About six months after Liberace died in 1987, Martin Preston saw a man doing a tribute act to the famous pianist. The man played the piano well, but he wasn't even trying to become the character. He had white hair and a beard, and he was dressed in a plain tuxedo.
"Upon seeing that, I immediately thought, 'What a shame. Someone should do this properly — re-create the voice, the look, the costumes, the original Liberace musical arrangements,' " Preston said.
Preston, 56, decided he was the man for the job. For more than 20 years, he has traveled around the world, performing his Liberace tribute show. At 2 p.m. Saturday, he'll bring his crystal candelabra, rhinestone-studded piano and glittering costumes to Pasco-Hernando Community College Performing Arts Center, 10230 Ridge Road, New Port Richey.
As a 4-year-old in Indianapolis, Preston could sing any of the four harmony parts of a hymn. After his father discovered his ear for music, piano and organ lessons followed. He began performing as an actor and concert pianist after graduating from college. Preston's style was often compared to Liberace's, and Preston said he took that as a compliment.
"Liberace was the first person to become a showbiz star because he was a pianist," Preston said. "While there had been famous pianists before him, they tended to be classical artists or band leaders. Liberace took the concept of a piano recital and turned it into big-time entertainment."
It took Preston two years and tens of thousands of dollars to get his tribute show ready for the stage.
"The most difficult part was perfecting the look and the voice," he said. "In real life, I look nothing like Liberace, nor do I sound anything like him."
He had friends who toured with Liberace for several years, so he had been around the show. He also was able to get some insight into impersonating Liberace's voice from the flamboyant showman's stage manager, Ray Arnett.
"I made the rounds of makeup artists in the late '80s to learn how to get the physical appearance, and I did a tremendous amount of vocal exercises to learn how to do the voice," he said.
His show debuted in May 1990, and he said he had hoped to get five years of work out of it. Instead, performing as Liberace has turned into a 21-year career that has taken Preston to theaters all over the United States and Canada and on cruise ships around the world. People still gravitate to the glitzy performer's music, Preston said.
"Liberace's arrangements are very cleverly written, and they sparkle as much as his costumes did," he explained. "There is a level of sophistication about them, which reflects his original career as a proper classical artist. … Although he took his music seriously, he also played with a sense of fun."
Preston's show in New Port Richey will be one of his last performances. He is retiring in May. He said the most rewarding aspect of presenting his act for so long has been the unbelievable warmth he has received from his audiences.
"I also am frequently told after the show what wonderful memories I've given people," he said, "which is precisely what I came to do."