"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.
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...