum, which sits in an inauspicious strip mall, its appearance deceptive. The outside was nothing — embarrassingly shabby, some might think. Inside, however, its spectacular displays conveyed the consummate dream that anything was possible in America. “To Dream the Impossible Dream” was, in fact, Liberace’s favorite song. He had mastered the art of believing, garnering along the way two Emmys, five gold albums, and not one but two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Before Lady Gaga, before Elton John, and even before Elvis, there was Liberace. The richest superstar for four decades, he set attendance records at Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, and the Hollywood Bowl. More stations carried his television show than I Love Lucy. He was so embedded in popular culture that Bugs Bunny parodied him.

The Paradise museum was a labor of love for the 31 devotees who ran it until it closed in 2010. Older ladies with big hair, gentlemen wearing ascots and polished cufflinks, and scholarship recipients who looked ready for their stage entrance approached us, smiling and effusive, eager to tell their stories about how Liberace had made them swoon.

You had to see the place to believe its staggering wealth of outlandish costumes, enormous furs, feathered capes, gilded pianos, cars, and candelabras — plus enough jewelry to stock an alternate-universe version of Tiffany’s. It was one-of-a-kind, like the vintage Rolls-Royce on display, covered in mirrors like a disco ball. These weren’t glitzy fluff or slapdash affairs at all, but substantial works of craftsmanship. Even the leather harness Liberace wore to fly over an audience looked like the product of a fine English saddlemaker.

As we wandered through the rooms, we overheard other patrons relishing their memories of the man whom generations had called “Mr. Showmanship.” We met a young staff member who had won that year’s Liberace “play-alike competition.”

“Would you like me to play one of the pianos for you?” he asked. Without waiting, he leapt onto the rotating dais and sat down at a Baldwin grand swathed in rhinestones. When he raced his fingers up and down the keys the cascade of frills and roulades sounded exactly like Liberace’s playing: showy, sentimental, and absurdly ornate. The sound took me back decades to the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Perhaps after New York’s Copacabana, the Latin Casino was the swankiest supper club on the East Coast.

And there I am in 1963, age 10. A table captain escorts our family of four way down front, toward the majestic red curtain, until we can’t go any farther. With delight my sister and I cry out at the discovery that our table abuts center stage. Both of us take piano lessons. Coming to see Liberace is the ultimate treat.

My father, a physician, says that the owner, a patient of his, has promised him that we’d not only see Liberace but touch him, too. The words make me leery. No one talks about homosexuals in 1963, but I know what Liberace’s arch excess is all about. I am one of those kids who knew from the earliest age that he was gay. The word didn’t exist during my childhood, of course, but I didn’t need a word to understand that I was different and, because of it, constantly in danger. Back in that era, my father’s medical profession said I was sick, the state called me a criminal, and the church condemned me as immoral — yet I hadn’t done a thing. No matter: bullies were already beating me up at school and my father would kill me if he found out I liked men.

My father’s frame of reference hewed to the popular conception of Liberace as flamboyant, which didn’t, for many people yet, mean gay. My father was a showman himself: a stage magician, a hypnotist, and a raconteur. His theatricality and grandiosity eventually led the family to nickname him “Big Ed.” He identified easily with Liberace’s extravagance and command of an audience.

At the Latin Casino that bigness is apparent from the first number. Liberace comes on stage to enormous applause. He plays extremely well, of course. As a child prodigy, the famous Polish pianist Paderewski befriended him at age eight, and by 20 he had performed with the Chicago Symphony. But one doesn’t get rich in America by playing classical piano, so he made himself into an entertainer who pleased the masses by playing the classics “with the boring parts left out.” At the Latin Casino, Mr. Showmanship sings, dances, and banters with members of the audience. Of his outlandish costumes he says, “My clothes may look funny, but they’re making me money.”

An orchestral interlude covers a costume change, and Liberace returns in sequin-studded hot pants and vinyl boots. The band launches into “Hey Libby, Let’s Do the Twist,” his show-stopping take on the Twist craze. After a minute of singing he pulls my mother up on stage to dance with him. A dozen gyrations later, my sister and I stand in our chairs as Liberace pulls us up to join in. The four of us are twisting madly in front of a full orchestra, colored fountains, a line of feathered showgirls, and 2,000 spectators. We’re all in.

When the applause dies down Liberace gushes, “My goodness, you’re all pros.”

Of course we are. Living with Big Ed we couldn’t be otherwise. He has taken us to the Peppermint Lounge where Chubby Checker invented the Twist. Thanks to Big Ed we are, in fact, all performers. We know our lines and what is expected. Mom, in full throttle, exclaims, “When I got dressed tonight, Lee, I never thought I’d be doing this!” She uses Liberace’s private nickname, Lee.

In return he says, “If I knew you were coming, Marge, I’d have slipped into something a little more spectacular.” We laugh on cue. The audience laughs along.

“I love you just the way you are,” Mom says. The show is going well. She and Liberace banter for another minute. “And wouldn’t you know it?” she says. “I ran into the head of our PTA in the ladies’ room! Word of our performance will be all over school tomorrow.”

Liberace uses the laughter to move on to my sister, and then to me. When he bends down to ask what I want to be when I grow up, I pause and study his hands, the chunky rings perched on each finger, his stage makeup, even the stitching that holds the sequins on his hot pants and suspenders. He is a peacock hiding in plain sight. Eye to eye, I wonder if he can tell about me. I do not know. Into Liberace’s microphone, I blurt out a single word: “Famous!”

The audience howls. Liberace looks out at them, and then, still bent at the waist, he turns slowly back to address me. “In any particular field, young man?”

I pick up on his arch tone. “I might like to be a performer. Do you want me to play your piano?” The audience laughs at my presumption, and I plow ahead. “I have a memorized piece, ‘Bumblebee Boogie.’ My piano teacher, Mrs. Nickel, insists that I always have a memorized piece ready.” I could pull it off perfectly for Mr. Showmanship.

But Liberace dashes my hopes. “This is my show, Richard.” He then cocks his head back to the audience and says, “Trust me, this kid is going to do fine in the fame department.”

The crowd erupts again. I was having my 15 minutes of fame a few years before Andy Warhol coined the phrase. Down front, Big Ed leans back in his chair, arms folded, pride plastered all over him, one showman admiring another — or perhaps approving of the two showmen on the stage.

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What I did not understand at age 10 was how generous Liberace was to me. “Generous” was a word the museum staff used repeatedly. He’d given away $6 million to 2,700 gifted music students, one said. Another guide told us that he went to the supermarket himself and waited in line. “He never cut in front of anyone.”

For me Liberace’s generosity was to stop the show, give me the microphone, and ask, “What do you want to be?” Big Ed, who, in time I came to understand, was a narcissist supreme, had the habit of telling people that I was going to be a doctor like him. He turned out to be right. But until Liberace, no one had ever asked me what I wanted for myself.

Liberace lived large and showed me that I could, too. He filled the room with drama, flash, and showmanship, and everyone loved him for it. He made me feel that I could be part of a world where everything was possible, everything was big, and everything was wonderful. He made me feel I could be me.

Walking through his museum, we couldn’t help but contemplate that nobody ever gave Liberace that permission. He couldn’t do what my husband and I had done, because he was so closeted in his own skin. Gays of the pre–Stonewall era simultaneously envied and hated the younger generation. We came out early, but they were too conditioned by the culture and couldn’t break free. Within a theatrical context, Liberace could be a neon supernova and fly in a feathered cape. Socially, he was said to be a wonderful, gracious host, but to other homosexuals, people say, he was a mean son of a bitch. It was a fact of the closet, the context of his time. Looking at his bejeweled belongings I imagined that being so compartmentalized fed his hunger for popular applause.

Leaving the museum, my husband and I drove our rental car back to the hotel — but we didn’t leave Paradise right away. The unincorporated town encompasses McCarran International Airport and most of the Las Vegas Strip, which means that many tourists spend more time in Paradise than in the City of Las Vegas. But “Paradise, Nevada” has no zip code, and as a result remains relatively unknown. It remains hidden in plain sight like Liberace himself. And, for a while, back then, like me, too.

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Richard E. Cytowic is a professor of neurology at George Washington University. His latest book, Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, written with David Eagleman, won the Montaigne Medal.

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