Liberace: Staying in the Spotlight

Entertainers, musicians, movies, and all popular cultural items come and go, but some manage to keep their profiles high across multi generations; Elvis, The Beatles, Star Wars are examples among many.  It is a safe bet that our great-great grandchildren will be reading books on a certain boy wizard named Harry.

While these cultural icons survive the test of time, there are those that belong to only the generation that first embraced them. Liberace—American pianist, singer, and actor—is clearly one of those.

20th Century “Mr. Showmanship”


Also known as “Mr. Showmanship,” Liberace’s fame spanned the mid 20th century, when many a woman had a “celebrity crush” on this flamboyant entertainer.

Liberace’s shows in Las Vegas were stuff of legend, and rightly so according to my husband who saw one during a business trip. He recalls when his mother’s dressmaker replaced a framed picture of Cary Grant with one of Liberace, an entertainer who had that knack of making you feel like you were the special person in the audience, that he was performing solely for your enjoyment.

Liberace unknown to millennials

Recently while visiting in the hospital room of my granddaughter, as a steady stream of young nurses and patient care techs trickled in, I asked each one if she had heard of Liberace. They all expressed confusion, scanning their brains for mention of that unusual name. Not a one could give an affirmative response. Liberace must be slowly but surely dying that third death in which no one speaks of him or remembers him anymore. One nurse did not even bother to ask who Liberace was, and instead started talking about Prince, an entertainer that I know next to nothing about, except that my Facebook newsfeed was inundated with posts regarding his recent death.

Can there be a Liberace revival?

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

However, there is hope for Liberace’s name and fame to linger on for more years. For the movie, Behind the Candelabra (2013), Director Steven Soderbergh made the wise choice to cast Michael Douglas as Liberace, and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson; both actors are well renowned with multi-generational appeal, and loyal audiences. In a way, Scott Thorson, his life story, and how it resonated with Steven Soderbergh, saves Liberace from becoming obsolete.

Liberace and Scott Thorson
Liberace and Scott Thorson

How is that? Well, Behind the Candelabra focuses on the volatile six-year relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson, who is the author of the book (Thorson & Thorleifson, 1990) from which the movie is adapted. Thorson, approximately 40 years younger and Liberace’s alleged lover, was just 16 years old when their paths crossed. Yes, that might be statutory rape, but this is the entertainment business after all.

Now, how did a boy whose childhood was spent bouncing from one foster home to another end up personally involved with a world famous entertainer?  It started with Thorson’s knowledge of animal care, and a chance visit backstage where Liberace invited the teenager to care for his blind dogs at home.

Thorson bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle

One does not need a psychology degree to understand how the best defense against being swept away by cults, gangs, and toxic individuals is a strong and consistent family foundation. Thorson’s family background was anything but, making him a prime target for Liberace to pick up and play with exclusively for the next six years.

Thorson was understandably bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle, so he fully consented to the twisted sexual/father-son relationship, which included a chin implant with the purpose of looking more like the entertainer. It is not a surprise that drugs came into the picture; and Thorson became addicted, sending him into a tailspin that continues to this day with his imprisonment in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center (AP, 2014).

Thorson sues for palimony

People who come onto you strongly leave just as strongly, so it was inevitable that Liberace would eventually move on to other boys. However, after being discarded, Thorson did not go quietly into the good night. He sued Liberace for palimony, gave interviews about their relationship, and released his tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra in 1988. Intensely private about his homosexuality, Liberace would have denied all allegations and gone out of his way to counter Scott’s claims. Yet, it is that very book that caught Steven Soderbergh’s eye, and started the ball rolling toward a movie focused on Liberace, keeping him in his favorite position—in the spotlight—more than 25 years after his death.

Liberace’s entertainment continues

After Soderbergh approached a number of studios with the project, HBO took the bait, and Behind the Candelabra ended up winning two Golden Globes in 2014. While Liberace belongs to a time that is long past, Michael Douglas’s performance should give these nurses a reason to search for videos of the real Liberace on YouTube. For the essence of LIberace, they would best start with his Christmas special from 1954.


Associated Press. (2014, Jan 23). Behind the bars: Liberace’s former lover jailed for up to 20 years after failing drug test while on probation. Retrieved from

Soderberg, S. (Director) & Thorsen, S. (Writer). (2013). Behind the Candelabra [Motion Picture]. USA: HBO.

Thorson, S., & Thorleifson, A. (1990). Behind the candelabra: My life with Liberace. New York: Knightsbridge Pub Co Mass.