Daryl Wagner

The beauty of the arts is to take the best out of what has already been done, be inspired, and bring your voice and vision to elevate that art to a new level.

I keep reading this quote.

I’ve been working on this project for some time now… and I owe Daryl more appreciation than I can truly express for his consideration and participation. As I put finishing touches on the effort, each time I walk away from it for a bit I think about this thought from him.

Without getting into a long rant, it seems like respect and responsibility are rare themes in any efforts these days. There isn’t an overwhelming appreciation for the history… there isn’t an overwhelming appreciation for the audience… there isn’t an overwhelming appreciation for preparing long term careers… there isn’t an overwhelming appreciation for the hard work, dedication, and passion that adds depth and character and so much more to a person’s efforts and accomplishments.

And then, in asking him about such a concept in relation to professionalism, Daryl Wagner offers this as part of his response: “The beauty of the arts is to take the best out of what has already been done, be inspired, and bring your voice and vision to elevate that art to a new level.”

It’s a great thought.

I shouldn’t be surprised. For this is a man that has worked on productions on tours and in major cities such as The Sound of Music, The Music Man, and Pal Joey… this is a man that has worked with, performed with, conducted for the likes of Dorothy Collins, Rosemary Clooney, Patrice Munsel and Tom Poston.

Here’s a funny aside -- How much do you know about Dorothy Collins? In the 1950s she sang “Unchained Melody” on Your Hit Parade… almost a decade before the Righteous Brothers released their classic version of the song. Around the same time, she took on the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz… in a stage production that featured Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. Pretty great stuff there. Someday I hope to have notes like that on my resume.

It just so happens that Liberace also released a version of “Unchained Melody” of his own, in 1955. And that little connection brings us back around to this interview…

Liberace brings us back to Daryl. Before our interview though, let’s learn a little bit about the man…

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Born and raised in the Midwest… the great city of Chicago… entertainment and music have been a part of Daryl Wagner’s life since the very beginning. He has memories of multiple generations of his family playing the piano and other instruments, and he began playing the piano at the age of 5.

As a child performer, he was involved in theater efforts of stock and regional productions like The Sound of Music, Life with Father and The Music Man. He was a teenager when opportunity presented itself… an unforeseen set of events led to him being placed in the conductor’s role, leading the orchestra for Dorothy Collins performing with a tour of The Sound of Music.

While growing up, in addition to the piano, he studied singing and dancing. His continued private education in Chicago included training with Jerome LoMonaco, Paul Studebaker and Martha Larrimore at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. And he brought his talents to audiences in multiple ways, with the most notable being a string of impressive conducting efforts such as the aforementioned work with Dorothy Collins. He cites the Chicago national tour of Dames at Sea with Bernadette Peters as a cherished part of his career.

Eventually the demands of life on the road led him to investigate professional opportunities in a steady location. And for someone with a flair for performing… experience not only conducting, composing and arranging music and shows, along with an impressive resume of accomplishments acting, singing, and being on stage… it likely isn’t surprising that he would at some point find himself working in Las Vegas.

What might be surprising though is how life often provides unexpected twists, connections and developments. In much the same way as I previously noted that “Unchained Melody” brings Dorothy Collins and Liberace together, we might at least attempt to say the same for Daryl. For the man who would conduct for her actually got his first job in Vegas working for him. Daryl was hired as a singer and pianist in Liberace’s legendary restaurant and lounge, The Tivoli Gardens.

Mr. Showmanship will long be remembered as one of the greatest entertainers of all time. He was an influential figure and a leader in the industry for decades. Liberace died in 1987. Soon after his passing, friends began encouraging Daryl to pursue performing a tribute for him. At the time, a show featuring a cast of impersonators was building itself and its reputation. It was called Legends in Concert, which today is known throughout the industry as the leader in tribute productions. John Stuart of Legends hired Daryl to portray Liberace, and the pairing worked wonderfully for both parties. Daryl has worked with Legends for more than two decades. During that time, he has repeatedly been called upon to be a part of casts opening Legends productions across the country, including a run as part of the original cast of Legends on Broadway.

Today, Daryl continues taking to the stage as Liberace. His shows are full performances as one of the true master craftsmen in the entertainment world, featuring a cast of singers and dancers, and of course, a piano and candelabra. You can find out more about him at his web site -- Liberace Tribute starring Daryl Wagner on Facebook.

I got to speak with a terrific, engaging, and wonderfully polite man a few years ago, and we continued that conversation over the past few weeks. I am thrilled to bring the interview to In My Backpack.

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What are some of your first memories of music? And I mean all around… perhaps singing to a song on the radio… perhaps lessons with musical instruments. How did you get started in music? And what are some of your first memories of singing, and then, of performing?

I was exposed to music through my family.

My grandfather (mother’s side) played violin and piano. I have no memory of his violin per se, but I remember his sitting at the spinet in their home and playing… for some reason I especially recall him playing “Melody of Love”. Not very good, but he was drawn to music and was into listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.

My mom played piano with much frequency, and also played organ for the fundamentalist church we attended. She sang, but not a great deal. It was because of her our family was given music lessons.

I wanted to play the piano and that was an easy fit in the scheme of things. As for singing, I always enjoyed singing and at a young age I felt I could sing well. I sang and played piano in school as well as church.

I truly felt compelled to do these things from within, yet I also consciously felt they made me stand out and receive attention, which I was sorely in need of. Performing is something I always craved to the point of distraction… I still remember watching the original Mickey Mouse Club on our black and white TV and was so jealous of the Mouseketeers. Anytime I was able to be in front of people and perform, that was what I wanted to do. Once again, a burning desire for acceptance and approval from somebody.

Is there a particular style of music, or group of entertainers, that you consider particularly influential to you? Are there any performers in particular that you miss… and current-day performers that you really enjoy?

It is difficult to assess one group of performers or one performer specifically as most influential, as I have enjoyed most of them as I grew up for a variety of reasons.

As a young man, I had no connection to the music of my own generation and for that matter still don’t. I did love the work and the music that came out of Motown and, years after the fact, I learned an appreciation for the legacy of the Beatles music.

Truth be told, I schooled myself by latching on to a specific decade of American music, and learning and listening to all that I could regarding where music was, who was writing it, what and who was popular at the time, what were the hit music, and I did this for the twenties, forties, thirties, 1900s and 1910s. This is the music that I went after and loved from the get go. America’s golden age of writing, performing and developing a national character that was strictly American… all heavily influenced by our European roots. I still live in the richness of the past, and love to reinvent and keep alive all that was good regarding the arts during this period of our growth.

There are just too many names of performers I have loved and miss to mention, but I can easily remember my sadness when Mel Tormé died, when Ethel Merman passed, the death of Judy Garland, the lovely Rosemary Clooney, Dick Haymes, Howard Keel, Vivian Blaine… there are too many to go through and they all made profound impressions as performers.

Currently I suppose I can cite Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé, Michael Feinstein, Bernadette Peters and a good many of the great singers who have graced that stage of many theaters on Broadway.

At what point did pursuing music professionally enter your mind, and how did you pursue making that a reality?

Pursuing a career in entertainment was never something I chose, it chose me. I can’t recall not wanting to be on a stage, on TV, in a movie… whatever. That genie had to get out of the bottle. Anytime there was an opportunity to perform anywhere, I was a nuisance until I was allowed to do it or at least do the audition. I did many kid roles in musicals and some plays and also did local theater… anything that got me in front of people. That seemed the only right thing for me to do.

What lessons, messages or advice would you offer to someone just beginning their journey along the road to being a professional musician?

Advice can seem almost patronizing or perhaps a bit pandering when it comes to one performer doling out some sage message to someone in the nascent stage of their career path. However…

I would tell anyone (and this would apply to any of the performing arts) make sure this is something you HAVE TO DO – REGARDLESS OF THE CONSEQUENCES OR COST AND LOSS OF PERSONAL COMFORT. Show business can take so much and return so little, yet like a moth to the flame, a real performer goes back over and over again in spite of rejections, failures and dim prospects for a future. It would be easy to describe show business as a truly cruel mistress. And yet, when you make it on whatever level you are currently at, there is nothing as sweet as the nectar from the show biz cup!

I think you’re piano-playing is brilliant. Did you… do you… play any other musical instruments? How much do you rehearse? (And for this, feel free to include anything from just playing for fun all the way to rehearsing for a show.)

I am truly flattered at your kind words regarding my musicianship. I studied a lot and practiced even more. Live performing is the most difficult of disciplines as you are not allowed the luxury of relying on recordings you made, film or TV tapings that exist or anything else that archives your accomplishments. You are required to prove yourself all over again each and every time you set foot on a stage. No one in the audience cares a fig about your wonderful performance last night or the great show you will give three weeks from now. This is a singular one show at a time job, and every night you have to win over a new group of folks.

I say all of this because it illuminates the reason I play piano as much as I do every day. Most musicians have to keep their ‘chops’ up and that means regular work on their instrument of choice. And besides, as a performer, there is no final moment of perfection in your work. There is always a new way to play what you hear in your head or to bring something new into your game. The performing arts are living and therefor always a work in progress. Practice is a must, and letting go and enjoying the ride is a necessity.

Do you find it difficult to play in the heavy costumes, or probably more of a concern, how did you learn how to play the piano while wearing the rings?

They are lovely, aren’t they?

Sure, it’s a challenge. They’re big and they’re heavy. But the secret isn’t as hard as you might think. Just about every time I practice or rehearse on the piano, I play while wearing them. Practice long enough, and it begins to feel natural.

Can you share a bit of how your tribute to Liberace began?

After leaving the show Hello Hollywood, Hello at the MGM in Reno, I toured a bit with a revue put together with two gentlemen I had worked with. When that ended I was in San Francisco trying to make a mark there.

It was difficult establishing myself there, as the ‘crème’ jobs for a piano player were taken and jealously held on to and guarded by the guys who had those positions for years and years. Gigging around became my bill of fare, and that was not the easiest way to make a buck. The city had just been through the Harvey Milk debacle and was now in the nascent stages of what was to become the AIDS epidemic. Not the best time to be in that or any large urban area here in the states.

I thought I could get away from it all and go to Vegas, where I had some friends and get something going. I actually got a job working for Liberace at his restaurant/club called The Tivoli Gardens. I played and sang in the main lounge there, and in its day it was THE late night spot for the rich and famous in and passing through Las Vegas.

This was also the period Liberace was losing a massive amount of weight, and as was discovered down the road, was the virus working its way through his system. He was contracted at that time by Caesars and was playing the Circus Maximus. His shows were getting shorter, and at one point the second show was taken off as well. When he became too weak to perform, that was his last time on stage.

This is all germane as I have such vivid memories of this time, and the show Legends in Concert was still using its original concept… meaning no star was represented on their stage until the star had passed away.

When Lee did die, of course Legends was now on the prowl for a Liberace character. They hired a guy who bore a physical resemblance to him but was neither a musician nor any kind of an established performer of any sort with any background. In other words, not good at all. A friend of mine in Vegas told me I should audition for the Legends show as Liberace, and I thought he had lost his mind. I believed the show was some ridiculous Elvis show with a few acts before the “king” made his appearance. And I also thought that impersonation work of this kind was just glorified ‘drag queens’ frolicking about pretending to be someone they were not. Not how I envisioned my talent!

This being said, we all have to make a living (as I was not to the ‘manor’ born) so I decided to give it a go. I did a great deal of research and from all of this culled together an act that was roughly in the 13/14 minute running time. When I felt ready, I called the Legends office and made an audition time. In those days at the Imperial Palace, I came to find out they saw a lot of new acts between shows and I was given a date and a time. I showed up, gave my music to the band, and did my little act. That evening, John Stuart gave me a contract and I worked for Legends well over twenty years non-stop… opening new venues for them all around the country and doing Legends on Broadway as well. Now that was quite a journey.

I’m going to begin this question by trying to bring to mind an image of Elvis. Any tribute artist that I’ve seen perform “Suspicious Minds” always hits one signature moment -- the “I hope this suit don’t tear up, baby” part. To my mind, I believe mainly as a result of Aloha from Hawaii, this is understood to be the true live interpretation of the song and the expected delivery of it. Ok… thought in place… switch over to Liberace. How do you approach performing as Liberace? Are there certain aspects -- song selection, conversations with an audience, costume and dress -- that you feel a need to deliver in a faithful manner? And -- especially since I am unaware of Liberace coming to the stage for an encore on roller blades, but found that moment from you to be wonderfully perfect -- where do you look for areas where you might be able to take some liberties?

Impersonation is a tricky business for that very reason. When you try to recreate an unflawed perfect reproduction of specific performer’s filmed or taped performance, you have already lost the game. At best you have done a living version of a Madame Tussauds wax figure, and will be just as flat and lifeless. Stars are people too… no one will ever know how they feel and what they are thinking while on stage. (My dog is sick… the kid got in trouble at school… my back is killing me… I wish that broad in the second row would shut her damn mouth…) We will always be on the outside looking in and seeing only what a particular performer at a particular time wanted us to see. Period. What we do know regarding feelings, thoughts, current emotions, etc., etc., is what we ourselves are experiencing with all of these various things. That is where honesty as an actor comes into being. By making something honest according to our own reality, it becomes real as a representation of whoever we are portraying.

I take my own sense of experience and feeling a Liberace show created for me. How did it make me feel, why, what are the emotions I brought forward after seeing it? I use this info to translate for myself how to create that experience for an audience within the perimeter of all I understand and have learned as a performer myself apart from the impersonation arena. It seems real because I have made it real by my own standard. And every stage moment is unique and you cannot put yesterday’s moment into this day’s retelling.

As with specific mannerisms or dialogue that have come to be expected from any given performer, what you see is what the public perception has done to the memory of that character. A star can be a victim of the impressions that other acts have done of them. This general lampooning is always over-stated mannerisms and vocalisms that this kind of send up humor demands. What we have seen from many of these caricatures is that they become embedded in the public conscience and after much repetition became an accepted reality. Like repeating a lie until it is accepted as truth, this is the realm many impersonators accept as their truth. Regardless of anything based in reality, they deliver what has become public perception of their star’s persona. By running out the expected, the audience is not disappointed. Of course, this is entirely woven from invisible cloth, and yet…

As for Liberace, putting myself in his shoes was easier than I thought it would be. His props were extravagant, his wardrobe was extravagant, his double entendre were very saucy and he was fearless when it came to doing business. Without duplicating one single thing exactly, I was able to compose an entire act based on that reality. I use enough lines from his show to establish the hook, but the rest is all me. I believe this is why my work is successful. I am not the outside looking, but rather on the inside sharing my reality in an outward direction to the audience.

While perhaps not quite having the continuing presence and identity today that someone like Elvis can claim, I have many memories of watching Liberace while growing up and believe millions of others do as well… everything from his shows and guest appearances as a performer to re-runs of Batman. For several decades, he was one of the elite members of the entertainment industry. I think he can quite correctly be identified as a legend, and truly is a leader from that classic Vegas period along with Elvis and Sinatra… when performers and musicians were beyond the description of larger-than-life. I’d like to stay with that idea for the next couple of questions, and begin by asking you why Liberace was so important and what kind of lasting impact(s) from him remain.

Liberace was literally the first legend of Las Vegas. He preceded Sinatra and all of them. When Elvis first played Vegas and was a miserable bomb, Liberace was at the top of his game. His fame as one of the pioneer shows on the newly invented gizmo called a television set put him into the mainstream of American thought. Whether he was being regaled as a master entertainer or debased as the butt of cruel, insensitive humor… Liberace was talked about by one and all. When he started as a lounge pianist in Vegas, he was being paid $50,000.00 a week. And that was in the economy of the fifties!

Liberace had a plan for himself and built his name and reputation one step at a time. His name is synonymous with over the top show business in much the same way Ziegfeld was in his time. And of course, he is still considered by the public at large as the quintessential piano player. His memory is important as he was a groundbreaking innovator of his day and many current trends can be traced back to the time of Liberace.

You mentioned an interesting point about Legends a moment ago, which is that today they have widened their casting to include tributes for living performers. For this reason in particular, but perhaps others as well, do you miss the old days?

In ways, yes. But to your thought, because it was such a different foundation for a show. When you consider words like legend and tribute, I think there is a big difference between someone that is no longer with us and has, if you will, written the last chapter of their autobiography, and the performer that is still actively working and even creating new material.

Liberace was famous for his interactions with audiences and fans. He also delivered some of the greatest quips and quotes this side of Groucho… especially when addressing his detractors. What are some of your favorite Liberace moments? And, having seen you connect with an audience, as a group as well as individually, I wonder if you have any special stories about getting on stage, how people react, and some of you favorite moments from your career.

I honestly don’t have a specific moment that stands out regarding his shows because… quite frankly, when someone is driven onstage in a mirrored Phantom Rolls, gets out draped in acres of fur and between 20 and 50 pounds of rhinestones, and with an almost Jack Benny-like delivery, says, “Well, look me over! I didn’t get all dressed like this to go unnoticed.”… all bets are off!

When many people see me for the first time, they are often just gob-smacked and stare with childlike amazement. And when I open my mouth the bar is raised. I truly believe I have the same effect on an audience that Liberace had, inasmuch many people feel they don’t like or don’t really know who Liberace is, yet when they see my show and how I can work a moment they get caught up, and in spite of themselves find that they are laughing and actually having a good time. Many a husband was dragged into a Liberace show by their wife and ended up having as good a time as she.

Do you enjoy the responses you get when meeting with members of an audience?

Always. And, in many ways, I enjoy their reactions now more than ever.

I’ve worked a lifetime, virtually my entire lifetime, to develop my talent and make my shows entertaining. When people respond to that, and when they express their joy, it is truly wonderful.

I want to continue with that thought for a moment, because I’ve also heard and read some of your thoughts on professional productions… everything from theater to skating. I get the impression that you feel very strongly about some things (in a way that Liberace might have appreciated and even shared)… mainly based simply on respecting an audience and being a professional. In other words, there’s a place for lavish designs and perfection, and a place for improvisation and happy accidents. However… be it for music, a play, or anything else… those stages are a delivery point that brings with it a sort of responsibility. A privilege, if you will. Do you think there is something lacking today? …be it professionalism… talent… or the drive for making a dollar over actually having something worth paying to see?

Discussing the state of the business today can be rather mournful as I see the bar for performers being so callously and with willful intention lowered to a point of the ridiculous.

It would be an interesting experiment to take all of those who call themselves singers and put them on a bare stage with one overhead light, one musician sitting at a piano and a single mike stand, while standing in front of an audience numbering in the thousand (give or take a few) present. How many of these overpaid and overhyped darlings do you think could hold that room for a mere twenty minutes, let alone a show that is ninety minutes long? Of course, a Josh Groban or Clay Aiken could do it, as well as others of that caliber. But most would be at a total loss to do anything live without any smoke, mirrors and prerecorded track to lip sync to. And these wanna be singers have such small and undeveloped voices with the astounding range of four or five notes… we are subjected to music that is written for the unchallenged and unsubstantiated voice.

Where are the good writers coming from? Where are the lyricists? The market seems to have been saturated with people who have taught themselves singing, dancing, and playing an instrument. Unfortunately, this takes the craft back by many tens of decades. It’s like learning to read but never going beyond the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries. We have raised up the uneducated to the status of the greats, and words like diva and superstar are now without any true meaning.

The beauty of the arts is to take the best out of what has already been done, be inspired, and bring your voice and vision to elevate that art to a new level. Not going back to the days of beating two rocks together, pounding a stick on the ground, and chanting in random whoops at the moon whilst sitting around a fire.

Many of the current ‘stars’ should actually be represented on stage by the people who created them… the technicians in studios who push buttons, make videos and edit them, and turn nothing into a something that can be promoted to the easily manipulated masses.

It’s the old axiom of the biggest and reddest apple, so tempting to look upon and desire, yet filled with worms and decay. Until people decide to demand more though, they will get what they deserve… a food-like substance deep-fried in a sugary, greasy batter, and served in a gaudy paper wrapping with only your fingers to shove this concoction of future diabetes down your gullet. (On second though, I think I’ll just skip that meal.)

Lately you’ve been performing shows themed around Liberace from beginning to end. What kind of difference does that hold as compared to a 15-minute set?

I’ve been fortunate. Liberace has such an extraordinary body of work that it’s very hard to narrow it down to shorter pieces without thinking about the material you could have played with just a bit more time. He was a fantastic showman. He was ‘Mr. Showmanship’ after all. And when you are known for that, and all the spectacle he was associated with, there is no shortage of quality material to draw upon.

For me personally, the longer shows are nice because they give you a chance to really stretch out and show what you can do.

What should people look for from you in the future? And, how can someone follow your schedule, see you in person, and enjoy and support your efforts?

The best ways are to go to my Facebook page, Liberace Tribute starring Daryl Wagner.

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It is my pleasure to thank Daryl Wagner for his time, consideration, and participation on this interview. We first met in person at a media night event for Legends in Concert a few years ago, which provided some of the information you have read. In addition, a great deal was developed through e-mail exchanges. I simply cannot fully express my gratitude for his assistance, and, for his kindness. It was an absolute honor meeting him, interviewing him, and photographing his work with Legends in Concert. It has been an even greater thrill to work with him specifically on this material.

The great news for you (and me) is that Daryl is constantly adding performance dates to his schedule, and is investigating the possibility of bringing his show on the road for select events. And that means there are chances to see this talented man performing live on stage.

Here are some places where you can learn more…

Liberace Tribute starring Daryl Wagner on Facebook

Daryl Wagner at Legends in Concert -- Liberace

The pictures you see in this article are a combination of shots. The majority have been provided for this project by Daryl Wagner. Several were taken by Bob Hocking during performances with Legends in Concert.

Daryl was involved in the approval of all images used in this article, and granted permission for the use of the pictures where rights are not held by Bob Hocking and In My Backpack.

All rights to these pictures are protected. They cannot be used for any other purpose without the appropriate written permission(s) from Daryl Wagner and/or Bob Hocking. As a matter of convenience associated with this specific effort, Daryl and Bob request that you use the e-mail details on this page and for In My Backpack if you have questions or would like additional information about any of the material involved in this project.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com