Liberace once ruled the Strip, but fell into obscurity after he died of AIDS-related causes. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, signs point to a glittering return
For a man who dominated Strip stages for almost a half-century, who put the fabulous in Fabulous Las Vegas, whose resplendent aesthetic became the Strip’s aesthetic, our famous marquees did not dim when Liberace died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987, and no street is named after him. His relative obscurity in the zeitgeist over three decades may only now be starting to dispel.
That nothing was done on a grandly public scale to honor Liberace still drives Jonathan Warren, chairman of the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts. Warren often leads tours of an auspicious collection of costumes, pianos, and other artifacts three or four times a week. His voice dipping after a three-hour tour on a sweltering July morning, Warren says:
“It was an ugly time when he died. It was a depressing time. … This was Las Vegas culture, and people were kicking it under the carpet — like it never existed. The whole phobia was building up with AIDS hysteria at the time, and it was obvious what was going to happen. … Liberace was the poster child for it. I remember how easy it was to find opportunities to discriminate against someone based on this at the time and how they didn’t even see it as discrimination.”
Classically trained pianist Wladziu Valentino Liberace was gay when the economics of his profession and culture of his time demanded he not be. He was 67 when he died, the second celebrity after Rock Hudson to succumb to the disease that was at its most misunderstood and feared at the time.
Public celebrations of his life were muted. The gay community was disappointed he publicly denied his sexuality, even through the winks onstage. His audience, often elderly Midwestern women who adored his antics and self-deprecating humor, was shocked, shocked to find homosexuality was a fact of his private life.
HBO’s 2013 Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as Mr. Showmanship and Matt Damon as lover Scott Thorson, based on Thorson’s dubious tell-all book, perhaps rekindled interest, but it certainly won’t be the last word. Liberace is enjoying something of a comeback in 2019 on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
When Cardi B sang “Money” at the Grammys in February, her pianist, Chloe Flower, lit up social media with her performance on Liberace’s crystal piano.
At the camp-themed Met Gala in May, Liberace’s costumes and essence were literally and figuratively represented, writer-producer Ryan Murphy channeling him with a Christian Siriano-designed beaded cape, suit, and bow.
In May, the Liberace Foundation had an official birthday party in Monte Carlo. Members of the Maloof and Liberace families attended.
His famous typewriter-playing sequence with an orchestra from television in the ’50s punctuated a scene in the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Liberace’s image was licensed for Blade Runner 2049, Family Guy’s “The Quest for Stuff” game, Mozart in the Jungle, The Jim Gaffigan Show, and most recently, Rocketman.
An August 1963 marquee for Liberace’s show at the Riviera reflects his celebrity stature in a Las Vegas of yesteryear. Riviera sign courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau
At least two European companies are working on documentaries: A British one is licensed, has filmed in Monaco, New York, and Hollywood, has been picked up by a major distribution channel, and will be released next year around this time; a German production has no license and no access to the archives or collections.
Look for a Liberace Steakhouse in the Los Angeles area next year, the first of a nationwide effort. A license for a Las Vegas production show is expected soon, Warren says, in partnership with a major Las Vegas producer who knew Liberace.
A Broadway show based on Behind the Candelabra has been mentioned in press releases a couple of times, but no rights have been discussed with the Liberace Foundation, Warren says. Others are working on a licensed Broadway play, which would encompass Liberace’s life as a cultural phenomenon, he says.
The Liberace Foundation receives licensing requests almost weekly, Warren says. Each is considered based on the treatment.
You can draw lines from Liberace’s garish stage presence to such influential stars as Elvis Presley, Elton John, and Michael Jackson through to many of today’s entertainers across many genres, especially hip-hop.
The lack of a street name in Las Vegas shocks Darden Asbury Pyron, author of Liberace: An American Boy (The University of Chicago Press, 2000). The book presents Liberace’s life as a metaphor for modern America’s excessive commercialism and hunger for celebrity.
“That is astonishing to me … He first played Las Vegas in 1944, and except for a break between ’59-’61, he’s playing it virtually on his deathbed. Absolutely no person has closer associations with Las Vegas, and the Las Vegas city fathers should be ashamed of not naming a street after him,” Pyron says.
Liberace held residencies at the Last Frontier, Riviera, and Las Vegas Hilton. He performed at other Vegas venues, including the Sahara and Caesars Palace, on television, and on stages around the world, becoming the world’s highest-paid performer at his peak. Taking some criticism about his gimmicks, flashy but sloppy piano playing, constant promotions, and ostentatious demeanor, he said he “cried all the way to the bank,” the phrase becoming part of the American lexicon.
Liberace is too big a personality to be limited to one street, Pyron says. “He is so natural that the idea of isolating him and naming a street after him would freeze him, and he’s so much a part of American life. (You’re) taking him, his impact, and all the rest for granted.”
Spurred by an online petition with more than 500 signatures, Clark County belatedly marked the 100th anniversary of Liberace’s birth with a proclamation in June. A street bearing his name is in the works, Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom says. County staff is in the design stages of a realignment of Tompkins Avenue east of Koval Lane that could bear Liberace’s name. It’s budgeted to start in the next couple of years, but right-of-way still must be acquired before construction could begin, a spokesman for Segerblom said.
“I suspect maybe when he died, he wasn’t quite the celebrity that he is now, so things are starting to come back as far as his prestige and people starting to recognize it,” Segerblom says.
The eponymous museum on Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street shuttered in 2010 after more than three decades. The Liberace Garage on Dean Martin Drive continues to display Liberace’s glamorous stage cars, which first appeared in his act in 1958. Costumes, pianos, candelabras, and other art is housed at the Thriller Villa, Michael Jackson’s last home, where Warren leads tours. They must be arranged in advance, the $129 price tag attracting only the most curious.
A 5,000-square-foot addition to the Liberace Garage is planned for a soft opening later this year, Warren says. It will display pianos, costumes, and long-lost artifacts, including a statue from Liberace’s Las Vegas pool and the 15-foot Fabergé egg from which he emerged for an Easter performance at Radio City Music Hall.
Illustrating the public’s rising fascination with Liberace, a free 2013-14 exhibition at The Cosmopolitan included a dozen costumes, shoes, bow ties, candelabras, his Swarovski piano, and his Swarovski car. It was supposed to run 45 days but lasted nine months because it was so well received, Warren says.
“We realized the depth and breadth of the market to see him was tremendous. We’d have three and four generations coming in at once,” Warren says. “All genres. A cross-section of society. The gay couple coming in from San Francisco, and the hip-hop couple coming in from Compton, everybody was coming in, and it was fascinating to see.”
With an evocative style ripe for parody but profoundly influencing so many entertainers, including Las Vegas’ latest megastar resident, Lady Gaga, Liberace will continue to have his moments. Whether Las Vegas truly embraces him as its own is still up in the air.
Thriller Villa tour, $129, liberace.org; Liberace Garage, $18, liberacegarage.com