It was a cloudy spring day in 1985 when sunshine suddenly brightened the WPIX studio with the presence of the incomparable Liberace. His warm smile showcased teeth as white as the keys on the piano. Wearing a cream-colored striped suit, pale-blue shirt and sky-blue tie and jewel-encrusted rings on both hands, he charmed everyone in sight.
He greeted me like we were old friends as we discussed the interview we were going to do live in the “Spotlight” segment of Independent Network News Midday Edition, which I co-anchored with the former first lady of New York Donna Hanover.
Though outwardly flamboyant, this mega star was more reserved and humble as we spoke one-on-one prior to the interview. While I had questions for him, he wanted to know about me, where I was from and how long I had been in the news business. He seemed genuinely interested.
If I wasn’t a Liberace fan before, I certainly was one now. I understood instantly why he was so popular worldwide. When I left to begin our broadcast, I told him I would rejoin him in the last segment. He placed his hand in mine and thanked me for inviting him, and he told me to feel comfortable calling him Lee.
I began the segment introducing him with the words, “His costumes are his trademark, his talent his hallmark.” As the camera took a tight close-up of him, I explained he had returned to New York for 21 performances at Radio City Music Hall. He told me performing there was the fulfillment of a career-long dream. It had been 30 years since he last played at New York clubs.
“I have so much fallen in love with New York,” he said. “This town has so much energy, it’s given me a vital spurt.”
I asked to what he attributed his enduring popularity.
“I feel fortunate to appeal to a general type of audience which includes people of all ages, kind of a family-type audience.”
He said he had never been a “cult-type performer like so many others.” He cited dangers in dealing with cult audiences because as he put it, “one day you’re hot and the next day you’re not,” adding, “I’ve been fortunate to grow into new generations.”
As for the inspiration for the signature candelabra on the piano during each of his performances, he explained that he was so impressed by the presence of the candelabra in the 1945 film about the life of Chopin, that he went out the next day, bought one and placed it on the piano for his opening night in the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel.
“It became an instant trademark,” he beamed with that effervescent smile.
Conducting the interview over a piano in the studio, I couldn’t resist.
“Might your fingers be itching a bit?” I teased.
He was graciously receptive. “I don’t think many people realize that Mozart was a very young and very popular composer,” he noted. He went on, “I have often thought if he were alive here today he would probably enjoy our pop music very much. He would probably play in his own inimitable Mozart style ‘Mack The Knife.’”
For the next mesmerizing 50 seconds or so I listened and watched as Liberace’s fingers sailed ever so gently across the ivories, his jewel-encrusted rings glistening in the spotlight. It was such an unforgettable moment.
As we wrapped up the interview, Liberace told me how pleased he was that “Amadeus” had just won the Oscar for best film.
“It’s wonderful to see a movie of such caliber get recognized like that.” And he expressed the hope that some day he could be on the screen.
“Maybe there’s another composer’s life that someday I might be able to interpret on the screen,” he smiled with a sparkle in his eyes.
He never got to do that, but I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that 28 years after that interview, Michael Douglas is interpreting his illustrious career on the screen.
For me, I will never forget the day Liberace played the piano for me then said thanks for the “enjoyable” interview. I say, thank you Lee for one of the most memorable interviews I’ve ever done, one that seems as fresh today as it did that sunny day in the studio back in 1985.
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