Episode posted June 27, 2021
Podcast Episode #11: https://cream-city-windy-city.simplecast.com/episodes/hildegarde-and-liberace
Title: Hildegarde and Liberace
This is Cream City, Windy City. I’m Wendy Bright.
Every episode, we explore thought-provoking connections between Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities 90-miles apart on the shores of Lake Michigan. This podcast is an effort to lay out some of these links, to connect the stories of both cities.
Thanks for your patience during this gap between episodes. I just moved and am settled in now. So, on we go!
I also want to thank all of you who have given me such wonderful feedback and provided ideas for future episodes. Much appreciated.
I’ve got a good Chicago-Milwaukee story for you today. It was really fun to find the images and music for this episode. You can find all of the incredible photographs and performances, plus the transcript, at wendycitychicago.com.
They both came from Milwaukee, but their paths often crossed at the Palmer House Empire Room in Chicago. They both went by single names. They both became international singing piano stars known for glamorous, flamboyant style. She was 13 years older and a major inspiration to him. They both became LGBTQ icons: she and her partner are celebrated as the first out lesbian couple in entertainment, while he remained closeted his entire life, but found ways to live his identity.
You no doubt know of him: Liberace.
There’s a fair chance you’ve not heard of her: Hildegarde.
The idea for this subject came to me when I was giving tours in Chicago. One of my most popular tours was called “1950s Nightlife in the Loop.” We ended our walk at the Palmer House Hotel lobby for a cocktail and a bit of history. After discussing Bertha and Potter Palmer (of course), we focused on the glamorous Empire Room – its entrance still a focal point in the lobby at the top of those grand stairs. The Empire Room from the 1930s to the 1970s was one of the most famous nightclubs in North America.
With my iPad in hand, I pulled up vintage photos and quizzed my guests on celebrities who had performed at the Empire Room. How many could they identify? There were some tough ones. Maurice Chevalier tripped up most people, as did Celeste Holm. Younger people didn’t recognize Jimmy Durante or Eartha Kitt or Bob Newhart. Everyone recognized Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and, of course, Liberace. But when I pulled up the photo of an elegant lady in a gown and opera length gloves – not a single person over the years knew who she was. Once one of the biggest stars in America — internationally celebrated – how is it that Hildegarde isn’t better remembered?
I was also struck by the fact that both she and Liberace were big stars hailing from Milwaukee who had often worked that stellar room in downtown Chicago. I wanted to dig into this further.
Let’s take a look at how these two gifted Milwaukee musicians rose to international fame, how Chicago played a central role in their careers, and how neither abandoned their Milwaukee roots. Let’s also examine how their sexual identities impacted their careers and their legacies …and explore why Hildegarde is, surprisingly, so little known today.
Beloved by generations, Hildegarde gained international fame as a singer, pianist, cabaret entertainer, and comedienne. Her career spanned the 1930s to the 1990s and included more than 100,000 performances. She was popularly known as “The Incomparable Hildegarde,” a title bestowed upon her by columnist Walter Winchell.
Born Hildegarde Loretta Sell in 1906 to German immigrant parents in Adell, Wisconsin, she grew up in New Holstein. Her Roman Catholic family was devout and highly musical.
In 1921, when Hildegarde was 15, the Sell family moved to Milwaukee. Their home and grocery store were in the Washington Heights neighborhood (at 5508 W. Vliet Street) and they attended St. Sebastian church. Hildegarde went to St. John’s Cathedral High School and worked at Gimbel’s. She loved shopping and often with her mother took the streetcar down to Schuster’s on 12th & Vliet.
Hildegarde was naturally musically gifted. She took piano lessons for many years and was incredibly dedicated to practice. She went to many live concert performances in Milwaukee, and especially enjoyed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when they performed at the Pabst Theater.
During high school she began to take organ lessons. She received permission from her priest at St. Sebastian to practice on the fine pipe organ there.
It was the 1920s silent movie era and this talented high school student found a lucrative career playing organ at movie theaters, providing the soundtrack for silent films, a demanding role which meant hours of nonstop playing. She played to crowds of hundreds of people at the Lyric Theater at 38th & Vliet and the Violet Theater at 24th & Vliet. She moved to the much larger Apollo Theater on Teutonia Avenue which seated over 1,000 people.
In addition to her earnings from performance, she took a job in the Notions Department at the Gimbel’s store downtown. She was able to help her family but also pay her tuition for continued musical studies. At 16, Hildegarde attended the Marquette University Conservatory of Music for one year. Founded in 1911, by the 1920s 1,000 students attended the Conservatory, which was an essential training ground for Milwaukee’s musical community.
With her professional training and strong work ethic, Hildegarde became an in-demand pianist and accompanist in Milwaukee, her name and photo appearing often in the local papers. But it was radio that took her fame to the next level. Marquette University and the Milwaukee Journal founded station WHAD in 1924, which was the first 500-watt broadcasting station in the city. The premier program to test the station’s capabilities took place in January 1925 and featured Hildegarde accompanying a singer. She soon became a regular on the station. (A few years later Marquette got out of radio and the Journal bought a different station …and renamed it WTMJ.)
As a silent movie accompanist, she had watched the vaudeville shows that performed after the films and in them recognized possibilities for her own career. One of the downtown Milwaukee theaters she had played, the 3,000 seat Alhambra with its incredible Wurlitzer, led to an opportunity for Hildegarde to become more than a local musician. While she always held Milwaukee in her heart, she saw her place as somewhere in the wider world. She was 20 when she auditioned for and won a lead role in a show called “Gerry and Her Baby Grands” – a touring troupe of four women pianists playing four white baby grand pianos together on stage …dressed in Louis XIV men’s attire.
Being on tour in the late 1920s opened Hildegarde’s eyes to the world. She saw much of North America and the United Kingdom. Along the way, she and her fellow musicians made it a point to seek out Black jazz clubs. She loved the jazz she heard at the Cotton Club in New York. But she most often frequented the clubs in Chicago’s Bronzeville: The Apex on 35th Street known as “the coziest night club in Chicago” and the Sunset Café, “Chicago’s Brightest Pleasure Spot,” famous for Louis Armstrong’s appearances. One night at the Sunset, Hildegarde was invited on stage to perform with the orchestra.
As the tour ended, she went to New York to try to further her career, when in 1930 she met the woman who would change her life, Anna Sosenko, an aspiring songwriter. Together they formed a working and personal relationship that would last for a quarter century. Anna was the manager and the architect of Hildegarde’s career and her life partner.
Hildegarde, Anna at her side, was touring on the RKO vaudeville circuit when she was discovered by Gus Edwards, the so-called “Star Maker.” He encouraged Hildegarde’s cabaret style of singing, her use of comedy, and her vaguely foreign stage persona. Edwards was the one who in 1932 suggested she drop her last name and be known simply as Hildegarde, an unusual thing at the time. She has been called the “first of the single-name stars” and credited with starting the single-name vogue among entertainers.
Hildegarde and Anna soon decided that to gain entrée to sophisticated café society, they needed to immerse themselves in Paris. In 1933 they moved to France for three years. On a bike ride through the French countryside, Anna was inspired to write the love song – to Hildegarde — that would make Hildegarde famous, “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup”- the lyrics in both English and French.
In Paris Hildegarde learned to sing in French, Russian, Italian, and Swedish and also worked on her diction. She gained an international flair and air of sophistication, while retaining a wholesome quality born of her Wisconsin roots. She soon worked in the best European clubs, to admirers that included members of high society and royalty, such as the King of Sweden and the Duke of Windsor. In 1935, in London for a Pathé Pictorial newsreel, which would be seen by millions of people worldwide, Hildegarde performed “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.”
It was in Europe that Hildegarde burst to stardom.
Her European success led to her grand 1936 American homecoming. This former Milwaukee girl returned as a chic and sophisticated chanteuse, stunning audiences and breaking attendance records at venues everywhere.
Her image from the time she returned from Europe was highly stylized. Her signature look was perfectly tailored, elegant couture gowns, which Anna picked out, glittering jewelry, upswept hair, a chiffon handkerchief, and the opera-length gloves which extended past her elbows.
Along with Hildegarde’s beautiful appearance, her performance stage was filled with her grand piano, masses of roses, sometimes a second pianist, and a full orchestra. She artfully interpreted songs and accompanied herself on the piano, rarely looking at the keyboard (which you can observe in the videos I’ve linked to). Her performances were filled with both popular songs and classical music, songs sung in multiple languages, and her witty banter between them. She flirted and told risqué anecdotes and tossed long-stemmed roses to men in the audience. Time magazine referred to Hildegarde as the “luscious hazel-eyed Milwaukee blonde who sings the way Garbo looks.”
The hotel supper club scene – the nightclubs that emerged in cities at the end of Prohibition – was Hildegarde’s central performance arena throughout her career. These clubs, such as the Palmer House Empire Room in Chicago, often large and opulent, combined dining, drinking, often dancing, and glamorous entertainment, intended to fill an entire evening. And in the early days, Hildegarde set the standard.
During the peak of her popularity in the late 1930s into the 1950s, she was booked at least 45 weeks a year. Even during World War II, her shows sold out. Working her magic at the piano she captivated her audiences coast to coast. Eleanor Roosevelt called Hildegarde the “First Lady of the Supper Clubs.”
She recorded her many songs and her records sold in the hundreds of thousands.
She regularly appeared on national radio. She hosted three different radio shows, which gave listeners everywhere a taste of her posh nightclub performances. She was awarded a Hollywood Star on the Walk of Fame for her contributions to radio.
But she also had an early encounter with television. In 1936 she performed two songs live at the National Broadcasting Company’s midtown Manhattan studios. The performance was broadcast from a transmitter on top of the Empire State Building. Journalists and entertainment executives stationed a few blocks away gazed into a ten-inch monitor and were introduced to “Television Girl.” Hildegarde had participated in the first practical demonstration of television in the United States.
Hildegarde was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1939 and soon became a household name. The New York Times hailed her as a potent fashion influence and she was named to the list of Best Dressed Women in America multiple times. She single-handedly made opera length gloves the rage.
Revlon introduced a popular shade of lipstick and nail polish known as Hildegarde Rose. The advertising featured Hildegarde’s glamorous image.
By the end of World War II, she was the highest paid supper club performer in the world. To give you an idea of how big she was, in 1945 she was ranked the most popular female singer in the country and second most popular entertainer –after Bing Crosby.
While Hildegarde lived in Milwaukee for a relatively short period of time – only her late teens – she regarded Milwaukee as her hometown and was always proud of her Cream City roots. She was known as “the dear who made Milwaukee famous.” Throughout her career she sang a number of songs that referred to her hometown, such as “Cousin in Milwaukee,” (composed by the Gershwins), “Milwaukee French,” “My Milwaukee,” and “I Wish I Was Back in Milwaukee.”
She also recorded a live album at the Conrad Hilton in Chicago:
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hildegarde was known as the most imitated performer in show business. Numerous celebrities, most notably Liberace, used Hildegarde’s performance style as a model upon which to base their own. Many of the songs she made popular were performed by others, and her signature song, the hit “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” was performed by the likes of Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, and Eartha Kitt.
The American public – as well as people around the world – adored Hildegarde.
But by the late 1950s culture and entertainment had shifted with the introduction of television and the rise of Las Vegas. Supper clubs were not quite as popular as they had once been, while the popularity of Vegas soared. And more people were staying in to watch TV rather than going out in the evenings.
Hildegarde and Anna had broken up in 1956, and Hildegarde began to struggle. She lived in New York City and endeavored to keep touring. She tried to stay relevant with new material, but for a variety of reasons she was unable to fully make the transition that would ensure she drew the large audiences she once did.
But she never gave up. Hildegarde managed to stay in the spotlight until the end of her life. She maintained her elegant appearance and many marveled at how she never seemed to age. She went on TV variety and talk shows. She wrote a book about her life and started business ventures – all of which she passionately promoted. Then with the 1970s nostalgia wave, she suddenly had many more opportunities to perform, as she evoked the glamor of days gone by.
As a long-time New Yorker, she remained a favorite in the city. In 1986 for her 80th birthday, Hildegarde celebrated with a performance at Carnegie Hall. She would continue energetically performing until 1995 – when she was 89 years old.
Hildegarde made her last foray into the limelight with the June 1998 edition of Vanity Fair magazine. She was recognized – beautifully photographed by Annie Leibovitz – as one of the four most influential women of America’s glittering midcentury entertainment era.
Toward the end of her life, she worked to preserve her legacy. She donated many of her collections to various institutions, such as her papers to Marquette University and a group of her evening gowns to Mount Mary in Milwaukee.
On June 29, 2005, at 99 years old, Hildegarde’s story came to a close. Her obituary appeared in newspapers around the world. Most of them gave her credit for many show business firsts. Cabaret legend Bobby Short, who died just months before, had said of Hildegarde, “Hers was the slickest nightclub act of all time.” Liberace adored her. He said, “Hildegarde was perhaps the most famous supper club entertainer who ever lived.”
If Hildegarde’s legacy was as influential as her obituaries and Vanity Fair proclaimed, it is perplexing that she is not better remembered for her extraordinary career. The fact that she is widely overlooked by historians and the entertainment industry leaves Hildegarde’s career and influence muted today. She is still revered by the cabaret world and especially by the LGBTQ community, who have celebrated Hildegarde and Anna as the first out lesbian couple in entertainment.
The 1950s is most likely the period when many forces came together that caused her to lose her place at the center of cultural life.
The 1950s was largely a time of conformity and conservative social norms and Hildegarde didn’t fit those expectations. She wasn’t the domestic, motherly type, nor the girl next door. Unlike Hollywood stars who pretended to know their way around a kitchen to ensure their appeal, she never did.
Hildegarde and Anna made no secret of their relationship. They lived together — in a large apartment at the Plaza Hotel surrounded by Renoirs and Manets — they worked together, and traveled everywhere together. Although other women in the industry lived outside of the norms, such as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, they both had one thing Hildegarde never had: romantic relationships with men. So even though their sexual behaviors and reputations may have been outside the accepted norms, their bisexuality still kept them within the acceptable range of heterosexuality for influential women. Hildegarde as an adult was never linked in any tangible way to a man. That in and of itself made her different, and perhaps suspect. But until the late 1950s, it had never affected her popularity.
Hildegarde was often asked why she had never married. Even though she had dated many boys in Milwaukee and relentlessly flirted with men during her career, it appears that once she met Anna, there were no more male love interests. In answer to that question, Hildegarde assumed her stage persona, declaring, “I traveled all my life, met a lot of men, had a lot of romances, but it never worked out. It was always ‘hello and goodbye.’”
While it seems that Hildegarde never faced outright discrimination for being a lesbian, her career may indeed have suffered because of it – particularly starting in the late 1950s. Especially once she and Anna broke up in 1956 – and all the negative publicity that came with that – her star began to dim somewhat. She had fans and great admirers to the end of her life, but when viewing her career after the 1950s, it seems as if she had been quietly put on a shelf.
The break-up with Anna was doubly bad for Hildegarde: she had lost her brilliant manager. Handing the press and her public image, getting the bookings, and trying to remain current were never again done for Hildegarde with the success that Anna had ensured.
And finally, the 1950s was the age of television and Hildegarde never fully crossed over to it. Her cabaret act didn’t seem to translate well to the small screen. When she was a guest on TV shows, such as “What’s My Line?” in 1955, she was always beautiful and charming and met with thunderous applause, but her highly formal style was beginning to be seen by some as out of sync with the times. She seemed to be a star from the past, not one for the future. How strange that “Television Girl” didn’t find success in the medium. Not making it in television surely caused a depletion of her audience.
But one of Hildegarde’s most lasting legacies was her influence on another star, her fellow Milwaukeean, Liberace.
Hildegarde was long a major inspiration to him. As he described it: “I used to absorb all the things she was doing, all the showmanship she created. It was marvelous to watch her, wearing elegant gowns, surrounded with roses, and playing with white gloves on. They used to literally roll out the red carpet for her.”
Hildegarde was aware of his awe and perhaps flattered by it. To a journalist’s question about Liberace, she replied, “Of course I knew him, and he would sit there and just watch me over and over and over again, so he got a lot of ideas from me.” She cited as examples of her influence on him the lack of an encore (“Always leave them wanting more,” she advised him), and the elegant stage persona. She added: “I wore elaborate clothes, too.”
It was 13 years after Hildegarde had been born that, in 1919, Wladziu Valentino Liberace came into the world. Born in West Allis, a suburb of Milwaukee, to a Polish-speaking mother and Italian-born father, he grew up relatively poor. Interestingly, like Hildegarde’s family, the Liberaces also operated a grocery store for a time on South 60th Street, with the store in the front room and their apartment in the back.
In the late 1920s the family moved to a new home on the corner of 49th & National Avenue in West Milwaukee. Young Walter, as he was called because his playmates couldn’t pronounce his Polish name, loved to explore the grounds of the National Soldier’s Home, which was directly across the street. He even played piano for the Civil War veterans living there.
Walter was a musical prodigy. His father, an accomplished musician, encouraged him. By the age of four the boy was able to reproduce on the family upright practically any melody he heard. And like Hildegarde and her family, the Liberaces tapped into Milwaukee’s rich musical life. The Pabst Theater provided a regular venue for musical performances and the city remained an ideal place for young musicians to blossom.
In 1933, when Walter was 14 years old, he won a scholarship to study at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, newly moved to the handsome mansion on Prospect Avenue.
Thus began his 17-year relationship with the school and his beloved teacher, Florence Kelly. She had earned her Master’s in Music at the Chicago Musical College, a school founded in 1867 and located in the Loop, which in the 1950s merged with Roosevelt University. Walter was a dedicated student, practicing hours each day and tackling difficult pieces with ease. Florence Kelly was struck by how he was never nervous before recitals, auditions, or any performances at all.
Florence Kelly worked at WTMJ radio as a staff pianist playing popular tunes. Walter followed her lead and began earning good money playing in honky-tonks, beer halls, and for private parties.
His parents at first did not approve of his playing in such places. His father felt that popular music was too low brow and a waste of his talent. His mother worried about his exposure to sinful ways. But Walter got an early break with a gig to play at the Riverside Theater downtown. His Depression-era pay for the week? $75. Playing popular music was lucrative, money which he used to help his family and which ultimately changed their minds. So, while he didn’t pursue a traditional classical music path, for the rest of his career he always included classical works in his repertoire.
At West Milwaukee High School, Wally, as he was called, played boogie-woogie, ragtime, and the latest popular songs during lunchtime for his fellow students. He was an unusual young man yet he became incredibly popular through his music and his sunny disposition. Walter graduated in 1937. His yearbook photo shows him in a snappy jacket and boutonniere. The caption below reads: “Our Wally has already made his claim, with Paderewski, Gershwin, and others of fame.”
In 1938 he played an important concert for 500 people at the Milwaukee Elks Club Lodge downtown where he performed the Liszt A Major Concerto with the Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra. He received glowing reviews in the Milwaukee papers.
The following year came a big break – in Chicago. The 19-year-old Walter Liberace had given a concert at Kimball Hall in the Loop to glowing reviews in the Chicago papers, when one day he was walking down Michigan Avenue and came upon Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A sign in front read, “Orchestra in rehearsal—auditions.” He took it to mean that they were auditioning, so he walked in. Conductor Frederick Stock was indeed in the middle of a rehearsal, but they were not holding auditions. A manager insisted that Walter leave. As Liberace later described it, “A commotion started when I tried to explain why I was there.”
Stock turned around and asked what was going on. The manager replied, “It’s just some kid who plays piano…He says he only wants to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.” Stock was amused. He paused rehearsal and invited the young Liberace to play something. Walter began playing Liszt’s A Major Concerto when the conductor stopped him to ask questions about him, his family, his training. Stock then called for the full orchestra score for Liszt’s concerto There in Symphony Hall Liberace performed the entire concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Stock arranged for Liberace to perform with the CSO in Chicago, Rochester, and Milwaukee. It is unclear what transpired with the Chicago and Rochester dates, but we do know about the Milwaukee concert. In January 1940 at the Pabst Theater, 20-year-old Walter Liberace was the soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto.
Liberace often spoke of the huge boost to his career that Frederick Stock gave him. He said, “He was a great man and very kind to me. I literally walked off the street and into his orchestra.”
Another turning point came in 1942 when the great Polish pianist and composer Paderewski made the suggestion that Walter Liberace adopt a single name. From then on it would be simply Liberace. Was it in tribute to Hildegarde? Perhaps, but Liberace prized the connection with Paderewski so much, that this became the preferred story about his name that he told for the rest of his life. In conversation he asked his friends to simply call him Lee.
In the early 1940s Liberace performed at cocktail lounges and supper clubs all over Wisconsin, but in 1941 decided to leave Milwaukee. This was the peak period of Hildegarde’s fame and he was intensely tuned into her, listening to her every week on the radio. She had paved the way before him in the nightclub scene. He wanted the same success that she was savoring.
The supper clubs were often attached to the grandest of downtown hotels, such as Chicago’s Palmer House. It was a world of tuxedos and dinner jackets, of long gowns and corsages, of tinkling crystal and muted conversation. The clubs were all about sophistication, good manners, and refinement, which suited Liberace perfectly.
When Hildegarde was performing in Chicago – which was often – Liberace got himself there, to the Palmer House Empire Room, to observe every little thing she did. He admired her sophistication and piano work. He also felt close to her since she came from Milwaukee, too. But, he said, “…when I started playing some of the supper clubs, Hildegarde was still a big attraction, so I tried not to imitate her. I was very careful not to be the male Hildegarde, let’s say.”
But he clearly emulated certain aspects of Hildegarde’s career. One of her signature numbers, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” became his theme song. And some have pointed out the similarity between Hildegarde’s trademark white gloves and Liberace’s trademark candelabra. But the one central way that he emulated her was in mastering how to create an aura of extravagant glamour …with a knowing wink.
In the early 1940s Liberace won a gig as intermission piano player at New York City’s most famous room, the swanky Persian at the Plaza.
Despite it being a thankless task to play 12 minutes of background music as patrons ate, drank, and paid no attention, for Liberace, one aspect made up for it: the star attraction at the Persian Room was Hildegarde, as he well knew, one of the biggest draws of the era. After Spencer Tracy, she was the most famous entertainer to emerge from Milwaukee. When he introduced himself to her in New York, she seemed happy for her fellow Milwaukeean to share the bill with her.
A few years later, Liberace would come back to the Persian Room, this time as the headliner, with the highest pay he had yet earned. And it was here that he first used his famous electric candelabra. On that July night in 1945, his show began with a stagehand in butler’s costume carrying the lighted candelabra to the grand piano. Then the announcement: Ladies and gentlemen, “the sensational new piano virtuoso, Liberace!” He strode onstage, beaming in his white tie and tails.
In 1945, the performer added another milestone to his career: a twelve-week run at the Empire Room at the Palmer House, a boon that meant he practically had Chicago in the palm of his hand.
1945 was proving to be an extremely good year for Liberace. Besides conquering New York and Chicago, he discovered Las Vegas. At that time there were only two venues on The Strip: the El Rancho Vegas casino-resort and the Hotel Last Frontier, but in the postwar years, the city was taking off. He got a high-paying gig at the Last Frontier, which was only the beginning of a stellar and long-lasting Vegas career. Las Vegas felt lucky to have him, too. They found that his boyish good looks appealed to women, that he put on the most extravagant show, and that he was excellent for business.
In 1947, he would top his last stint at Chicago’s Palmer House by being booked for a full seven months in the Empire Room – the longest of his career up to that point. His contract included a suite at the elegant hotel. But Liberace was not thrilled with his room: the drapes and pictures in his suite did not please him. He proceeded to buy his own paintings for the walls from Chicago art galleries. Then he headed down State Street from the hotel to Marshall Field’s to buy much better drapes.
It was during this time in Chicago that he complained to his press agent that his biggest problem was his name. People kept calling him Libber-ACE. He had taken to spelling out the correct pronunciation on his stationary, cards, advertising, but it wasn’t enough. His press agent promised to make a special point of emphasizing the pronunciation to the press.
Then the agent asked Liberace about his hobbies so that he could plant some charming stories in the papers to add to the musician’s appeal. Besides collecting miniature pianos and loving to cook…
…Liberace told him that he painted ties and blouses. In fact, in 1941 he had hand painted a white satin blouse specially for Hildegarde. It featured her gloved arm, a rose and a keyboard. She was said to have treasured it.
By the 1947 Empire Room engagement, Liberace was stealing the show. His reviews in the Chicago papers were glowing. He was praised for his “showmanship shined to a blinding sheen…” The Chicago Daily News called him exciting and urged readers to be sure and go see him at the Palmer House. The Chicago Tribune said that Liberace was “solidly talented as a pianist, [he] performed his serious numbers with distinction, [and] his humorous ones with an understated satire that was delicious. A thoroughly good entertainer.” The Chicago Times loved his show but voiced concern that he was supplanting Chicagoans’ old favorite, the Incomparable Hildegarde.
Liberace had great momentum and he spent the 1940s honing his act. Still wildly popular on the supper club circuit, he broke into radio, sometimes performing alongside Hildegarde. Here he is performing on camera in the 1940s. But the 1950s would prove to be a rocket ship in his career.
One of biggest hit songs of the 1950s referenced him. “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes of Sheboygan, held up their fellow Wisconsinite as a model of a dream lover. They ask Mr. Sandman for a man with “lots of wavy hair like Liberace.”
He was about to step onto the national stage and become a major star. In 1953, he appeared at Carnegie Hall and the following year at Madison Square Garden. And he was still dominating Vegas. In 1955, he commanded $50,000 a week to perform at the Riviera Hotel. Although he did concert tours around the country (with frequent stops in Milwaukee), Liberace all but invented the Vegas extravaganza. When he launched his record-setting residency at the Riviera in 1955, he wore a black tuxedo jacket glistening with more than one million sequins.
But it was television that would seal the deal.
“The Liberace Show” debuted in 1952 and soon became one of the most popular shows on TV. The syndicated show, which was mostly him at the piano and bantering directly at the camera, was one of the country’s most watched programs in the mid-1950s… right alongside “I Love Lucy.” Liberace was one of the first TV superstars and some estimates put his television audience at 30 million.
Mentioning Milwaukee on his show:
The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show – Liberace with “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” 1959:
Liberace’s career continued to thrive in the 1960s, and into the 70s and 80s as he toured, played Vegas, starred in a couple of movies, and appeared often on TV. Declaring himself “Mr. Showmanship,” he dazzled his intensely loyal fans by adding ever more rhinestones, sequins, glitz and glamour to his shows. From the ornate candelabra on his piano to his over-the-top costumes, Liberace paved the way for glam stars to come such as Elton John and Lady Gaga. In the 1950s, he even lent Elvis Presley his gold jacket, years before the King went Vegas.
Liberace was consistently one of the highest-paid performers in show business, and often highest paid musician in the world. For two decades his annual income was over $5 million. He won two Emmys, six gold albums, two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the title “Entertainer of the Year.”
A clip from “Sincerely Yours,” 1955:
Liberace in Chicago for the debut of “Sincerely Yours,” 1955:
Liberace in Chicago to autograph his autobiography at Marshall Field’s State Street store, 1973:
In 1978 Liberace sought to open a Liberace Museum in Milwaukee to celebrate his life and career in the place where it all began. He had one particular place in mind: the Fisk Holbrook Day mansion in Wauwatosa. The imposing (some would say spooky) Victorian house up on a hill, of Gothic, Second Empire, and Italianate styles, looms over Milwaukee Avenue below. Liberace declared it perfect for his museum. But Milwaukeeans, especially preservationists and nearby residents, were not at all keen on the idea.
Liberace instead built his museum in Las Vegas. It opened in 1979 with his extravagant costumes, cars, and artifacts from his career on display. During its peak, the museum drew 400,000 visitors a year, but in 2010 the Liberace Foundation closed the museum and instead opened the Liberace Garage, also in Vegas, displaying eight of the glitzy cars that he used in his shows.
In 1984, Liberace returned to his childhood stomping grounds: the Old Soldier’s Home across the street from his family’s house. The old Ward Theater on the grounds, built in 1882, was in need of restoration. It was renamed (temporarily, it turns out) The Liberace Playhouse and he was there for its dedication.
Like Hildegarde, Liberace kept close ties to Milwaukee, performing in the city often. On his frequent returns he always made a point of enjoying Usinger’s sausage and dining at Mader’s Restaurant. And he was a spokesperson for Blatz Brewery.
Speaking to a crowd at the Hollywood Bowl about Milwaukee:
Fearing rejection from his adoring public, Liberace never came out as gay. He was sexually active but never discussed it with anyone. He had grown up in a religious household and a conservative, working-class neighborhood at a time when homosexuality was punishable in many states by up to 10 years in prison. He had real cause to fear that exposure of his private life would almost certainly mean the end of his career.
In early 1986 Liberace received the devastating news that he had AIDS. He did not share his diagnosis, but friends noticed his deterioration. Despite his progressive suffering, he performed one more engagement at Radio City Music Hall: 18 shows in November 1986, which turned out to be his last.
Liberace died in his Palm Springs home on February 4, 1987 at age 67 of complications from AIDS. After Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS two years earlier, Liberace’s death was another wake-up call for much of America, which had been deluding itself about the gay people in its midst.
While publicly denying that he was gay, Liberace did so with a wink, one that let other closeted gay men know that it was OK. He carefully constructed every aspect of his image to maximize his public appeal, and that did include allusions to his sexual orientation. He played around the edges of that truth without ever exposing it.
And his performance style was designed to be as non-threatening as possible. While camp, it was devoid of any overt sexuality. Liberace rose to prominence at a time when camp and homosexuality were commonly and erroneously seen as synonymous. Elton John observed, “He was what every straight person wants to think gay people are like — so camp, not at all threatening.” Interestingly, it was his camp, over-the-top performance style that appears to have been key to his appeal to middle America. Many simply ignored the subject of his sexual orientation altogether, preferring to focus on his outsize talent.
Liberace went to great lengths to hide his sexuality. Early in his career he even staged relationships with women. His fans seemed happy enough to accept his story and the reasons for his bachelorhood. In fact, many were outraged during his brief engagement to a younger woman. In interviews, whenever asked, he firmly asserted his heterosexuality. And when the British gossip rag, The Daily Mirror, suggested otherwise, he took them to court and won.
Yet Liberace had been taking lovers for decades, many of whom lived with him. His most serious – and publicized – relationship, with Scott Thorsen, lasted five years (1977-82). But Liberace remained discreet to the end and never explained the many handsome young men who came and went.
He was a hero to some in the gay community, but not to all. Some were disappointed and angry at his repeated denials and lack of support for gay rights. His choice to be nonthreatening was further seen as a negative role model. Many modern gay men find it difficult to relate to him – in contrast to Rock Hudson, another famous closeted celebrity of the era. Hudson’s image as a ruggedly masculine romantic lead was far more significant in terms of challenging stereotypes and changing attitudes. Still, Liberace’s supporters say he can and should be remembered as a gay icon – not one that represents liberation, but who represents a not-too-distant past when sexual minorities had to communicate via coded language and innuendo.
It is undeniably sad that Liberace never felt he could come out. It is also sad that Hildegarde never hid yet was quietly cast aside. They both, in various ways, suffered for who they were. Yet, there are many of us here in the 21st century, still talking about them and celebrating their lives and work.
It does seem to me that people today are learning Hildegarde’s name and of her luminous legacy. She pops up often in stories of Milwaukee and music history, as well as in articles about supper club and midcentury entertainment – as well she should. As for the man who modeled himself after her, no other Milwaukee entertainer was as widely known in his or her lifetime as Liberace. He once said, “don’t be misled by this flamboyant exterior. Underneath I remain the same—a simple boy from Milwaukee.” It’s remarkable that both achieved international fame but always hearkened back to their hometown.
These two shining stars came from Milwaukee and they dazzled Chicago for decades. Their lives and work intersected in the two cities and beyond. Their careers embody 20th-century ideals in entertainment. And how they lived their sexuality sheds light on attitudes and prejudices of the time. We might look to these two larger-than-life personalities for inspiration in our lives and work. We can easily call up online their music, interviews, and performances to witness their vibrancy. Liberace’s early work, especially in TV, might be a fresh discovery to many of us. And Hildegarde’s music and stage persona will be a revelation for most of us.
The legacies of Hildegarde and Liberace shine on.
Thanks so much for joining me. I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. You can leave them at the blog post for this episode, where I’ve got those amazing photos and music clips, find them at WendyCityChicago.com.
If you would like to know more about the title of this podcast, take a listen to Episode 1.
Many thanks to my son, Zack Goehner, for his brilliant graphic design work.
Intro music: “Chicago Blues,” by the Kenny Dorham Quintet.
Outro music, “I Lost My Baby In Milwaukee,” by KEdKE.
See you next time.