Friday, June 22, 2018
Human Interest

His dad played Liberace for Liberace

We were a Liberace family when I was growing up in Miami.

He was from the Midwest like my parents. Like my dad, he was a piano player, only successful. In the 1950s, he had his own television show, which we watched religiously, dad grinning at his flamboyance while admiring the musical chops. My mom, her hair up in bobby pins, took notice of Liberace's mother beaming from the front row. You had to like a boy who was so kind to his mother.

Just a kid, I felt lucky to be watching. My favorite song was the Liberace Boogie Woogie. My dad enjoyed Moonlight Sonata and my mother grew misty eyed during his usual show closer I'll Be Seeing You.

I named my pet rabbits after Liberace and his brother, George, who played violin on the TV show and sometimes led the orchestra. George and Liberace never made a run for it when I let them out of their backyard hutch and they never bit or scratched. When they disappeared one day, I was sad. "We got them a good home,'' my mother said. "A farmer.'' I was too young to imagine them roasting on a spit.

My dad played piano in night clubs from Key West to Madeira Beach but mostly in Miami, where he called himself "Ernie Bergen,'' a name more likely to fit in a newspaper ad than our long last name. Like virtually all musicians, my dad failed to make a living with his music and needed a day job.

In 1954, the lavish Fontainebleau Hotel opened on Miami Beach. A World War II mess sergeant, my dad got a position running the kitchens for the executive chef. On opening night, Liberace was the headliner.

For years, he was a regular at the hotel, which is how my dad acquired his famous Liberace story.

It was about 1962. Liberace had been hired to play for a week at the hotel's showpiece La Ronde night club. My dad's job was making sure the night club's kitchen and bar was fully stocked and ready for the opening evening.

Hours before the show, my dad was finishing up his preparations in the La Ronde, accompanied by employees, mostly Cubans who addressed him as "Mister Ernie.''

He looked around. He stepped up to the ivory-white grand piano on the stage and sat down as if it was his own. Grinning dramatically like a certain famous pianist, he began playing I'll Be Seeing You.

The audience for my dad's La Ronde debut included pop-eyed employees who had no idea he could play.

One employee turned to the stranger who listened closely from the wings.

"Mister Ernie,'' the Cuban told the stranger, "he play good.''

Liberace nodded.

Snapping out of his reverie, my dad leaped from the piano in embarrassment.

"No,'' Liberace said, "keep playing.''

My dad sat back down and played. Liberace stayed to listen.

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