Saturday, August 31, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Three-Quarter Time

"The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style 
dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity" 
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp

Of course, if Vienna isn't more less exactly like this, I shall be bitterly disappointed.

Poor Liberace has been getting a lot of bad press lately, and while on some level it's probably accurate if not deserved, it still strikes me as a bit of a shame.  Yes, he was a shameless manipulator, a conflicted, closeted, cosseted, screaming queen who ended his days as a cosmetically enhanced  parody of himself (a persona that was to an extent a parody from day one).  With all that, he was a hell of a showman, and even the people most hurt by his caprices and excess also comment on his genuine kindness and the almost puzzling naïveté with which, at times, even at the end, he approached both his art and his life.

Back in my ushering, house-managing days, I got to see a lot of Liberace shows.  It's easy to forget just what raptures he engendered in his audiences, what a feeling of glamour and sophistication (a genuine feeling, even if the glamour and sophistication weren't) he gave them.  In my mind's eye I see them still, those little ladies in their fur stoles with their colorless, patient little husbands, gathering at the local music hall in awed anticipation of an experience just like this one they were so familiar with from television.  And he delivered.  Ours was a theatre-in-the-round, so there weren't dozens of dancers, or dancing waters, or pyrotechnics, or any of the other gewgaws that littered his extravaganzas in Las Vegas or Radio City (no flying, and, thank God, no hotpants).  Just him and a small orchestra and some colored lights, but he made it work.

I'll always treasure one image:  a glimpse of the star himself, a moment or two before his big entrance, seen through the curtains that separated the wide aisle circling the rear of the hall from backstage.  He was fully accoutered, be-sequined, bewigged, painted, and ready to roll, clad in the vast white fur with its vast spreading train that, on that tour, provided the Wow! factor at his first appearance.  And he was leaning, far, far out, over a saucer held out by a uniformed minion almost as splendidly bedizened (could it have been Scott?  Perhaps; like Mitzi Gaynor's chorus boys, they all looked more or less alike), and he was delicately but determinedly smoking a cigarette.  One last puff, a little shake to set the shoulders, and: showtime!

As he started through the curtained doorway, the lights going down and the music rising, for just a second he caught my eye.  Like all great old entertainers, he was at heart a siren of a kind, and in that moment, for just that moment, everything about him came into perfect focus, made perfect sense.  That kind of charisma is a powerful intoxicant; it's something I've experienced perhaps half-a-dozen times over 50 years.  That power to seduce is I think, a necessity, a vital part of the toolkit if you're going to build a career that lasts decades, spans the globe, allows one to carry on through ups and downs and shifts in tastes and even, frequently, sheer exhaustion.  At the same time, it's a terribly dangerous thing.  It draws weaker personalities into its orbit, it obscures the more difficult elements of personality.  Artistically, it becomes a crutch, something performers lean on and exploit long after the original spark has vanished from their work; personally, it isolates and distorts the soul.  Some great souls wield it and survive; others vanish into it, or are left diminished, bitter, when the power dwindles.

Here, though, that all lies outside and far ahead.  Play your waltz, Lee - make the little ladies happy, one more time...


  1. "And then he danced; — all foreigners excel
    The serious Angles in the eloquence
    Of pantomime; — he danced, I say, right well,
    With emphasis, and also with good sense —
    A thing in footing indispensable;
    He danced without theatrical pretence,
    Not like a ballet-master in the van
    Of his drill'd nymphs, but like a gentleman."

    - Lord Byron, Don Juan



  2. i'm still not sure what to make
    of bill murray on letterman.

  3. You have led such a blessed life.

    1. Well, it's certainly had its moments. Of course, one doesn't tend to write about the long (long, long) stretches of dullness, or even too often the moments of acute misery (relatively few, but very definite) does one?