“Who is Liberace?” That was the question put to us at a Las Vegas visitor’s center when I was with a group looking for a possible discount to the Liberace Museum. If you’re under a certain age, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of him. The trivial answer to the question is that Liberace (1919–1987) played the piano. Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in a Milwaukee suburb, he was a musical prodigy who started playing at the age of four. At the age of twenty he performed Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was cited by “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” as playing 6,000 notes on the piano in two minutes. (Note for the skeptical: it’s not unbelievably fast, only an average of five notes per second for each finger. Still, one wonders who was counting.)
But you aren’t likely to find Liberace on a list of the best pianists of the twentieth century. Not necessarily because he wasn’t good; but more likely because he was too popular. He turned away from the classical music circuit and his concerts became an entertainment routine. He’d combine a classical piece with popular music, or take a beginner’s tune like “Chopsticks” and transform it into an extravaganza. He started wearing costumes that became more spectacular over the years. Liberace specialized in mixing popular music with glitz, showmanship, and a folksy humor.
He was wildly successful at it. In 1955 he was at the opening of the Riviera — in the casino there’s a picture of him cutting the ribbon — and was making $50,000 per week as the featured headliner there. At that time the average annual salary was about $5,000. The list you will find Liberace’s name on is a list of the highest-paid entertainers in the world. In the 1950s–1970s, he’s at the very top. If salary is any indication, he certainly deserves to be considered one of the great pianists.
What did he do with all that money?
Some of the answers to that question can be found at the Liberace Museum and Foundation at 1775 East Tropicana Avenue. The fee for admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors over 64 and students, free for children 10 and under. The museum, founded by Liberace in 1979, is currently housed in two buildings. Tours start in the smaller building, which contains an impressive collection of cars Liberace bought. You’ll find several customized Rolls-Royces and other nifty autos. But even more amazing is Liberace’s piano collection. One of the earliest modern pianos, built about 1788, is there. A piano once owned by George Gershwin, which he presumably used for composing, is there. A piano from the movie “A Song to Remember” is there too, the one in the scene that inspired Liberace to use a candelabra as his trademark. You’ll find other unique and fascinating pianos there as well.
The cars and pianos alone would be the envy of any museum. But wait, there’s more! The second building has a collection of Liberace’s costumes and jewelry, an awards gallery, a gift shop, and a re-creation of Liberace’s Palm Springs bedroom. There’s also a rhinestone-covered Baldwin grand piano kept available for anyone to play who wants to. Piano not being my instrument, I declined. I was, however, coerced into trying on a sample cape — not one worn by Liberace, of course, those are priceless (in all meanings of the word) — also kept there for anyone to try.
Language fails me when confronted with over-the-top bling. If costumes and jewelry are your interest, this is a place worth a pilgrimage. Could anyone doubt that Elton John got major inspiration from Liberace after they’ve seen just one rhinestone-encrusted high-heeled men’s shoe in this museum?
The Liberace bedroom and the awards gallery are interesting too, although somewhat anticlimactic after the costumes. His awards are impressive and cover several walls. The bedroom is surprisingly understated compared with the rhinestones and feathers. It’s a place where one might feel closer to the real person and not just his stage presence, as engaging as that must have been. It’s a place that raises the question again, “Who was Liberace?” He never married, was alleged to have had at least one live-in boyfriend, but was a apparently a devout Catholic and publicly denied he was homosexual. His death is attributed to complications from HIV infection.
I’m not going to judge his personal life. Liberace lived the American dream: a midwestern kid growing up and using his talents to become the best, and being amply rewarded for it. Although I don’t count myself among them, his fans loved him and he never disappointed them. His gradual decline in popularity after the 1950’s is perhaps due to cultural changes exemplified by the rise of rock and roll. As his demographic aged, his style of entertainment with old classic tunes did not appeal as much to the younger generation.
And yet, Liberace made sure that younger generations would benefit from his good fortune, too. According to its website, since 1976 the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts has awarded more than five million dollars in scholarship grants to more than 2,200 students at over 110 colleges and universities. That’s one way to make a positive difference. Both Megan Edwards and Mark Sedenquist have already written about the Foundation and the annual Liberace Piano Competition it sponsors, so I won’t go into detail here.
The Liberace Musuem and the Foundation are a remarkable legacy from one of the mid-twentieth century’s superstar entertainers. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
Click on the images below to display the gallery