Liberace museum might be only sure bet in Vegas


Las Vegas -- Liberace. You know who I mean. Mr. Showmanship, bedecked in diamonds and furs, smiling to the crowd as he banged out some stripped-down, saccharine rendition of Tchaikovsky.

Tuesday would have been the 76th birthday for the man from West Allis, Wis. He died in 1987 at his home in Palm Springs, Calif.

I'll admit I've been fascinated by Liberace, and amused. Why else would I make a one-day, 360-mile round trip across the Mojave Desert -- Victorville, Calif., to Las Vegas and back?

I wouldn't make that mad drive to take a tourist's wide-eyed stroll down the Strip, or for the chance to lose a few bucks to the insatiable one-armed bandits. I don't have the stomach or nerves for gambling, especially in a town with a $500-a-pull slot machine, and consider myself too worldly to thrill at standing slack-jawed before the $1 billion MGM Grand's reclining lion.

But I do have that odd, all-American affection for kitsch, the mania that gave birth to velvet paintings, the Village People, mid-1970s Elvis. It brought me to 1775 E. Tropicana Ave., home of the museum dedicated to the man who, at least for me, symbolizes Las Vegas in all its flashy, gaudy, glittering glory.

I'm not alone in my slightly addled desire. The museum is Nevada's third most popular tourist attraction.

It is also the main funding arm of the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, which last year gave $315,000 in scholarships to 57 organizations, universities and schools, including Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory.

I know, some say Elvis is Vegas, and the town belongs to Wayne Newton now. Well, to keep it all in perspective, Liberace played the Ramona Room of the Last Frontier Hotel in 1944, when Elvis was a blond-haired boy in Tupelo, Miss. Liberace's television show was going strong when Wayne was still a chubby-faced kid.

Don't get me wrong: Both of those performers left gigantic, lasting imprints on Las Vegas. The first people to catch my eye as I found my way off Interstate 15 to Las Vegas Boulevard were impersonating Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. And certainly Elvis would hold his own in any sequin-diamond-fur cape derby.

But Liberace is a proto-glitz idol, godfather to the costumed purveyors of 1970s glam-rock. At various times he was the world's highest-paid performer and the biggest solo attraction at American concert halls. He played 21 standing-room-only concerts at Radio City Music Hall in 1985.

The museum, opened on Easter Sunday in 1979, has enough diamonds, furs, mirrors and rhinestones to please the most hard-core devotee. And it offers some insight into the private world of Wladziu Valentino Liberace, who won a full scholarship to the Wisconsin School of Music at age 7, and later, as a teen, billed himself as Walter Busterkeys.

It is an unassuming place, about a mile off the Strip's cartoon landscape. There, the Excalibur looks like Disneyland's magic castle, and Treasure Island, with its mock sea battles staged every 90 minutes for passers-by, is a dead ringer for Disneyland's animated "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Luxor's pyramid is a few blocks in one direction; Caesar's Palace a short stroll the other way, and don't forget the big lion across the street from the Tropicana. Next to these garish palaces, the museum would be lost. Even the Aladdin, where Steppenwolf and Blue Oyster Cult played on Super Bowl Weekend, seemed pedestrian. Sure it had a lot of lights, but so what. The Mirage had an exploding volcano.

The museum doesn't need all that spectacle. There's nothing outside to lure you inside.

It is divided into three sections. The first is the piano gallery. Liberace owned 39 pianos; 18 are on display. Some are what you'd expect. The glittering, rhinestone-covered Baldwin grand is pure Liberace; so, too, is the green French Pleyel with its 24-karat gold-leaf trim. But that piano has some serious cachet ,, for fans of classical piano. It dates from the early 1800s and was played by Chopin.

Schumann's Bosendorfer grand is on display as is George Gershwin's Chickering baby grand. A 1788 model designed by John Broadwood, a seminal figure in the development of the modern piano, is one of three in existence.

You quickly learn that Liberace was dedicated to the piano. It was more than a dressed-up prop for his eye-dazzling spectacles. It was his life. He began lessons at age 4, but had already started playing by ear; 13 years later he played Liszt's Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony.

Behind the pompadour, the makeup, the high camp of his shows, lived an accomplished pianist. You have to know what you're doing before you can gallop through Chopin.

Piano images are everywhere. The gallery's desk has a piano shape. His fans gave him more than 300 miniature pianos made from toothpicks, nickels, you name it. Barron Hilton, of the hotel chain, gave him a diamond ring in the shape of a piano. It has 260 diamonds in an 18-karat gold setting.

The adjoining car gallery features a 1934 Mercedes Excalibur covered with Austrian rhinestones. Imagine the scene: He drives on stage in the Mercedes, steps out wearing a rhinestone covered suit, then sits down at the rhinestone Baldwin grand. Light is reflecting everywhere. Women are screaming, perhaps for sunglasses. And he's playing the "Beer Barrel Polka"!

The library is an intermission, easy on the eyes. His papers are here, along with family portraits, photos -- Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Peabody phenom Awadagin Pratt -- crystal and china. It offers a needed break because the costume gallery, next on the tour, is a visual assault, stunning, beyond belief. Flamboyant. Rococo. Baroque. Imagine the most over-the-top costume, then try again.

Here you'll find the razzle-dazzle you'd expect from someone who once opened a show at Radio City Music Hall by stepping out of a 28-foot Faberge egg. Animal-rights activists beware. This room could pass for a chamber of horrors. One cape is finished with $60,000 worth of chinchilla fur. A black diamond mink outfit has 40,000 hand-sewn 2 1/2 -carat Austrian rhinestones.

And there is a Norwegian blue-fox cape, valued at $450,000. The train is 11 feet wide and 16 feet long. It weighs 175 pounds.

Liberace would drape himself in one of these outfits, put on six rings, his piano-shaped watch and gold ID bracelet, then hit the stage. He knew he was a spectacle, and people loved him for it.

"Look me over," he once urged a crowd. "I didn't dress this way not to be noticed."

He lived to be noticed. Whether it was the red, white and blue hot-pants outfit he wore to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, the entrance made in a sleigh, or one of his fur capes complete with matching fur-lined boots, he always seemed to be having a high time.

The minimum tax-deductible donations to see the museum are $6.50 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $2 for children under 6. All proceeds go to the foundation. For information, call (702) 798-5595 or (800) 626-2625.

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