All Judge Brett Cullum wants for Christmas is a diamond-studded gavel.
"I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you."
The Liberace Show ran from 1952 until 1969. Yes, seventeen years of a man alone in a tux with a piano and a crystal-adorned candelabra. It doesn't sound like a ratings winner today. Can you imagine Elton John on television every week singing light pop standards and the occasional classical piece? It just wouldn't work. One reason it couldn't is there really is (was) only one Wladziu "Lee" Valentino Liberace, and he was a product of the '50s. Oh sure, later in life he would adopt a glitzed out Vegas style during the '70s, and also become (sadly) one of the big names in entertainment to pass away due to AIDS complications at the close of the '80s. He was born into a family of musicians, and by the age of four he could play any tune by ear. At fourteen he debuted professionally with the Chicago symphony. He became one of the biggest, most successful stars of his time, and in the '60s was ranked as one of the highest-paid entertainers in the industry. Despite his penchant for overstatement, he kept himself in "the closet" most of his adult life. He even successfully sued a London newspaper in 1959 for suggesting he was "fruit-flavoured" or gay. During that trial he vehemently denied his homosexuality and even cried out that such a lifestyle was an "abomination." He was a reluctant gay icon to be sure. But he was also a virtuoso piano player, and had a charming ease in front of a camera that made him a great entertainer.
Spend the Holidays with Liberace is a collection of two broadcasts from his television show in 1954. There is a Thanksgiving and a Christmas episode. They both run twenty-six minutes, and showcase the man doing what he does best…playing piano and talking straight to the camera. He's demurely outfitted in a black tux that sometimes turns white, but is absolutely not the bejeweled peacock we would see later in his career. He brings his entire family on stage (most notably "Brother George" is there), and the whole affair is one any God-fearing Baptist would feel perfectly at home attending. He is respectful of family and seems sincere in discussing what an important religious time Christmas is. This was well before the politically correct wave of "holiday" specials would demand little mention of God or Jesus. The focus in both shows is on the music, and he plays it all wonderfully. This is the kind of DVD I could see popping in right when the family began decorating the tree, or have playing on the kitchen television while you stuffed a bird for the big meal. Grandmothers and kids both should find little to offend their sensibilities, and it truly is a nice warm old time Christmas and Thanksgiving special.
So why do I find it all a little creepy? Liberace reminds me of Mr. Rogers with his soothing "you're special" narrations and disturbing lecherous glimpses straight into the camera. I swore he was cruising me while talking about Christmas! In the Thanksgiving episode he asked me if it was alright if he carved, and I couldn't help but nervously squeal at the idea of the man attacking the bird's rear end with cutlery. In the Christmas special I felt like our relationship was moving a little too fast, as he introduced me to his mother and entire clan. I felt like Liberace was just getting a little too intimate too quickly for my taste. Yet for many adoring old ladies, this was why they loved Liberace. He was fresh and they liked it. Gay or not, Liberace was charming and talked to them between piano pieces. He's the perfect date for any lonely Christmas.
Passport Video merely does a passable job of gift wrapping this holiday morsel of the mincing maestro. I appreciate the delivery of a very rare glimpse of a long-faded television program—but damn, it looks hideous. No effort to clean this one up at all. It looks like someone videotaped it in 1954, and just burned a copy of that recording right on to a low bit-rate DVD-R. The Dolby sound mix helps a little with the music, but it's still mono and rather lackluster. Maybe they were a little creeped out too, and just wanted to throw this thing out there for all the Liberace fans (whom they may assume can't see or hear too well anyway). That's no excuse though. It's value-priced, and maybe that's why they chose a cheap transfer. The menu is really strange, too, because the music is not piano, but some vocal group chanting over and over "It's Christmas Time!" And given that the show ran for seventeen years, couldn't they have come up with more than just two episodes for me? As intimate as it was, I felt a little short-changed that Liberace was out the door so quickly.
I would recommend this disc for many reasons. First off, it's an incredible glimpse at an artist who really had a commanding—almost combative—technique with his piano. Nobody plays like Liberace on the ivories. He's a rock star with that thing! Secondly, you can show this disc to any group of people during a party or family gathering. Everyone should like it, and those that don't will only have to sit through maybe twenty-six minutes of classics. It'll definitely get you or anybody within hearing distance in the mood for Christmas. And finally, it's twisted enough to make you squirm. Lee talks right at you, and Liberace seems lascivious and a little naughty as he talks about nice things. Perfect for this time of year! I like my holidays mixed with the right amount of warmth and creepy sexual tension. It just wouldn't be the same without it. So put on some rhinestones, pour some egg nog and get ready to sing along with your new best friend—Liberace.
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Studio: Passport Video
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