When Liberace came to the Mon-Yough area to play at Monroeville's Holiday House, he knocked out the standing-room-only crowd.
On opening night, Nov. 23, 1963, the flamboyant pianist led a sing-a-long of old-time tunes and played variations on "Mack the Knife" ... after first making a costume change, saying "excuse me for a moment while I slip into something more spectacular."
He joked about the rumors surrounding his personal life: "Someone told me I wouldn't smile so much if I could hear some of the stories going around about me. So you know what I told him? I heard 'em."
Rave reviews followed the show. "A magnificent case of showmanship," The Pittsburgh Press reported. The Post-Gazette was equally lavish in its praise: "To leave an audience smiling, wanting more, is all that a performer could want."
The Press reported that Liberace's final number received "an ovation the likes of which is seldom heard in supper clubs."
It was damned near the last ovation Liberace would ever hear, because he nearly died there, just a few miles up the road from McKeesport. His recovery took three agonizing weeks at Pittsburgh's St. Francis General Hospital --- and helped popularize dialysis as a treatment for kidney disease.
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Steven Soderbergh's celebrated new movie about Liberace, "Behind the Candelabra," tells the story of the flamboyant pianist's deeply closeted personal life, and his troubled 1970s love affair with a personal assistant.
But although it mentions Liberace's brush with death, it doesn't (for obvious reasons) go into detail about the incident.
It happened at the Holiday House --- Monroeville's gone, but not forgotten supper club on Route 22 --- a half-century ago, on the night after President Kennedy's assassination.
Years later, in response to a question from East McKeesport-based writer Carol Peticca, Liberace, who died in 1987, recalled the incident in Monroeville as a turning point: "You begin to cherish and treasure life so much more once you have almost lost it," he said.
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Liberace was born in West Allis, Wis., in 1919, but with his mixed Polish and Italian heritage, he could have easily been a native of the Mon Valley. His parents raised him Roman Catholic and his hard-working father was a factory laborer and part-time musician who encouraged his son to pursue piano lessons.
Liberace's first audiences were at Mass when he played the organ, but soon he was becoming known as a keyboard prodigy, performing in short films and with symphony orchestras. Though purists often criticized his piano playing as sloppy or overly dramatic, his sense of humor --- and his wardrobe --- endeared him to audiences.
By the late 1940s, he was a Hollywood celebrity, and in 1950, he performed at the White House for President Truman. In 1953, Liberace became one of the earliest stars of syndicated TV with a weekly half-hour series, and was spoofed by everyone from Jack Benny to Bugs Bunny.
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When Liberace first came to Pittsburgh in 1954 to do three benefit shows for polio research at Oakland's Syria Mosque, 4,000 people turned out every night for concerts that began at 8 p.m. and didn't finish until well after midnight. "Such is the craftsmanship of this super-showman," reported Henry Ward of the Press. "Liberace is first, last and always an entertainer."
"The staid walls of the Mosque have seldom looked down on a more responsive audience and the cheering, as far as we were concerned, was genuine," Ward wrote. "Audience reaction to the Liberace charms reached its high water mark when he switched (from classical music) to boogie and had everyone from the child of eight to sweet old ladies of 80 yelling 'Hey!'"
In 1955, a Las Vegas casino paid Liberace $50,000 to headline its main room --- a price that wasn't topped until the mid-1960s. He performed for Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium with Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. and was granted an audience with Pope Pius XII.
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Although it may now seem hard to believe, Liberace was a sex symbol for women --- not for nothing did the Chordettes, in their 1954 hit "Mr. Sandman," wish for a boy with "lots of wavy hair like Liberace."
Newspaper and magazine stories (no doubt planted by publicists) several times reported that Liberace had been "linked romantically" to various women, but that he remained "a confirmed bachelor."
Liberace's early success, however, began to fade after the syndicated show went off the air. Rock and roll unquestionably hurt the appeal of Liberace's sentimental and schmaltzy takes on classical music and old pop tunes.
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And while Liberace was still idolized by female fans, rumors began to leak that the campy, flamboyant performer with the feathers and furs was (not surprisingly) gay.
If the rumors had been confirmed, Liberace's career would have come to a swift end. Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness until 1973, and consenting sexual activity between adults of the same gender was illegal in many states through the 1950s.
There were attempts to out him. Confidential, a gossip and scandal magazine, reported in a cover story that Liberace's theme song should be "Mad About the Boy!" and claimed he had tried to sexually assault a male press agent. London's Daily Mirror called him "mincing" and "fruit-flavoured."
Liberace sued both publications, successfully, for libel, but the damage to his image from such stories was lasting.
In the early 1960s, without his regular TV show, Liberace became what would today be considered a "lounge act." No longer playing large venues such as the Syria Mosque, he toured hotels, ballrooms and supper clubs --- including the Holiday House.
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Beginning in the 1950s, the Holiday House was the Pittsburgh area's number one spot for exclusive and intimate performances by entertainers of all types --- comedians, musicians, singers, dancers.
It was created by John, James and Mario Bertera, former owners of the famous Vogue Terrace, just north of McKeesport in North Versailles. The Vogue Terrace had been the McKeesport area's leading nightclub, but in 1954, the big action moved to the glitzy new Holiday House.
Initially constructed at a cost of $203,000 as a supper club with 18 motel rooms, the Holiday House quickly grew, taking over a neighboring motel and other properties. Soon, its lounges, restaurants, swimming club and 200 motel rooms sprawled over 11 acres near the intersection of Northern Pike, Monroeville Boulevard and William Penn Highway --- a little bit of the Las Vegas strip transported to the Turtle Creek Valley.
(And like Vegas, rumors also abound of shady doings --- involving top U.S. organized crime figures --- in the Holiday House's many corridors. Which of those rumors are true, and which are romantic fantasies, is lost to the ages.)
By the 1960s, if a nationally known performer was doing a show in Pittsburgh --- The Temptations, Phyllis Diller, The Chi-Lites, Andy Williams, Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, Neil Sedaka, Foster Brooks, David Brenner, Sophie Tucker, Sister Sledge, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Louis Prima --- chances are they were playing at the Holiday House.
The glitz and glamour of the Holiday House was the natural setting for Liberace, who was touring the U.S. in 1963.
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In June 1963, UPI entertainment writer Vernon Scott noted that Liberace was no longer the star he had been in the 1950s.
"In as much as Liberace has been ducking Vegas and hasn't been much in evidence on television, the question arises, just what has he been doing? The answer: He has been been making a fortune in one-night stands."
Liberace, Scott reported, had just completed a nine-month tour of cities large (New York) and small (Jackson, Miss.) and was spending four weeks in Las Vegas at the Riviera Hotel. When that engagement ended, Liberace would be headed back out onto the road, visiting 70 cities, including Pittsburgh.
"At $5 per admission ticket, Liberace can afford to forget television --- and Vegas, too," Scott wrote.
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Liberace, then 44, was booked into the Holiday House for 16 days. His first show was scheduled for Nov. 22, 1963.
Other shows in the Mon Valley that night included the New Christy Minstrels at the Twin Coaches in Rostraver --- their first Pittsburgh area appearance --- and "new jazz sensations" the Ron Leibfreid Trio at Paule's Look Out in West Mifflin. The New Christy Minstrels would spawn the career of folk singer Barry McGuire, but Leibfreid was never more than a Pittsburgh-area "sensation."
That afternoon, in Dallas, Texas, an assassin later identified as Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy and seriously wounded Texas Gov. John Connally.
Across Pittsburgh, nightclubs, theaters and lounges closed out of respect for the dead president.
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The shuttered nightclubs that evening included the Holiday House. Liberace gave his assistants the night off, and spent the evening cleaning his colorful costumes.
It's unknown what brand of cleaning fluid Liberace used, but if it contained carbon tetrachloride, then it seems likely that he used a bottle of Carbona Cleaning Fluid, which was popular, nationally advertised and widely used.
The main ingredient in Carbona, which was introduced in 1908, was carbon tetrachloride. Developed in the 19th century, "carbon tet" was available in a variety of products.
Radio and TV repairers used carbon tet to fix dirty control knobs in customers' sets, and because it wouldn't burn, carbon tet also was deployed in fire extinguishers to put out grease and electrical fires. It could also be used as a refrigerant.
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But the sweet-smelling chemical also could cause people to get light-headed and pass out. (The Ramones' song "Carbona Not Glue" --- about huffing cleaning fluid to get high --- demonstrates that people knew carbon tet was powerful stuff.)
In some cases, users of carbon tet working in enclosed spaces went into comas. Prolonged exposure at low levels could cause cancer. Short-term exposure at high levels caused kidney and liver damage within 24 hours.
As early as 1956, an article in Reader's Digest was warning consumers about the hazards of carbon tetrachloride, calling it "a poison so vicious it should be banned from every home." Carbon tetrachloride was eventually removed from consumer products in the U.S. in 1970, and Carbona Cleaning Fluid no longer includes carbon tet.
But in 1963, carbon tetrachloride was still widely sold in supermarkets and hardware and variety stores. (There was an S.S. Kresge five-and-10 only a block or two away from the Holiday House in Miracle Mile Shopping Center. It's fun to imagine Liberace, clad in jewelry and furs, sweeping into Kresge's to buy a bottle of Carbona, though there's no evidence that's what happened.)
"I suppose I should have had the window open in the room, but it was a cool day," Liberace said later. "One of my staff came into the room and said, 'How can you stand the smell of that stuff?' It didn't seem that bad to me. I'd gotten used to it."
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Liberace's first show at the Holiday House was postponed until Saturday, Nov. 23. The show was standing-room-only. People unable to get tickets waited in the lobby to hear and see whatever they could, according to the Post-Gazette.
Accompanied by coloratura soprano and Springdale native Claire Alexander, Liberace played a medley of tunes from "West Side Story," then pounded out a raucous rendition of "The Birth of the Blues."
In its review, the Post-Gazette noted that the label "Mr. Showmanship" is attached to many entertainers, but that Liberace had earned the right to the title.
"Liberace is a very assured, likable and gifted performer who disarms his audience by good-humored, if shrewd, candor," wrote the P-G's Lee McInerney. "He has a happily diversified program of tunes, and he does them all with a flourish."
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But up on stage, Liberace was smiling and joking only with great difficulty. After his first number, he remembered later, the room began spinning. Halfway through the performance, he was seriously nauseated.
In fact, the show that the newspapers raved about wasn't Liberace's usual lengthy nightclub performance. As his condition deteriorated, Liberace re-arranged the list of songs to make the show shorter.
"It was clear that I was finished for the night," he said later. "In fact, I was almost finished forever."
To the thunderous applause and whistles of the packed Holiday House auditorium, Liberace took his bows and walked off of the stage.
Then, just before collapsing to the floor, he threw up at the feet of Marvin Ackerman, the Holiday House's general manager. As Liberace's skin drained of color, he slipped into unconsciousness.
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There was no hospital in Monroeville in 1963. East Suburban General Hospital --- now known as Forbes Regional --- wouldn't open until 1978.
So Liberace was rushed by ambulance to the nearest emergency room at Columbia Hospital in Wilkinsburg. By 11:10 p.m., he was transferred to the larger, better-equipped St. Francis General in Pittsburgh's nearby Lawrenceville neighborhood.
His remaining shows at the Holiday House were cancelled and reporters were told that Liberace was suffering from "a recurrence of an ear infection" that would sideline him for a week.
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The "ear infection" story fed to the press was a blatant lie, probably intended to keep other venues from canceling Liberace's shows. A team of nine doctors at St. Francis quickly agreed that Liberace was suffering from what was then called uremic poisoning --- kidney failure.
His prognosis was grim. They gave him a 20 percent chance of survival. Liberace noted sardonically that his hospital room overlooked St. Mary's Cemetery on the other side of Pittsburgh's 45th Street. His lawyer arrived from Hollywood with a new copy of his will, and a priest gave Liberace the "Anointing of the Sick" --- better known as last rites.
"Doctors are lousy liars," Liberace wrote in his 1973 self-titled autobiography. "The ones in the hospital would tell me I was improving while glancing at my chart and shaking their heads."
It took Liberace's personal physician, Dr. Frank Taylor, to give him the plain truth. "Put your house in order," he said.
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True to his image as a lover of jewelry, furs and other gaudy trappings, Liberace used what he thought were his final hours to go on a shopping spree. He opened charge accounts at New York's finest stores --- including Saks and Tiffany's --- and ordered lavish gifts for friends and families.
"If you think a drunken sailor spends money carelessly, you should get a load of a rich piano player when he thinks he's dying," Liberace wrote in his autobiography.
Liberace later credited a mysterious nun's prayers to St. Anthony of Padua --- a Franciscan monk, and traditionally the patron saint of lost articles --- with his recovery.* "I began to pray, and almost immediately, I began to feel better," he remembered.
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According to Liberace, the mysterious nun was clad all in white. St. Francis' nuns supposedly wore dark-colored habits, and when he asked about his visitor, no one could explain who she was.
So, was Liberace's visitor a divine messenger? An illness-induced hallucination? Or was it just a little bit of showbiz B.S. made up by Mr. Showmanship to make the story better?
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Besides mysterious nuns in white, Pittsburgh had something else --- what was then called an "artificial kidney," about the size of a small refrigerator.
In nature, the kidneys remove poisons from the blood and drain them to the bladder, where they're eliminated in urine. In patients whose kidneys are failing, the poisons continue to collect in the bloodstream until the other organs begin to shut down.
The process of "hemodialysis" --- artificially filtering the blood to remove poisons --- was first proposed in the 1850s by a Scottish doctor, and the first attempt to use the process on a human being came in 1924.
A working dialysis device was created by a Dutch doctor, Willem Kolff, during World War II, and when he emigrated to America in 1950, he brought his research with him. His "dialyzers" were successfully used to treat wounded Allied soldiers during the Korean War.
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The first patient in Pittsburgh to be treated with dialysis was Barbara Porr of Pittsburgh's North Side, who in March 1951 went into acute kidney failure after accidentally swallowing several tablets of disinfectant. Her life was saved with a dialyzer built by Allis-Chalmers --- a company better known for building farm equipment, and (ironically enough) based in Liberace's home town of West Allis, Wis.
At the time, Westinghouse Electric Corp. and doctors from the University of Pittsburgh were collaborating on development of their own improved "artificial kidney." One of the doctors on the research team was 1944 Pitt med school graduate Frank Mateer.
By 1954, Mateer had successfully dialyzed 150 people in Pittsburgh, mostly at Bloomfield's West Penn Hospital, not far from St. Francis. But the equipment was crude. Mateer later told stories about repairing the early dialysis machines with "tape and gum bands."
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Those crude machines, combined with news stories reporting that some dialysis devices included washing machine parts and sausage casings as blood filters, surely led many to conclude that dialysis was an unreliable quack science.
On the other hand, Liberace was near death. What did he have to lose? In the early 1960s, there were only a handful of dialysis machines in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh had at least two --- at Shadyside Hospital and West Penn Hospital. St. Francis sent for Mateer and his "artificial kidney."
Mateer, an inveterate tinkerer who repaired cars, built models and designed his own house in Wilkinsburg's Blackridge neighborhood, was not one to be put off by a balky dialysis machine, or a challenge.
After a few days on Mateer's dialysis machine, Liberace's vital signs improved and his kidneys slowly regained their function. He was moved from the Intensive Care Unit to a room on the seventh floor of the south wing of the hospital.
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Then, on Dec. 16, Liberace --- who was preparing to die at the end of November --- was discharged from St. Francis. He boarded a plane at Greater Pittsburgh Airport and flew home to Hollywood to continue recuperating.
"As I lay in the hospital, I thought about a lot of things," Liberace told a reporter in early 1964, explaining that he was re-thinking his punishing touring schedule. "I also got my faith back when death was near. I was brought up a Catholic, but I wasn't a very good one. I'm trying to do better now. Serious illness can make you see things a lot differently."
He began staying closer to the West Coast, making guest appearances on TV with The Monkees, Lucille Ball and Johnny Carson. He played a campy villainous version of himself on the Batman TV show.
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But he never forgot St. Francis General Hospital. Although the hospital had hoped that Liberace would donate a substantial amount of money --- there is no evidence that he ever did --- Liberace did make personal appearances on behalf of St. Francis, and he supported its fundraisers and supplied its nuns with free tickets to his shows.
In 1986, when St. Francis remodeled the main lobby of its hospital, it was named for Liberace. He attended the dedication on June 26, 1986.
Less than a year later, on Feb. 4, 1987, Liberace would be dead at age 67 of complications from AIDS.
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Within a few years after Liberace's highly publicized illness and recovery, dialysis became more widely accepted. Outpatient dialysis centers began opening for patients with chronic kidney diseases, and unattended overnight dialysis was begun in Seattle in 1964.
With fewer national acts willing to play supper clubs, places such as the Holiday House went into decline. The Turtle Creek Valley was further hurt in the early 1980s by the rapid collapse of the U.S. steel industry, which sent unemployment into double-digits in places such as McKeesport, Duquesne and Braddock --- communities that provided the nucleus of the Holiday House's audiences.
The Holiday House tried, unsuccessfully, to transform itself into a convention center, headed downmarket with attractions such as women's mud wrestling, and finally went bankrupt in September 1983. It was sold for just $5,000 the following year. By 1988, it was for sale again. It was demolished that year to make way for Holiday Center, a strip shopping mall.
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After treating Liberace, Mateer went onto a highly successful career as a specialist in diseases of the kidneys, thyroid and endocrine system, and became well-known in medical circles throughout the United States before retiring in 1999. He died in 2006 at age 85.
Badly bruised by declining Medicaid reimbursements and further wounded in the long-running battle between UPMC Health System and West Penn Allegheny, St. Francis Medical Center closed in October 2002.
The hospital campus in Lawrenceville was sold to UPMC, and much of it was demolished to make way for a new Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. The contents of the Liberace Lobby were sold at auction.
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Yet as the new Liberace movie shows, there's still interest in the flamboyant, eccentric performer who became a camp icon.
And although neither St. Francis nor the Holiday House still exists, as long as Liberace's legend is alive, the Mon-Yough area will remain an important footnote to his career, as the place where Liberace nearly joined the "choir invisible," 50 years ago this fall.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was inspired by Mark Evanier's May 25, 2013 article on his News From Me website entitled "My Liberace Story."
ALSO: This article would have been much more difficult to write without the trail blazed by Carole Peticca's June 27, 1986 article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Weekend Magazine" entitled, "Revisiting a 'turning point.'" Peticca's story provided many details not available elsewhere, including quotes from St. Francis Medical Center personnel and Liberace himself. It's available from Lexis-Nexis and on Google News.
Other sources include:
Artis, Bryant, "Liberace Still Single, Available," The Pittsburgh Press, May 11, 1954
Bishop, Pete, "How used car lot turned into district's premier nightclub," The Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 11, 1983
Brellis, Matthew, "Holiday House future in doubt as debts mount, owners bicker," The Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 11, 1983
---, "Holiday House makes bid to survive," The Pittsburgh Press, March 10, 1984
Kalina, Mike, "Holiday House is Sold," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 25, 1982
Lewando, Ralph, "Liberace Unique, Ace Entertainer," The Pittsburgh Press, May 12, 1954
Liberace, Liberace: An Autobiography (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons), 1973
"Liberace Has Kidney Ailment," United Press International, Nov. 29, 1963
"Liberace Talks of Near-Fatal Illness," Associated Press, Feb. 2, 1964
"Monroeville shopping center hinted," The Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 9, 1987
"Pianist Files Suit for $25 Million," United Press, May 15, 1957
"Work is Started on Holiday House," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 25, 1954
* CORRECTION, NOT PERFECTION: St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost articles. This story originally said he was the patron saint of lost causes. Thank you to Alert Reader Meghan for pointing out the mistake!
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