An entire generation of young people might have only heard about Liberace, the flamboyant performer who starred on stage in extravagant shows across the world for four decades.
It could be argued that Liberace, whose official name was Wladziu Valentino Liberace, and stars such as Elton John paved the way for the over-the-top performers of today. Certainly a lot of people remember Liberace, and one of them resides in Milwaukie: Bo Ayars, who happened to be Liberace's music director for 13 years, 1973-1986, working with Liberace on live performances, TV specials, recordings and more. Ayars toured with Liberace through the United States, Europe, Canada, Mexico, Australia, South Africa — you name it.
Today he's a working musician along with singer wife Barbara, and he's a regular at Arrivederci in Milwaukie. And, he's active in producing shows with Liberace impersonator David Saffert — who Ayars considers the best of all of the performers recreating the character and his music. Post-Christmas, Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris, who stars as Liza Minnelli, present a livestreaming show, "Liberace & Liza: A Tribute," with Ayars serving as musical director.
Ayars loves that Liberace's music has been kept alive through the work of Saffert and others, and he fondly recalls his time with the legendary musician, who passed away in 1987.
"I've always enjoyed what I do, but it was double pleasure for me working for a gentleman who enjoyed making people happy," Ayars said. "He was the spark plug for the cast. Everybody knew his stature as a musician and entertainer, and he was very relaxed and friendly."
Ayars, a pianist and Hammond organ player, considers his work with Liberace the highlight of his career, even with stints working with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Jim Nabors, Robert Goulet, Diahann Carroll, Connie Stevens and even Elvis Presley.
"I didn't realize the stature of Liberace at the time. I didn't appreciate it," he added. "I just enjoyed being in the band, directing music and playing."
Ayars appeared in about 5,000 shows with Liberace.
"Behind the scenes he was a pretty nice guy. I hung out with him a little bit," Ayars said. "As music director, we got along really well. Like he said, he didn't go out there to put on a concert, he put on a show," as Liberace played familiar songs to the delight of his millions of his fans.
"He enjoyed playing," Ayars added. "He was drawn to the applause and ability to entertain people. He pulled out all the stops to encourage that to the end."
Fast forward to 2020 and Ayars, like all musicians, has been sidelined for the most part because of the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions. Arrivederci does have a heated patio, on which Ayars plays piano gigs. And, directing "Liberace & Liza: A Tribute," virtually, has been gratifying.
Saffert impresses Ayars with his piano playing; Liberace had been an excellent pianist, Ayars said, adding "take away the costume, sequins, lifestyle and cars, and you're left with a guy who could really play the piano."
Saffert does a spot-on imitation of Liberace with mannerisms and spirit on stage and such. He also has a Midwestern sounding voice, having grown up in Liberace's native Wisconsin.
"When we talk on the phone, I think it's Liberace," Ayars said.
Liberace, curiously, always met somebody and asked them to call him Lee, a nickname. Because Saffert never met Liberace, he still refers to him as Liberace.
Ayars never worked with Liza Minnelli, but it has been a thrill for him to work with Harris.
"She is an absolutely phenomenal singer, I think one of best natural singers I've heard," Ayars said. Harris also does impersonations of Judy Garland, Bernadette Peters and others.
"This whole show is based upon wouldn't it be neat if Liberace was friends with Liza Minnelli?" he said. "I don't think they ever met."
Ayars, who has been a music director, conductor, arranger, pianist/organist and music producer, moved to Portland in 2000. His past also includes working as an entertainer on cruise ships, as well as on shows in Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe in Nevada and at Radio City Music Hall many times. He conducted the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall for three years in the 1980s.
He worked with many star performers. And, yep, he served in the band behind Elvis in the 1970s, when concerts starring "The King of Rock and Roll" started with the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Ayars role was to play one note with the low C pedal on the Hammond organ during the opening.
"(The director) would point at me and I'd stomp on it at full volume," he said.
Memories are one thing. Playing nostalgic music is another.
"The whole 13 years (with Liberace) was a lot of fun," Ayars said. "David, Jillian and I have a lot of fun doing our show; it's reminiscent of the type of show Liberace would do."
After a sold-out December 2019 run at CoHo Theatre, "Liberace & Liza: A Tribute" will be livestreamed from the theater, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 26-27. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. For more: www.cohoproductions.org.
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