Essay: ‘Step Aside, Liberace’


Unlike a lot of elderly people, my mother doesn’t often tell and retell the same old stories to long-suffering family ears. But there is one tale she has occasionally repeated, most recently last year, just before she turned 100.

The story begins during my high school years when, with the assistance of Clara Mae Simmons, Miami’s best piano teacher, I was raking in a collection of minor awards for my piano performances. As a grand finale, I won a small college scholarship sponsored by a local music club.

Competing for the scholarship had required that I perform a few classical pieces of my choice. Clara Mae had decided that my choice was to play — despite my adolescent dislike of the composer — Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca.” However, I trusted her to know what piece I played well enough to win, and she proved right.

Neither my parents nor Clara Mae ever discussed my low-level talent openly, but whenever they talked about my future in music, it was as a piano teacher, never as a brilliant concert pianist. So, scholarship in hand, off I went to college, everyone but me assuming that once I had completed the required general university courses along with a couple years of piano lessons, I would declare myself a music major.

It was during this time, while still allegedly destined to be a music major, that the phone call came. As I recall, its purpose was just to catch up on each other’s news.

It was in that context that my father told me about seeing Liberace on TV the night before. The year was 1955 and the pianist was at the height of his popularity, although not critically acclaimed.

He was good at choosing the showiest pieces, but the critics generally faulted him for sloppy performances, coupled with rewriting music to delete the harder passages. The public didn’t seem to mind, enjoying his over-the-top showmanship, accompanied by candelabras and bejeweled costumes.

It might well have been Liberace’s performance the night before that instigated the phone call, for it was with great enthusiasm that Dad said, “You’ll never guess what he played last night. It was your ‘Alla Turca’ thing. Your mother and I just laughed when we heard it. There was no comparison between you two. None at all.”

He concluded with his own special, dismissive laugh. This particular laugh was a chuckle accompanied by a small snort, one that generally meant his opinion was not only amused but negative.

My mother entered the conversation to add her own dismissive little laugh. “No comparison,” she agreed. One more chuckle from Dad for emphasis.

The subject changed then, but I could barely participate in the rest of the conversation. Since my parents were habitually more inclined to criticize than to compliment, I now assumed the worst, wondering how my parents could be so rude. Did they really expect me to play as well as a renowned musician in spangles?

As I said earlier, the most recent retelling of the story occurred just last year. It happened when I told Mom, during a phone call, that I had started playing the piano again. Somehow that led to a repetition of the Liberace tale. This time, it came with an addendum.

She told it like this: “I heard they’re making a movie about Liberace. You know, your father and I saw him on TV once and he played some Mozart thing you learned in high school.”

I held my breath, hoping my good will and maturity would carry me through whatever came next.

Then you might have heard the tiniest gasp as she continued, “Dad and I couldn’t believe it. There was no comparison. You were so much better!”

What! I was better? Repeating the story over the years had been a compliment? I barely managed a simple, “Oh! Thanks for sharing.”

As I write these words now, I breathe a sigh of contentment. For a long moment I enjoy a pleasant, if self-centered, reason to be glad of my mother’s longevity for, without it, I might still be comparing myself unfavorably to a spangled and sloppy performer.

Instead, I’m thinking it might be time for a candelabra or, at the very least, one of this season’s fashionably spangled T-shirts.

Suzanne Krogh Sudden Valley

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