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My grandmother Lottie Lee Alexander lived with my parents and me from the time I was five until she died in 1954 when I was 18, and had just finished Cass Technical High School where I was a commercial art major.
My grandmother did much to encourage my interest in the visual arts, church music and — I kid you not — her TV idol and friend each week: Wladziu Valentino. LIBERACE!
Granny was herself born in 1880 in Fort Payne, Alabama, a distant cousin removed from Robert E. Lee. In her mid-30s she was a Methodist Church organist and a dabbler in watercolors. She was an excellent cook, and her down-home corn bread and sweet potato pies highlighted many of our family chats in our small 444 Peterboro apartment kitchen. Just barely room for four and the small stove on which she performed her mealtime miracles.
In the late 1950s we owned a small 13” black and white RCA Victor TV. (I remember when I was 15 watching “The Howdy Doody Show,” “The Auntie Dee Show” and the weekly big-name Paul Whiteman Band program. I had my first crush on a teenage guy on Whiteman’s program.)
Liberace was a big star in the late ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and my grandmother was a devoted fan — in spite of the fact that my dad had questionable comments and dinnertime remarks about the smiling, winking, waving, fluttering, kiss-blowing, all-showbiz keyboard wizard.
“No wonder that British journalist called Maestro Libby a ‘fruitcake’!” said my dad, helping himself, no doubt, as a subliminal commentary item a similar fruit Christmas treat that Granny had just baked. (The journalist, by the way, was sued for his slandering and Liberace won a few thousand British pounds for the remark.)
For my grandmother Liberace’s nationally viewed, weekly TV performance was the highlight of her week. My mother, dad and I knew Granny was getting ready for the weekly event by her behavior early in the day on Fridays.
“Here we go again,” my dad would signal mom and me. “Granny’s humming to herself, and moving her own music performing 10 fingers.”
As TV time drew closer, Granny would retreat to the bathroom to comb her hair, put on fresh makeup, and make sure her lipstick and dentures were secure. She’d then carefully pick one of her many, newly ironed dresses to wear. And, of course, smile, smile, a lot. Her usually uneventful old age was about to be given a touch of piano spark and pizazz!
Granny decided that the Christmas Liberace TV Show — unbeknownst to us all, it would be her life’s closure event — needed a special touch. To her tailored red-and-green outfit she added a Santa fan to wave and to keep beat to the Holiday music, and promptly one half hour before Liberace was to appear, she sat herself squarely, comfortably, belongingly, adoringly, in front of our family TV.
Then the Christmas magic began for Granny! And for us! The cameras lit, the keyboard music cascaded forth! Liberace smiled, dazzled, performed and — the moment our beloved Granny had been waiting for — ‘waved’ to Granny.
And Granny, once more bonded with her musical paramour, waved back, smiled and heartily rhythm’d her Santa fan at Libby! It was a true moment of bonding for Granny at 85.
Later, my father tried to enlighten Granny.
“Mom, come on now! No way Liberace can see into our tiny apartment. He can’t can see you, me, mom or Buzz. But, dear heart, if this Christmas make believe makes you happy that’s really all that matters. Merry Christmas mom. Merry Christmas Liberace!”
Many years into the mid-Detroit ’60s I was partying with friends at the history, long-vanished Diplomat Drag Bar on Second Boulevard, a few blocks north of the famous Fisher Theater. Among the visiting guests that holiday night were show business entertainers, including an unexpected drop-in: Liberace! (Ethel Merman also once performed at the Dip on a drop-in visit.)
I observed him intently, and — as did everyone else I’m sure that special night — Liberace wasn’t flamboyant, wasn’t a tad queeny, not one iota, Certainly no Christmas time ‘fruit cake’ in his actions. In fact, I was downright disappointed. He was just Wladziu Valentino.
Nonetheless, I smiled and waved to Liberace mentally. Granny would have wanted me to do so. Mary Christmas.