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'Behind the Candelabra': Fun facts about the legendary Liberace

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, “Behind the Candelabra,” looks at the relationship between flamboyant pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his much younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). The film, which is in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, premieres Sunday on HBO.
But how much do you really know about Liberace, who died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 67?

Here are some fun facts and interesting tidbits about “Mr. Showmanship”:

He was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace on May 16, 1919, in West Allis, Wisc.

He learned to play piano by ear at the age of 4.

At the age of 8, he caught the attention of Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. When he was 14, pianist Florence Bettray-Kelly became his tutor.

He made his debut as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony at the age of 20.

As a teenager, he earned money playing tunes at movie theaters and nightclubs under the name Walter Busterkeys.

Liberace made his feature film debut in 1950s “South Sea Sinner” and later he signed a two-picture deal with Warner Bros. But his first movie, the 1955 melodrama “Sincerely Yours,” did so poorly, the studio bought out his contract rather than risk making another box office dud. He returned to films in 1965 for “The Loved One” and “When the Boys Meet the Girls.”

He played the concert pianist Chandell and his gangster twin Harry in "The Devil’s Fingers” and “Dead Ringer” episodes of the series “Batman.” Coincidentally, Liberace had an identical twin brother who had died at birth.

In 1953, "Ripley’s Believe It or Not" declared Liberace “the fastest piano player in the world” for playing 6,000 notes in two minutes.

Women, especially the over-50 crowd, loved Liberace when he came to television in the early 1950s. He got his own show in Los Angeles in 1951 and then hit the national scene when the 15-minute “The Liberace Show” aired twice a week on NBC the summer of 1952. He attracted some 30 million viewers and thousands of weekly fan letters with his syndicated variety series, “The Liberace Show,” which debuted in 1953.

Liberace also did a daytime series for ABC in 1958-59 and hosted the 1969 CBS summer series “The Liberace Show,” which was filmed in London.

Liberace appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1953 and earned a staggering $138,000 for his 1954 performance at Madison Square Garden. In 1955, he commanded $50,000 a week to perform at the Riviera in Las Vegas.

In 1954, he announced his engagement to 23-year-old actress and Elizabeth Taylor stand-in Joanne Rio. Her vaudeville veteran father Eddie, though, put an end to the relationship because of the rumors surrounding Liberace’s sexuality.

The infamous Hollywood tabloid Confidential Magazine printed a story in 1957 titled “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should be ‘Mad About the Boy.’” The story alleged he had an affair with a male press agent in Dallas. Liberace won a libel suit against the magazine after proving he wasn’t in Dallas at the time.

Two TV movies were made about him in 1988: ABC’s “Liberace,” starring Andrew Robinson, and CBS’ “Liberace: Behind the Music” with Victor Garber.

In 1983, the Guinness Book of World Records stated he was the world's highest paid musician.

He once said “I’m a one-man Disneyland.”

Liberace’s most popular single was “Ave Maria,” which sold more than 300,000 copies.

His final stage performance was at the Radio City Music Hall on Nov. 2, 1986, just three months before he died of AIDs. It was his 18th show there in 21 days.

The Liberace Museum opened in 1979 and closed its doors in 2010. During its peak, the museum rivaled Hoover Dam as a tourist attraction, averaging about 400,00 patrons a year. One exhibit was devoted to fan tributes, including a Steinway made out of 10,000 toothpicks.

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