Kitschy Candelabras: Laugh with Some of the Greatest Musician-Comedians of All Time

Feb 2, 2017

As the saying goes, laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.

And — hello? — who wants to cry alone?

That’s why The American Sound this week pays tribute to one of the all-time great musician-comedians — the jewel-encrusted piano virtuoso Liberace — with the fun, funky “Candelabra Rhumba” from Le Tombeau de Liberace by the witty Michael Daugherty. Tune in to Classical 101 at 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday for this and other works that will put you in good humor.

Liberace occupies a distinguished place in the venerable tradition of classical musician-hams that extends to the present day. Equal parts cut-up and virtuoso, Liberace was at his best when tickling the ivories played second-fiddle to his hilarious histrionics and, in later years, to his outrageously blingy concert wear.

He often performed on television and in live concerts with a candelabra on one corner of his grand piano — an over-the-top reference to the opulent classical music tradition in which Liberace was trained and from whose collars his pianistic horseplay removed the starch.

Liberace's kitschy candelabra was such a trademark for him that it became a laugh line in one of comedian Jack Benny's now famous gags, first unleashed on a 1954 episode of The Jack Benny Program. By 1954, Benny, a veteran comedian and an amateur violinist who made people laugh by playing worse than he actually could, regularly played the violin in his deadpan comedy routines.

Liberace on a 1954 episode of The Jack Benny Program
Credit CBS / YouTube

Give yourself the gift of laughter and watch this video clip (beginning at 21:38 into the episode), which shows Liberace and Jack Benny — two comedy legends — together in their prime.

As a bit of a footnote, after rhinestones and sequins became regular features of Liberace's signature concert attire, the prim and proper Jack Benny made a guest appearance on a 1969 episode of The Liberace Show. Here's what happened:

Liberace unwittingly set the stage for the later pianist-comedian Victor Borge — the self-described Clown Prince of Classical Music — whose shtick lampooning the great classical composers took no prisoners:

The present-day comedy duo of violinist Aleksey Igudesman and Hynug-ki Joo have claimed a place in Borge’s lineage by christening themselves the Clown Princes of Classical Music. They’ve updated Borge’s act with a repertoire of outrageous classical music gags inspired by a global mix of Asian, Jewish, European and distinctly American influences.

This clip from their musical comedy sketch “A Little Nightmare Music” says it all:

… which brings us back to the violin-piano duo of Jack Benny and Liberace.

So, why all this clowning around? Well, because it’s fun. And because it feels good to laugh. And because laughter breaks down walls among us. And, as I have posited in an earlier post about humor in music, the future of classical music in general may well rest on performers’ ability to crack us up a little.

And that's no joke!

Put on your sequined tux, grab your candelabra and join me for the "Candelabra Rhumba" from Michael Daugherty’s Le Tombeau de Liberace on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.