Portland man revels in Liberace impersonation
Other than being from Wisconsin and playing piano, David Saffert doesn't know whether he has much in common with the late great Liberace.
But, once he dons the rings and the wig and the costumes and tickles the ivories and smiles, oh, does he ever give off reminders of one of the world's great show men.
Even Bo Ayars, Liberace's music director from 1973 to 1986 who has collaborated with Saffert on the impersonation act, noticed it.
"There have been several times, as I was playing (accompanying music), I said, 'Oh, my God,' this is Liberace," says Ayars, a St. Johns resident.
Saffert sees a future as Liberace. A mainstay pianist with Portland Opera who has also worked with Oregon Ballet Theatre, Curious Comedy and Action Adventure Theater, Saffert believes that he can parlay the act into a residency or annual show somewhere. He has performed as Liberace for his own birthday party, at this year's Fertile Ground Festival and he'll take the stage at 7:30 p.m. May 16 at Curious Comedy Theater to celebrate Liberace's birthday, presented by All Classical Portland (info: curiouscomedy.org).
Growing up in small towns in northwest Wisconsin, Saffert never had a fascination with Liberace, who hailed from Milwaukee. He had heard of him.
"The earliest I can remember Liberace was watching him on 'The Muppet Show,'" says Saffert, 40. "When you're a kid, and 'The Muppet Show' had a guest star, well, that person must be very important."
Saffert has put on annual birthday shows, and in 2014 he complemented friends who impersonated Liza Minnelli and Truman Capote by taking up someone's suggestion and be Liberace.
"I hadn't thought about everything that goes into Liberace," Saffert says. "I had to learn some of his music, I went on YouTube and tried to figure out his music.
"Then it was, 'Oh, wait, now I need rings, and I need costumes and a wing.' Suddenly, it felt like an even greater challenge."
He has performed as Liberace more than 10 times. Ayars saw the 2014 birthday show.
"I had heard about him, I was curious to see him," he says. "I'd seen Liberace impersonators, and they didn't have piano talent. They just don't make it.
"When he came out and laid out in Prokofiev, and went from that to 'Chopsticks' to 'Boogie Woogie' ... There are three things about David that I feel are very strong: he sounds like Liberace and doesn't have to try — he and 'Li' are both from Wisconsin, maybe it's the cheese; he has the pianist ability, he's really good; and he has Liberace's spirit, he understands what Liberace did — it was a variety show, entertaining the people, he never wanted to bring problems of the world into the theater."
Saffert says he tries to play "flowery" piano to imitate Liberace, who was "technically very incredible," and "channel my (Wisconsin) grandmother, and it works," to duplicate the voice. "And, I've studied his mannerisms," Saffert adds.
His show has even featured Liberace's "friend," Scott Thorson, who'll be played by actor Illya Torres-Garner in the May 16 show. (Liberace always vociferously disputed any assumptions of his sexual orientation).
Ayars, who also worked with Elvis Presley Barbara Streisand and Walt Disney Productions way back when, has taken a liking to Saffert. He also works with impersonator Tony Starlight and his own singer wife, Barbara Ayars.
"I'm fortunate that Bo Ayars has taken a huge interest in this," Saffert says. "He's steering me into creating bigger shows.
"Bo did thousands of shows with Liberace, and they were huge shows with very complex lighting, staging. If we're going to do a true Liberace show — we're attempting to figure out how we can keep the glitz and glam and utilize what we can at a venue."
Saffert agrees that older demographics remember Liberace (real name W?adziu Valentino Liberace), who performed for some 50 years until his death in 1987. And, the movie "Behind the Candelabra," starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson, reached younger audiences.
"A lot of young people who saw that movie, they're into kitsch, and glitz and glamour for Liberace," Saffert says. "He's become this fun idol for everybody."
Ayars remembers Liberace for the show, and the talent.
"If you take away the rings, costumes, cars, homes, you're left with musical talent; if not that, he'd be a big clown on stage," Ayars says. "Like David is seeing, there was certain joy he was able to give people with this type of music."
Ayars hopes a local show can be produced, featuring Saffert as Liberace.
"Both David and I both feel there's nothing standing in the way of this type of show being a big hit," he adds.
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