Rock Baker’s Video Cheese: The Liberace Christmas Special, 1954

“The most flamboyant entertainer of the 50’s celebrates the Christmas season.”

Okay, just sticking to how he was viewed in the 1950’s, Liberace was something of an odd duck. His sighing voice, curly hair, and constant grin made him a perfect subject of parody.  His show, live or on television, was peculiar, too. Constantly winking to the audience as he effortlessly banged out lovely compositions, his brother George who silently stood over him providing violin back-up, his constant formal wear and always visible candelabra, all were easy targets, and were spoofed by everyone from Jack Benny to Bugs Bunny.

When all is said and done, though, Liberace was a great entertainer, and possessed remarkable talent.

Going into this special episode of his 1950’s television show, I wasn’t really expecting to be all THAT impressed. Not to say I was selling Liberace short on talent, absolutely not. I mean, he couldn’t have become the phenomenon he did if he didn’t possess the chops. However, I had seen the comical recitals of Victor Borge and the breathtaking exhibition playing of Chico Marx. I wasn’t really sure Liberace had a chance of making much of an impression after what I’d seen.

But talent will tell, and Liberace was loaded with talent. At one point he detoured from “White Christmas” and into “Silent Night.” It was one of the most beautiful renditions I’ve ever heard.

One thing I didn’t expect was that Liberace was filmed, rather than Kinescoped. Given the show mostly consists of Liberace sitting at a piano and tickling the ivories, and his occasional turns to the camera to say what he’ll play next, I would have expected it to be a live show. But no, being filmed allows for some camera tricks and dissolves which will offer added effect during the show. And all in all, it was a good show. It put me right into the Christmas spirit!

We open with what I assume is the standard Liberace opening. Liberace is sitting at his piano and playing away in silhouette. In the upper right of the screen appears Liberace’s signature, which grows and moves to the center of the screen. There’s a reason I print everything when I write. Liberace’s signature looks like “Silver Ace” and could be a product name! (Unfortunately, although this tape is taken from an actual film print, said print is minus the sponsor tags, so I can’t tell you who presented the show.) We then bring up the lights and move in on our star as he finishes his theme music.

Liberace then speaks to us a bit, explaining Christmas is upon us and he’s very grateful that we’re sharing a bit of the season with him. He then notes how different Christmas in Hollywood is from the Christmases he enjoyed growing up back east. To set everyone in the right mood, he conjures a little magic with his piano and opens the drapes to reveal a backdrop of a snowy New England town. A few more keys and snow begins falling. A little more music and a tree materializes in the living room, complete with all the trimmings. Yes, it’s corny. But you know what, it’s pretty charming too.

Liberace starts the show in earnest with a medley about Santa Claus for the kiddies to enjoy. He then tells us of how he misses the sleigh rides he used to take a child and launches into some peppy sleigh tunes. Everything is here. The wink, the grin, the seemingly effortless piano playing. He sings a time or two as well. Much like Jim Neighbors, Liberace belts forth with much more manly pipes than his speaking voice would indicate. He impressed me more and more as the show continued. I guess I missed this side of him on The Jack Benny Program!

In a bit I didn’t expect, Liberace takes us into spiritual territory. He tells us that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the gifts and everything and overlook the true meaning of the season. He then spends a good time paying tribute to Jesus. He does this with reverence too. No grinning or winking at his audience during this set. He keeps looking up, and he’s obviously moved by the occasion. (Indeed, I note that he always pronounces the ‘T’ in ‘Christmas’ as he speaks.) Having had this kind of spiritual element removed from so many Christmas specials, seeing it played out with such conviction is refreshing.

The big moment of the show comes when Lee goes to the door and welcomes in his large family and the the crew of the series. He greets every single one with a seemingly sincere “Merry Christmas!” Capping the occasion is the arrival of Santa Claus himself. This is a pretty special moment as Santa wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, since it’s actually George beneath that beard. George never spoke on television, you see, and Liberace makes mention of this. It may not be Clarabell the Clown saying goodbye to all the kiddies, but it’s still pretty neat!

A round of “Jingle Bells” from our happy group, and an invite for the folks at home to join in on the second chorus and we end the show in a classic Christmas moment. All in all, a pretty simple show. I liked it.

In 1959, Liberace sued the British Daily Mirror when the editorial slandered him. They implied that he was a homosexual. Liberace denied this in court, going so far as to call homosexuality an “abomination” in his defense*. He won the case. Although rumors and jokes about Liberace riding side-saddle would continue for the rest of his career, his sexual persuasion wasn’t confirmed until after his death in the mid 1980’s. Frankly, I don’t have all that facts. It may just be that he never married. Let’s face it, you check into this world with a voice like that and people are going to talk. (Nor would Liberace be the first performer to be ‘confirmed’ homosexual after their death. It’s a pretty common practice for The Cause.)

(*Wording actually used in the Bible, I note. There seems to be enough evidence that Liberace was a deeply spiritual man to cast some doubt on his alleged proclivities.)

[*Editor Ken: While I agree with Rock that a myriad of now deceased celebrities and historical figures have dubious sexual or even racial backgrounds accorded to them for modern political convenience, I have to say that Liberace was pretty obviously gay. Oscar Wilde also went to court to deny his homosexuality; this was more a function of the times they lived in than evidence of their heterosexuality. Once things began to loosen up a little, Liberace more than anyone allowed his freak flag to fly. One thing we can all agree upon, however; Liberace was a horrible dramatic actor.]

The most conservative attire Liberace wore during his last thirty years.

At any rate, I wish you all a very joyous and Merry Christmas!

 

  • Ericb

    All my life I never knew what was going on when people (or cartoon rabbits) talked about Liberace’s brother George (and never really thought about it enough to goggle it). Now I do.

  • Ken_Begg

    Yes, it’s like my incessant “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” jokes, it’s a pretty old reference. Liberace’s mentions of “My brother George” were a staple on his his early daily (15 minute!) afternoon TV show, and became part of the standard impersonation kit on anyone doing him, like saying “You dirty rat!” when doing Cagney.

  • We owe a lot of pop historical education to Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes gang, for they, in their continued re-broadcasting on television brought with them references to everything from Vaudeville comedians to commercials for cleaning products to game show references.

  • Let me note that I can’t say for certain Liberace wasn’t homosexual, I’ve just seen enough to make me question it. Even during the much more accepting 70’s and 80’s, wild costumes and all, he continued to deny the charges. Maybe he had a thing for fellas, maybe he was just an oddball. Either way, he’s not around to offer confirmation one way or the other. Very talented showman, though. Until I checked out this Christmas special, I had largely forgotten that!

  • Ken_Begg

    “You
    know, it is so sad. All your knowledge of high culture
    comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.” ~ Elaine Benes

    I wear that accusation with pride.

  • Yeah, given what passes for education these days, Bugs Bunny IS high culture!

  • I have to agree with this comment.

  • sandra

    Liberace and Tiny Tim were both talented entertainers who had the courage to be themselves, however odd. If people didn’t like them, well, as Liberace said, he cried all the way to the bank.

  • sandra

    Liberace was sued for palimony by a young man claiming to have been his lover, but the guy lost the case .

  • Oh yeah, Tiny Tim, the guy who got married on the Tonight show. Man, he STILL makes me uncomfortable! Although, my understanding is that he was a very nice guy.

  • The4thStooge

    Way late to the party, but I listened to a radio interview (on a now-defunct station, 1380 the MAN) with Liberace’s last lover, or second-to-last, and he basically said what some of us thought: Yes, he was gay, but because of the time, he insisted he was “just waiting for the right woman.” (Found her yet, Lee?;-)

    I’d also heard similar stories about Rock Hudson, except he didn’t really give much of a damn about being in the closet. It was either Joan Collins or George Carlin that said Hudson’s sexuality was the worst kept Hollywood secret ever.

    Then again, if you look at some of Elvis Presley’s stage outfits (and look at him with Nixon), you’d think the same thing, and that certainly wasn’t the case!