Liberace's Days in the Milwaukee Area
Liberace was a flamboyant pianist who twice had his own TV show and frequently performed in Las Vegas. Born in Wisconsin in 1919, Liberace appeared as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 16. He later began giving concerts in over-the-top costumes with ornate pianos and candelabra, playing primarily popular music. Very successful, he hosted his own TV variety series, The Liberace Show (1952–55, 1969), and appeared in films such as Sincerely Yours (1955). In later years he performed frequently in Las Vegas. He soon became one of the world's most popular entertainers, and enjoyed a six-decade career playing the piano and entertaining the crowds of all ages. He sold more than 60 million records and was awarded six gold records.
Liberace was born in West Allis, right outside of Milwaukee, and named Wladziu (Polish for Walter) Valentino Liberace, one of four children of a very musical family. His Italian father was a classically trained musician and a member of the Milwaukee Philharmonic, playing the French horn: later, he never cared for his son's popular music. His Polish mother played the piano and his brothers and sister were also musically talented. He started playing the piano by ear at the age of four and received lessons at seven. Liberace's talent was evident early on, and when the renowned Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski visited the family, he recommended him to receive a scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music. Liberace attended West Milwaukee High School where he played with his first band, "The Mixers." He was a soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony at age 13, and at age 16 with the Chicago Symphony. He alternated between the classical music he loved with the jazz and popular music that also interested him. He played with symphony orchestras but he was also performing in Milwaukee's honky-tonks. He used two names to keep his musical personalities separate: He was Walter Liberace when he played with the Milwaukee Symphony, but Walter Busterkeys when he played in dance bands.
Liberace was no stranger to scandal, and newspapers were sued by him on some occasions as they implied, correctly, that he was homosexual. He continued to deny this however, and won his court cases. In 1982, Scott Thorson, Liberace's 22-year-old former chauffeur and live-in lover of five years, sued the pianist for $113 million in palimony after he was let go by Liberace. Liberace continued publicly to deny that he was homosexual and he insisted that Thorson was never his lover. The case was settled out of court in 1986, with Thorson receiving a $75,000 settlement, plus three cars and three pet dogs worth another $20,000.
At the time of his death in 1987, Liberace had traversed a long and arduous road into show business immortality. Through it all, he had lived the American dream – an aspiring tale of growing up in the straits of poverty, working hard towards success, enjoying vast wealth and becoming a worldwide personality. Almost from childhood, Liberace was a man with a plan and although he earned upwards of an estimated $5 million a year, the impression of his poorer days never left him. “You’ve got to be careful,” Liberace would advise young musicians. “Make sure to never forget your roots.” And for Liberace, those roots were deeply planted in West Allis, Wisconsin.