Liberace Museum (Closed)
Las Vegas, Nevada
The Liberace Museum closed for good on Oct. 17, 2010.
"Mr. Showmanship" left the earthly stage decades ago, but he still draws the curious and faithful to a museum that anchors two ends of a strip mall. An over-sized pink piano and a giant rendition of Liberace's flamboyant signature, both in neon, grace the entrance to this gaudy showcase.
Wladziu Valentino Liberace (his friends called him "Lee") was a musical prodigy, groomed from childhood by his mother to be a concert pianist. But he learned early in life that you don't get rich in America by playing classical piano. Instead, he became an entertainer -- and he did it so well that he became the richest entertainer of his generation.
This is important, because Lee loved to shop, and the fruits of his many spending sprees are what make up a large part of his museum.
The Liberace Museum is in two separate buildings because he simply had too much stuff for one.
What most people remember about Liberace is not his piano-playing but his love of rhinestones, his garishly outlandish stage costumes, and his undeclared homosexuality, which remains undeclared here. Liberace "wanted the museum dedicated to his career," our tour guide explained. "He liked to be quiet."
Las Vegas and Liberace were good for each other. The eye-candy excesses that they created -- and have never equaled -- are on display: his pink Rolls Royce/Volkswagen Beetle encrusted with mirrors; his grand piano console stereo; his beaded red, white, and blue Bicentennial hot pants. If it was jewel-studded, gold-painted, or festooned with feathers or fur, Lee adored it. Gilt and glitz are everywhere.
The Swarovski Rhinestone, one of the crown jewels of Las Vegas, placidly rotates in a glass case on a bed of purple velvet. As big as a human head, the 115,000-carat crystal weighs over 50 lbs, has 134 facets, and was valued at $50,000 when donated to the museum in 1985. Its current value, our tour guide assured us, is "beyond price."
Liberace's audiences were adoring, and one exhibit is devoted to their personal tributes, including a Steinway painstakingly hand-made out of 10,000 toothpicks. Another fan crafted a tiny Liberace from bits of bread dough and glue -- we remembered it from a previous visit -- although it was in storage on this last trip (The exhibits are routinely circulated.)
You can get a small glimpse of the private Liberace and his passions through his collection of pianos, including his mother's -- a large portrait of her hangs above it. And the museum personnel are full of stories about an entertainer that the tabloids somehow missed.
"Liberace paid his own bills, ran his own errands," our tour guide told us, helping us to understand his enduring appeal. "When he went to the supermarket he waited in line. He never cut in front of others."