Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Scrounger’s Cheapjack Holiday Special! #12: Liberace pt. 1


Just Enough Information: At the dawn of the 1950s, pianist Wladziu Valentino Liberace (just the last name professionally, or Lee to friends) was making some headway with his career, but small venues were still his bread and butter. Within a few years, The Liberace Show made him one of TV’s first matinee idols, and it was Vegas all the way, baby.

In 1950, Don Fedderson—the same Los Angeles station manager and television producer who gave us Betty White's first shows—found Liberace playing before a small San Diego crowd and offered him a series on KLAC-TV. Before the first show was over, the switchboard was ablaze, and by 1952, Liberace was the summer replacement slot for Dinah Shore’s NBC show, giving him his first coast-to-coast exposure.

Liberace’s next maneuver, however, was a bit riskier, as he signed with syndicator Guild Films for a series of filmed programs to be sold to individual stations. The gambit paid off, because by October 1953 The Liberace Show was running on 100 stations, more than any network show at the time. What's more, the distributor managed to more than double that a year later, while the critics looked on in disbelief.

As if there was any doubt who Lee’s target audience was, when The Liberace Show debuted in the Omaha and Cleveland markets, TV repairmen reported an unusual spike in picture tube breakage. “On a few sets,” said one technician, “I found lipstick on the busted glass.”

The Christmas Thanksgiving Episode: Syndicated c. 1953-1955.

It’s the simplest possible musical format: Liberace (and only Liberace (with orchestra)) plays a song, Liberace talks to the audience, lather, rinse, repeat. Canned applause greets the end of every song, and canned laughter follows every mild joke. Not a whole lot of clever production here—the biggest “special effect” is when the curtains open behind Lee—and just three basic camera angles during each performance. Also, it’s strictly white tie and tails. The overblown costumes that would make Lady Gaga hide her eyes would come later.
But when you sit down with the show for awhile, it dawns on you: Lee is The Continental with a piano. He’s locked you in his fancy apartment, shooting coy come-hither looks at you from across his instrument while he plays one showy piece after another until you just give in. Or blow your rape whistle.

Turned out you didn’t have much to worry about, lady. But let’s not go there just now…

Doesn't he ooze coziness? Doesn't he ooze saccharin? Whatever, he just oozes. Spread that voice on your pancakes, you’ll fall into a diabetic coma.

Once in awhile, his bandleader (brother George) turns up so everything doesn't stay anchored to one place. George Liberace doesn't speak a word, instead mugging to a spot just off-camera like a heavily repressed Harpo Marx without a woman to chase. It's an unsettling effect.

But since it’s the Thanksgiving show, Lee’s got your turkey with all the trimmings.

Man, he really knows how to work a drumstick! But let’s not go there just now…

And with a final flourish of "I'll Be Seeing You", we escape the grasp of Liberace for another week. Unless you lived in one of those desperate markets where the station ran the show twice daily every day, in which case the man lurked behind every corner and nobody was safe until Howdy Doody time.

Recommended viewing, oddly enough. They don't make this type of show anymore, and it's different enough that you should see it at least once.

The Holiday Lesson For Today: Unfortunately, every "lesson" I take away from Liberace ends with "but let's not go there just now," so let's just not go there at all. We'll come back to all of this later, anyway.

But Don’t Take My Word For It: The full episode doesn’t seem to be available from the usual sources, but to get the flavor, here’s “Turkey In The Straw” (with variations) from the show:

…and from EVTV1, the Ritual Fire Dance, featuring a Native American-style dance by some guy Lee calls Little Bear, but I'll believe it when I see his birth certificate. They're never in the same shot, so there's a good chance "Little Bear" made his getaway before Liberace even showed up.

Next: Turkey Day with The Beverly Hillbillies!

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