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SUNDAY READING

As Liberace Lay Dying : Why Dick the Bruiser Needed to Bury the Pianist's Picture by His Father's Grave, and Other Observations

March 01, 1987|TOM HUTH | Tom Huth divides his time between the Colorado mountains and Los Angeles.

On the day that Liberace was supposed to draw his final breath, and for the eight days preceding that, George Finney and his wife were camped in their '74 Dodge in a parking lot across from the entertainer's home in Palm Springs. Unlike the other people who gathered there by daylight waiting for the man to die, George was not a fan, and in fact, as the vigil wore on he was coming to dislike Liberace even more, because his own dream of redemption was dying in that hacienda, too.

"When this is all over," George admitted, "then I've failed."

You might know this round man with tears in his eyes better as Dick the Bruiser, the professional wrestler. Until he learned last August that he had leukemia, he was billed as the world's heavyweight champion, a title once held by his father, the original Dick the Bruiser. But the son inherited more than a career. He took on a debt as well, and for 8 1/2 years now he has been following Liberace around the country in pursuit of a filial grail: an autographed picture to take home to Indiana, to bury next to his dad's grave.

During those 8 1/2 years, by his own account, George has sat through 288 concerts and been arrested 43 times trying to get close enough to Liberace to carry out the oath he had made at his father's deathbed. That promise was still unkept. And any minute now it looked as if Liberace would be ducking out on George for good.

FOR THE RECORD Correcting the Dick the Bruiser Affair
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 17, 1987 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 6 inches; 212 words Type of Material: Correction
On March 1, 1987, the magazine published an article about the deathwatch at the Palm Springs home of Liberace. Writer Tom Huth reported that one spectator, George Finney, claimed to be a former professional wrestler known as Dick the Bruiser Jr., son of the original Dick the Bruiser, who Finney said died eight years ago.
The Times has learned that William F. Afflis is the wrestler widely known around the country as the original Dick the Bruiser, and that he is alive and well in Indianapolis, Ind. In fact, none of the attributes Finney ascribed to Dick the Bruiser in that article pertain to William F. Afflis, who also uses the name Richard Afflis.
In the article, Finney mentioned events that he said had occurred in his father's life. However, Finney has confirmed that his remarks concerned his own father, not Afflis--though he still claims that he, Finney, also fought under the name Dick the Bruiser. The editors would like to correct any misunderstanding that may have arisen in the minds of Dick the Bruiser fans, or other readers, who may have mistakenly concluded that Finney's statements about his father pertained to Afflis. Afflis is not the father of George Finney. He did not beat George Finney when he was a child or abuse his own children. Afflis did not abuse his wife or stick a fork in her leg. He did not tell George Finney that Liberace, as well as the musical group the Platters, were his idols, nor did he ask Finney for a signed autograph poster of either Liberace or the Platters.
The Times regrets the error.

"Every time I get a chance, I ring that bell," George said, pointing to the front door of the compound. "But they slam the door in my face. I climb the trees and look over the walls." But he only kept coming closer to getting busted once again.

Throughout Tuesday the third of February the radio repeated that Liberace would not last the day. By mid-afternoon there were a hundred spectators lined up behind the low concrete wall of the parking lot, not to mention the network camera crews being kept at bay in the street by cops and security guards. One after another, except for George Finney, they sang Liberace's praises.

Anna Kaye of Palm Springs, who was born without fingers on her left hand, testified that Liberace inspired her to play the piano. The man next to her, from Kansas City, explained, "He's just different. I love his clothes. I love his jewelry." A woman from Ontario remembered "a lovely guy. Lovely music. It's a shame."

"He could roll with the razzing," one man recalled. "That's how you could tell he was good. "A very common, humble person," said another. "He was good to his fans." And another: "He always had a happy smile. He was pleased that you'd like him." Several people mentioned how he gave to charity but didn't make a big show about it, the way Sinatra does.

These admirers were not all elderly. A 32-year-old drummer from Riverside said, "I just liked the way he made the piano talk--and his charisma." The young wife of a man who'd been Liberace's gardener had just lit a candle at Our Lady of Solitude Catholic Church. "There's only one like him," she offered. "He was just himself. Down to earth." An 18-year-old boy considered, "I don't think anybody can play the piano like he could."

Humble Americans themselves, these people appreciated that Liberace, despite his fame, remained a loving son. "He adored his mother," said a retired local waiter, and a tourist remembered "his devotion to his mother--and that wink, his forever wink."

Their voices did not convey sadness, but respect, gratitude, acceptance. All except Dick the Bruiser.

Every now and then a fancy car swept into the circular driveway, in front of the 10-foot-tall wrought-iron candelabrum, and visitors got out. The media would yell from across the street, "How is he?" The door to the compound would swing open and the crowd glimpsed figures inside. But we could only make bad guesses. Then the door would swing shut again.

At the age of 41, after two decades in the ring, Dick the Bruiser Jr. looked powerfully bruised himself. His dull blue eyes were sunk deep into reddened sockets in a puffy, double-chinned face. His tousled hair was going gray. His jeans were rolled up country-boy style, and his Pall Malls were stuck inside his T-shirt over the ledge of his belly. His right eye was blinded, he said, from the time the Fabulous Freebergs threw acid in his face in the Superdome. He has a steel plate in his head from the time Rowdy Roddy Piper butted him into a ring post. "It's not all made up," he assured me. He showed where he'd been shot in the arm by a 91-year-old woman in St. Pete.

He explained what he was doing here.

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