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Liberace, 67, Flamboyant Musical Showman, Dies

February 05, 1987|TED THACKREY JR. | Times Staff Writer

Liberace, the musical showman who cried all the way to the bank when critics were more impressed by his wardrobe than by his piano technique, died Wednesday at his home in Palm Springs.

He was 67, and his personal physician, Dr. Ronald Daniels, said death was due to congestive heart failure brought on by subacute encephalopathy, a general term for degenerative brain disease.

Gathered inside the house where Daniels pronounced the entertainer dead at 2:05 p.m. were Liberace's sister, Angelina Farrell; his sister-in-law, Dora Liberace, and Jamie Wyatt, described as Liberace's friend and longtime companion.

Outside were nearly 100 of his fans, who had begun their vigil when the seriousness of their idol's condition was first made known last week.

Funeral arrangements were pending at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills, where Liberace's brother and mother are entombed. A family spokesman said services will be private, but asked that contributions in lieu of flowers be made to the Liberace Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts in Las Vegas, Nev. Plans for memorial services in Palm Springs and Las Vegas were incomplete.

Liberace had continued to work--a sellout engagement at the Radio City Music Hall, followed by appearances in New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles promoting his new book, a full-color inventory of his many possessions called "The Wonderful Private World of Liberace"--until just a few weeks before his death. His last public appearance was on the "Oprah Winfrey Christmas Show," which was taped for television in mid-November.

Rumors of ill health first surfaced in mid-1986 and were reinforced late last month when his manager, Seymour Heller, announced cancellation of all engagements for the coming year.

Diet Initially Blamed

Liberace was admitted to Eisenhower Medical Center in nearby Rancho Mirage "for tests" late last month, but was released four days later. At that time, Heller said his client was suffering from anemia brought on by a watermelon weight-loss diet.

A newspaper in Las Vegas quoting unnamed sources reported, however, that the pianist was suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Heller vehemently denied this, demanded a retraction and threatened to sue the Las Vegas Sun for libel.

But within an hour after issuance of Daniel's cause of death statement Wednesday, Dr. Jay N. Cohn, head of the University of Minnesota Medical School's cardiovascular division, denied that there was or could be any direct relationship between encephalopathy and heart failure, while noting that a virus infection could both damage the heart and cause encephalopathy.

"AIDS," he added, "does indeed give you an encephalopathy."

Liberace's fans paid no attention to the bickering.

They crowded into a parking lot of a Catholic church across the street from Liberace's Spanish-style mansion trampling flower beds in their rush with members of the media to the door to hear all bulletins on the pianist's condition.

Attorney Joel Strote, who had acted as spokesman for the family during the last few days, was not pleased.

"I think that it is tragic," he said, "that this is turning into a circus. It doesn't seem very dignified. It is (Liberace's) wish that his fans remember him in his glory. He would like to die in peace."

But the fans didn't see it that way.

"He loved us, we loved him," said Sara Hempling, who had taken a week's vacation from her job in Seal Beach to join the crowd. "He'd want friends around. . . . "

Flamboyant and affected, scorned by the cynical as the Sultan of Schmaltz who "left no rhinestone unturned" in efforts to impress, Liberace was nonetheless respected in the entertainment field as one of the canniest showmen since P. T. Barnum.

Movie Not Successful

He had reached his peak in the late 1950s; his single starring role in films was not a success, and in recent years his main appeal had been to an aging audience of women whom one detractor characterized as "every mother who felt she had been disappointed by her son."

Yet it was death--and death alone--that finally set a term to a career that seemed always to be in mid-stride.

The ever-smiling performer who had made personal trademarks of a lighted candelabra and outrageously overstated attire had been playing piano professionally for nearly six decades, and he had been a headliner for more than half that time.

Bursting upon the national scene in the early 1950s with one of the first film-syndicated television shows, his appeal had seemed never to falter through the vicissitudes of record albums, concert tours and finally a nightclub act that packed showrooms year after year.

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