he was a child prodigy destined for greatness. he only needed one name. he was a pioneer of the personality-as-commodity school of celebrity. and, as he was so fond of saying, he didn't give concerts -- he put on a show.
last weekend i took a road trip to blazing hot las vegas to see the liberace museum. my pals catherine and julie cooked up this idea at cat's birthday party a few weeks ago, so we did not take the beast but instead rode in the air-conditioned comfort of cat's honda. not sure why i decided to go along, as i'm not particularly a fan of "mr. showmanship" -- the flashy pianist who was the greatest entertainer of someone's generation, but not mine. in fact, i didn't really know much about him. but suddenly we all really wanted to see the museum before it closes on october 17, due to declining attendance and the liberace foundation's desire to focus on its work providing scholarships to students in the arts. which, especially in this day and age, is more important. (the collection will live on as a touring exhibition, according to the foundation's official press release.)
in life, walter "lee" liberace (who died in 1987 and was for two decades the highest paid entertainer in the world) assumed such sobriquets as "the glitter man" and "mr. showmanship," but his retconned catchphrase is "the king of bling." it's all over what's left of the merch in the gift shop -- postcards, stand-ups, refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, etc. and once you get a load of his mirrored automobiles, mirrored pianos, and elaborately sequinned costumes, it's hard to argue with that.
the museum is in two buildings in a corner strip mall on east tropicana avenue. liberace's music -- a blend of classical and pop revered by his fans and often reviled by critics -- wafts through both spaces, delicate and light-as-air, playful and unfailingly joyful. one building displays his cars and his pianos, the other one presents his costumes and jewelry, a little bit of furniture, and walls full of awards.
cat insisted there was no way he could possibly drive the mirror-encrusted roadster shown above, because it would blind people! also among the auto collection is his 1972 gold metal flake bradley gt (with a silver candelabrum etched on each side), his custom-made mirrored rolls royce (with convenient one-man bar in the back seat), an old british taxi with a working meter (which the info card said he occasionally used to pick up friends at the palm springs airport), and a pink vw pimped out like a rolls royce.
the pianos include a mirrored grand and a vintage player piano customized with mirrored tiles and other flourishes. another one is painted a deep blue to match one of his outfits. my favorite was this elaborately painted number that was featured in the 1945 film a song to remember -- about the life of frederic chopin, who was of polish origin like liberace. it inspired the budding mr. showmanship to create his famous candelabra-on-piano stage settings, and he bought the movie piano later on as a memento.
for me what made the trip worthwhile were the costumes. almost all of them are totally over-the-top, but what do you expect from the glitter man? sequins, beads, feathers, fur -- all the trappings of luxury and excess, reflecting his oft-repeated quotation of his friend mae west, that "too much of a good thing is wonderful!" every outfit has a cape to go with, and special shoes too, because one cannot go running around in custom-made finery with off-the-rack footwear, darling.
i took a lot of pictures, all with my iphone, which did surprisingly well considering that the showroom is covered in mirrors and draped with chandeliers, so light rays are constantly bouncing around. some of the cooler costumes are in a glass case, which made it really hard to get a good shot, but most are just behind ropes/rails. the purple ostrich feather ensemble above is among my favorites; it reminded me of lilacs (and i learned later from the website's trivia page that lilacs were liberace's fave flower, omg). but it's hard to choose just one. check out my gallery if you want to see more, including his famous red-white-and-blue bicentennial hotpants outfit and a fairly spectacular matador-themed costume, along with this red and black number that is vaguely art deco:
i couldn't get a good picture of the most amazing one -- the crazy-elaborate "king neptune" suit. (luckily, someone else on the internet has a great shot of it.) it features a ridiculously high, clamshell-shaped back collar, loads of pearls, and a cape lining embroidered with shimmering green kelp strands and coral branches. it was his heaviest costume and weighed 200 pounds!!
i told my dad about the trip, and he had a story about seeing liberace live, some time in the '70s, at a nightclub in jersey. his party was seated right next to the stage, and the woman in the couple he was with had on a LOT of gorgeous diamonds. liberace made his way up to her and kissed her hand, saying, "i don't know what you do, madam, but you're obviously doing it right!" ahaha.
reading about liberace in the fairly extensive wikipedia entry left me pretty impressed by how driven he was and how much he did. (he played in cuba. he met the pope. he performed for the queen.) and also wondering what he was really like. in the clips i watched on youtube, including the one linked from the title of this post, his public persona is likable, almost sweet, and he seems to genuinely be enjoying himself even while busting out the schmaltziest shtick. he was savvy enough to lampoon himself (as did many comedians and critics), as when he appeared in a double role on the '60s batman show, playing a concert pianist and his criminal mastermind twin brother.
which is an odd irony, and not because liberace had a twin brother who died at birth (shades of elvis, ahaha). liberace lived a double life -- he was gay but spent his entire life denying it. it's sort of sad that a man who exhibited his talents and tastes so boldly ended up having to hide who he really was. but otoh it's hard to feel sorry for him, and he probably wouldn't have wanted that. after all, back in the '50s, he won damages from tabloids that made insinuations about his sexuality. and, as he said then, "i cried all the way to the bank!"