I see that actor Michael Douglas, who is apparently back in good health after a battle with throat cancer, has been cast in a new movie about one of my childhood heroes, Liberace.
Yup, I admit it, back in the fifties, the flamboyant pianist was a regular visitor into the Lund home on Thursday evenings and I was glued to the set watching his every move and listening to every chord. I liked all the music he played from classical to show tunes to the Beer Barrel Polka. Mom was a big fan too and together we’d guess on when Liberace would turn to the camera during a performance and give his trademark wink. We really didn’t think too much about it at the time but today, I suppose, most everyone would immediately conclude from his mannerisms, sparkly outfits and speaking style that Liberace was gay. It turns out he was, of course, but such things just never crossed my young mind. All I could think about how much I wanted to play piano like him. I’m sure my mother would have loved that too because she didn’t object too strenuously when I mentioned the possibility of taking lessons. The only piano teacher in town was Mrs. John Miller..the school superintendent’s wife. (I have no idea what her first name was. Back in the dark ages, married women gave up a lot of personal identity; their first names known only to family and a few close friends.) Mrs. Miller charged one dollar per half hour..which may sound cheap but this was at a time when my old man was making two bucks an hour working construction ten hours a day. Plus there was another problem; a big one. We didn’t have a piano; pretty hard to be the next Liberace without one. Here the story gets a little fuzzy. All I remember is coming home from school one day and there it was; a big old upright “Howard”piano that had somehow been squeezed into the little bedroom I shared with my two brothers. I have no idea where mom got the thing or how she paid for it but there was no turning back now. If she found the cash for the instrument, she’d figure a way to come up with the money for lessons. But I was in for another big shock that day. My mother sat down to this old relic, placed her diminutive fingers on the black keys and, to my amazement, started banging out the only tune she knew; an up tempo ditty that was like Chopsticks only more up tempo and a lot more complicated requiring the use of all her fingers and the entire keyboard. I begged her to teach it to me..which she eventually did but pointed out that it was just a novelty for fun, not really playing. At age 12 or 13, I was one of Mrs. Miller’s older students so I’m sure she expected me to catch on to the basics in a hurry. To be honest, it was kind of embarrassing having her sit so close to me with the smell of face powder in my nostrils and that blasted metronome ticking away as I tried to plunk out simple little tunes from the red John Thompson book for modern piano. “Papa Haydn’s dead and gone..but his memory lingers on. When his heart was full of bliss, he wrote merry tunes like this.”
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that Mrs. Miller wasn’t about to provide any shortcuts even to a student of such advanced age. I can’t say that the lessons were boring..more like terrifying because, no matter how much my mother prodded and pleaded, I rarely practiced until a few hours before making the walk over to my teacher’s house because A) I was lazy. B)I hated those silly childish tunes and C) I’d discovered rock and roll. That first recital by all of Mrs. Miller’s piano students was one of the most humiliating evenings of my young life. I struggled through a glorified version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and then, to muffled applause, shuffled back to my seat vowing to never go through that again. But then, one of the advanced students (younger than me) concluded the program performing one of the most beautiful melodies I’d ever heard. I found out later it was “Theme From Liebenstrum” by Franz Liszt. The music for it was in the back of John Thompson’s red book Grade TWO..which I had at home.
For the next week, I practiced that piece over and over until I had it down pat with just the right inflections in all the proper places. I even raised my right hand after playing some of the notes, just like Liberace. My mom couldn’t believe how lovely it sounded or my renewed enthusiasm to play. I couldn’t wait for Mrs. Miller to hear it and immediately recognize that she had been holding this talented young man back. But after I was through, she only said , “It was very nice, Douglas, but you musn’t jump ahead. We need to crawl before we walk..walk before we run.” Much to my mom’s disappointment but financial relief, I quit piano lessons shortly thereafter.
There was a guitar at home with my name on it. My cousin and I had visions of stardom and beautiful young ladies cowering at our feet like Elvis or The Everly Brothers so, in the same room where the old Howard piano now sat silent, we practiced and practiced for hours on end learning guitar chords until our fingers bled and singing along with 45 rpm records till our young voices grew hoarse.
If only I’d applied that kind of enthusiasm toward the piano. But, true dedication, it seems, is often motivated by lust and fame.
Considering Michael Douglas’ age, I would imagine that he’ll be playing Liberace only in his later life…the Las Vegas years..when he was a caricature of himself; when audiences would show up to see his outrageous outfits and stage show as much as to hear his always amazing performance on the piano. Matt Damon has been cast as Lee’s lover so there’s little doubt about the film’s focal point. When it comes out, I Think I’ll just save my money and watch an old Liberace television show on youtube instead.