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Monday, August 6, 2012

We Love You Too, Lee: Liberace Salutes San Francisco on His TV Show in 1956

Posted By on Mon, Aug 6, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Steven Soderbergh is directing a biopic of Liberace for HBO, and pictures have started to emerge of its stars more or less in character: Michael Douglas as Wladziu Valentino Liberace ("Lee" to his friends), and Matt Damon as Liberace's lover, Scott Thorson ("Lee's driver and nothing else" to Liberace's friends). Obviously, the film is about his relationship with Scott Thorson in the '70s and '80s, as well as Liberace's increasingly futile attempts to keep his homosexuality a secret and his eventual death from AIDS, because that's where the drama is.

I've read Thorson's tell-mostly-all memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace, as well as Darden Asbury Pyron's essential biography Liberace: An American Boy, but I've always been more fascinated with Liberace's career as a syndicated television pioneer in the 1950s. Every episode of his hit show Liberace had a theme -- we looked at the Liberace Christmas episode last year -- and after a concert at the San Francisco Opera House in 1956, he did a show about San Francisco. From his studio in Hollywood, but still.

He doesn't say the name of the first piece, other than it being a tribute to Chinatown, but it's an excellent example of what made Liberace so popular with the scores of women who loved him: He's a classical musician with personality, one who actually seems to be enjoying what he's playing. He even smiles and bounces around with the rhythm! That just wasn't done. His backing band, led by his brother George, come and go throughout most numbers thanks to the magic of editing. And how great is that banjo solo at 01:27?

And now, a word from our sponsor. Texan men, they drive a car that's king-sized, like the 1957 Dodge Texan, with "suntan styling."

The proudly half-Italian Liberace performs "Come Back to Sorrento" for his countrymen who work along Fisherman's Wharf. Note the rugged stevedore who stops to enjoy a smoke and Liberace's song at 2:22.

The songs Liberace performed were often standards that the viewing audience was familiar with at the time, but it's a safe bet that today nobody really remembers "Come Back to Sorrento." Even the more popular "Cocktails for Two," sung by Liberace to a couple enjoying the view from the top of an unnamed hotel on Nob Hill -- inasmuch as it can recreated on the Liberace set in Hollywood -- is mostly remembered today by people like me who grew up hearing the Spike Jones version on Dr. Demento. And hardly even then. Alas.

Time again for a word from our sponsor! Poor Rex Marshall, who's remembered about as well as "Come Back to Sorrento," has to say "aluminum" eight times in this minute-long commercial. You get the feeling that semantic satiation is kicking in toward the end.

Liberace says that the the people in San Francisco (hey, that's us!) are still dancing to that Latin American rhythm, specifically "The Carioca" from the Ginger Rogers / Fred Astaire movie Flying Down to Rio. I couldn't even begin to guess how authentically Brazilian it may or may not be, nor do I care, not when it's this much fun. And while he's not quite up there with, say, Jerry Lee Lewis, Liberace never lacked for energy when performing.

Lee brings it down a little with a more somber performance of a song from the 1939 movie Intermezzo. He dedicates it to the film's late star Leslie Howard, who was killed in 1943 when his plane was shot down by the Luftwaffe. Quoting conventional 1956 wisdom, Liberace says it was because the Nazis thought Winston Churchill was on board -- and I don't need to tell you that Churchill wasn't, because you're familiar enough with history to know Winston Churchill didn't die in 1943, right? -- though there were also a theory at the time that the Nazis shot the plane down because Howard himself was a spy, a theory which have been since been discredited. It's a whole big thing. Anyway, the song itself is very pretty.

More words from more sponsors! Country singer Mollie Bee (whose recording of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" you've probably heard without realizing it) shows us how to make a criss-cross burger using American cheese and Swift's Premium Hamburger Patties.

And why are you still watching Liberace on a 10" set like a chump? Enjoy it on an ultra-modern RCA Victor 21" set! It's only $199.99. (Which, in 2012 dollars, is a mere $1,687.25)

Having largely dropped the San Francisco thread by now, the last big number is a song called "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," by Jimmy McHugh. Lee says that there have been a lot of requests for McHugh's songs, but what's more important is that it gives him the opportunity to sing a love song directly into the camera. It's hard to believe now, but that was a powerfully effective gimmick at the time, and his largely female viewership loved him for it, especially when he winked. (See my article about his Christmas episode for more on Liberace's legendary wink.) The song is not without its syrupiness in the beginning, but he brings out the band for a jazz-jam at 01:35.

His closing song for every episode, another "sing directly into the camera and into the melty hearts of fans" number, was "I'll Be Seeing You."

Maybe if the HBO movie gets good ratings, they'll do a sequel set in the 1950s about the TV show. Fingers crossed!


Sherilyn Connelly is a San Francisco-based writer. She also curates and hosts Bad Movie Night at The Dark Room, every Sunday at 8pm.

Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF (follow Sherilyn Connelly on Twitter at @sherilyn) and like us on Facebook.

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