Walter Valentino Liberace was once the highest-paid entertainer in Las Vegas. He died in 1987. Will his museum live forever?
Shortly after this article appeared in print, the museum announced that it would shut down permanently on October 17 “due to the economic downturn and the decline in the number of visitors.” Officials hope to showcase the museum’s collection in a national touring exhibit and to continue exploring ideas for a new, more viable location.—editor
So you bring your acerbic wit and your preconceived notions to the Liberace Museum, a few miles east of the Las Vegas Strip over which the self-proclaimed Mr. Showmanship held sway for four decades. Admit it: You expect to see a gaggle of white-haired ladies who believe that Vegas hasn’t been the same since the rhinestone-studded pianist went to the great candelabra-lit stage in the sky 23 years ago; that compared to Liberace, Vladimir Horowitz was a 10-thumbed hack; and that America’s favorite tickler of the ivories never married because, truly, he couldn’t find a woman as wonderful as his beloved mother, Frances.
But the first museum visitor you meet is 44-year-old Tom Holstein, a firefighter from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., wearing a New York Yankees cap and an ESPN pullover. He is staring at Liberace’s priceless collection of pianos, displayed close to Liberace’s priceless collection of automobiles, near a photo of Liberace luxuriating in his presumably priceless bathtub.
“Oh, man, Liberace,” says Holstein, who is touring the 18,000-square-foot museum with his sister, Susan Cima. “He was the guy who wore all the crazy stuff. We wouldn’t have missed it.”
When you come to Vegas, you shouldn’t miss it either. Indeed, Liberace, like Houdini or Beyoncé, endures as one of those one-name icons (astonishingly, the native of West Allis, Wis., did not invent his vivid surname), and the museum—created by Liberace himself—lives on as a kind of time capsule of a different era. Yes, Liberace died of complications from AIDS, and yes, he was named in a palimony suit by Scott Thorson, his bodyguard and chauffeur. (The court dismissed most of Thorson’s claims.) But such things remained well-submerged in the 1950s and ’60s, when Liberace began amassing fame and considerable fortune.
“What I try to convey to visitors is how original this man truly was,” says museum guide Howard Shapiro, who offers factoids with a flourish best described as, well, Liberacean. “The dancing waters of Vegas?” Shapiro pronounces to a busload of sightseers. “Sorry, Bellagio. Liberace had it in his act in the 1970s. Costumes, Cher and Madonna? Hello! Liberace did it loooong before you. Bling? Any rapper would’ve positively died for what Liberace wore onstage.”
Many animals did exactly that in the service of Liberace’s theatrical accoutrement. And though you might feel vaguely guilty about checking out the wardrobe display (located in a building across from the cars and the pianos), it is the museum’s most popular attraction. The man wore a hot-pink turkey-feather costume onstage at Radio City and chose a monkey-fur number for a performance at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1982. More palatable—if that’s the right word—may be his red-white-and-blue hot pants ensemble or his “lasagna costume,” a red velour getup that, he used to say, “doesn’t show the stains” when he prepared his favorite meal.
The second building also includes a cabaret room where, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, Vegas-based pianist Philip Fortenberry performs an hour-long afternoon tribute show called Liberace and Me. It’s $17.50, and it would be silly to miss it. Fortenberry plays like Liberace, with the trills, the dexterous left hand, and the audience engagement, finishing up with a sing-along to Liberace’s signature sign-off, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” by which time there might be a dry eye in the house.
After the show, someone asks Fortenberry whether Liberace was truly a great pianist or merely a genius in showmanship. “Liberace could absolutely play his face off,” Fortenberry says. “He was very grounded in the classics, and his technique was outstanding. But he wanted to be famous rather than critically acclaimed, so he chose to do it this way, with the frills and the keyboard flourishes and, of course, the costumes.”
Yes, we may wish that Liberace’s fur had been faux, but that wasn’t the man’s way. And in a city where starry-eyed pilgrims gaze at a replica Statue of Liberty, stroll through a replica Piazza San Marco, and enjoy the late-night company of replica Streisands and Minnellis, Liberace endures as that rare thing—an American original.
Photography courtesy Liberace Foundation & Museum
This article was first published in September 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.