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Beacon Senior News

Lunch with Liberace

Jun 29, 2021 07:50AM ● By Karen White-Walker
Liberace and author sit at a table smiling for the camera

Karen White-Walker and Liberace before his concert at Melody Fair in North Tonawanda, New York.

When I think of summer I think of sunshine, flowers, fruits, picnics and Liberace.

I had the opportunity to have lunch with Mr. Showmanship himself—all because I personally wrote to him and asked if I could interview him. Simple as that. (I might have also mentioned that I wrote a popular weekly newspaper column read by millions. Or was it thousands? Maybe even hundreds. I never can rely on my memory these days!)

The phone call came saying I would meet with him on Tuesday and have tickets to his show at Melody Fair in North Tonawanda, New York, on Saturday. Had I not been fortunate enough to have interviewed him before seeing him perform, I might have been in awe of the man—and I don't think it's healthy to be in awe of anybody. You're not yourself and they're certainly not themselves when you're standing there drooling like some starstruck teenybopper.

A mother of four should have more dignity, I told myself. Besides, he's just a man and I'm just a woman. But from the rumors that were circulating about him back then, would I even be much of a distraction to him anyway?

The Three Coins Restaurant on Niagara Falls Boulevard was hosting the private party for the superstar, his entourage and the press. I excitedly ran up the stairs to where the elegant reception was being held.

The first one to greet me was Liberace's agent, who sure made me feel like I really belonged with the rich and famous. (I belonged all right, with my whole $2 and my lipstick stuffed inside my bra because I didn't own a purse to match my one and only knockout dress.)

The banquet table was laden with foods that were foreign to me: escargot, caviar and other delicacies I washed down with champagne. The room was dimly lit so that when Liberace made his entrance in an all-white suit, all you really noticed were his diamond-studded fingers that glittered and sparkled as the reporters’ camera flashes ricocheted off the mammoth rocks.

We were escorted to a corner table by a man who treated me like I was a contestant on that old ’50s game show “Beat the Clock.” “Okay, Kid, ya got three minutes to fire off your questions. Hit it!” 

I must have had that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look because to ease the tension, Liberace leaned over and whispered, “You may call me Lee. All my friends do.”

But it wasn't until he grabbed my hand that he pulled back in horror and gasped.

“They're naked!” he shrieked, referring to my bare naked fingers that couldn't boast even one little ornament.

“My wedding ring went down the drain,” I weakly explained.

“Let's hope your marriage doesn't do the same,” he quipped.

“I'm here to talk about you,” I reminded him while also wondering how I could tactfully ask why he dressed so flamboyantly when he performed.

Forget tact! I hit the question head-on.

“You see, Karen,” he explained, “When I was first starting out and I had my own television show, I dressed conservatively and hardly anybody noticed me.”

“I know the feeling,” I mumbled to myself, thinking of how during my baby-rearing days I dressed
in stretch pants, sneakers without laces and a bargain-basement special that read “The Hell With Housework. Let's Go Bowling!” Even back then I knew how it felt to be invisible.

He continued. “It wasn't until I started winking at the audience and dressing differently that anybody noticed—and boy, did they ever notice! Soon my audience started getting all spiffed up for my shows, so I had to do them one better, really outdoing them, so to speak.” 

“I don't see how you can now ever...” but I stopped myself, not wanting to continue with how I thought that he couldn't possibly get any more outrageous.

“So you think I can't out-do myself?” he laughed and winked.

“But Liberace...”

“Lee, remember?”

“I think your genius is about how you were a child prodigy, starting to play at 4 years old. You were trained in classical music, yet it seems like when you started putting personality into the piano keys, playing the popular tunes, you reached the masses.”

“The critics think I compromised.”

“And what do you think?”

“Time's up!” yelled the aggravating voice that had warned me about my allotted time for the interview.

“See ya Saturday,” I called back to him, clutching the tickets that were given to me.

The reserved, almost forlorn-looking man I had interviewed was not the same man who came out to perform. It's true that some people come alive on stage. It was evident that Lee was most comfortable in front of his adoring fans outfitted in white ermine from his head to his feet—and it was smack dab in the middle of summer! He immediately shed the coat that would have easily paid off my mortgage and put my four kids through college, but I harbored no jealousy.

He drew the audience to him like the pull of gravity, and oh, the way he played! Such performers are seldom that gifted, but I'll always maintain that I sensed a little loneliness in him. I figure stardom must come at a very high price—a price most of us can't or don't want to afford.

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