Monday, September 27, 2010

Mr. Showmanship’s Show Is Closing

Mr. Showmanship’s Show Is Closing
September 17, 2010

LAS VEGAS — Bill Holt was gawking. At the room filled with ornate antique pianos, among them a Baldwin grand glistening with a coat of rhinestones that was Liberace’s favorite. At a 1962 Phantom V Landau Rolls-Royce, covered in mirrors, that looked like a disco ball on wheels. At Liberace’s collection of candelabras, rings, capes and boots.

At, in short, the paraphernalia of a onetime star of the Strip who appears to have become a symbol of an era that is not only past, but forgotten, too.

The Liberace Museum, once a tourist attraction on a par with the Hoover Dam — 450,000 people came every year to the strip-mall museum with a red neon piano on the roof — is closing its doors next month. The collection is being put into storage.

“I’ve lived here for 40 years and this is the first time I’ve come,” said Mr. Holt, 71, a retired civil engineer, soft piano music tinkling above him. “I heard this place was closing, so I headed over.”

Tanya Combs, the museum director and one of 30 employees about to be out of a job, glanced dolefully at Mr. Holt. “That is the problem,” she said. “You should have come more often.”

Yet it is hard to blame Mr. Holt or any of the other hundreds of people who suddenly showed up over the past few days at the news of the Oct. 17 closing, filling a parking lot that had grown barren in recent years. “They used to come in droves,” said Jack Rappaport, the president of the Liberace Foundation and Museum.

There can be no disputing that Wladziu Valentino Liberace once helped define this town that loves its glitz. He was Mr. Showmanship, if he did say so himself, and people, or at least older people, remember catching a Liberace show at the Riviera Hotel (a picture of the Riviera marquee shows Liberace with top billing over a singer named Barbra Streisand).

With his costume changes, arch piano playing and desire to shock — yes, he played Radio City Music Hall in red, white and blue hot pants and knee-high boots, which you can see in all its garish glory if you hurry — Liberace was Lady Gaga before Stefani Germanotta was even born.

There are millions of Americans who watched him on television in the 1950s, who swooned at his campy outfits and jewelry and blinding-white smile. “I want to look at Liberace!” Alice yelled at Ralph Kramden in a “Honeymooners” episode in which she pleaded with her cheap husband to buy her a television set.

And Liberace’s fans followed with stunned sorrow when he died of AIDS in 1987, one more turning point in the nation’s perception of that disease and homosexuality.

Yet unlike Frank Sinatra’s or Elvis’s, Liberace’s legacy has steadily faded as his audience has aged. A taxi driver taking a visitor to the museum got lost.

His appeal failed to cross generational lines, despite the effort of museum officials to, as one put it, rebrand him.

“We really started pushing the idea of bling, and Liberace was the first person who was really doing bling,” said Jeffrey P. Koep, the chairman of the Liberace Foundation and dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “He had the big rings. He had the look that you see the kids doing now that’s very popular.”

Attendance last year was down to 50,000 from 450,000 just 12 years ago, and even that number was inflated by two-for-one discounts, and free admission on Sunday for Las Vegas residents.

The museum’s founding endowment has shrunk from $10 million five years ago to $1 million, a result of money-losing investments and a decision to take out an expensive mortgage to finance a renovation of the building that in hindsight, Mr. Koep said, does not seem like a wise decision.

The museum anchored both ends of a strip mall Liberace bought to display the trappings of his life. But many of the stores that once rented space from the foundation, including a wedding chapel and a music school, are gone. The mall, typically for Las Vegas these days, is a collection of empty storefronts.

The Liberace Museum has also fallen victim to changing tastes of tourists. When it was opened by Liberace — two blocks away from one of the 39 places he called home, Ms. Combs said, but three miles from the heart of Las Vegas — the Strip was all about gambling. Today, the museum has to compete with a boulevard of top-name performers and exported shows from Broadway. The museum began running a shuttle to the Strip, but that did not do much good.

There are some rays of hope for those interested in preserving a Liberace legacy. The director Steven Soderbergh said he was intending to go ahead with a biopic on Liberace that had been in doubt, probably starting production this summer.

Mr. Koep said that part of the collection would be displayed in some form of traveling exhibition. And he said the founders would look to sell the property, a prospect he described as tough in this market, to raise money to buy another space, ideally closer to the Strip.

“We are not selling the collection,” Mr. Koep said. “Part of the reason we are closing down is so we can keep the collection.”

Still, there is sadness in the dusky exhibition rooms that will soon be closed to the public. “I can’t imagine his name ever stopping,” said Pauline Lachane, a onetime president of the Liberace Fan Club, and today the museum librarian. “He’s going to go on forever. He put the excitement in this town.”

Billy Vassiliadis, the head of the advertising agency that represents the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said the loss of the museum “was a shame, especially for us older folks.” But, he said, Las Vegas, like Liberace, has always been about reinventing itself.

“We have to keep refreshing Las Vegas,” he said. “Thousands of people turn 21 every day. Who knows, maybe we’ll have a Lady Gaga museum in 10 years.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 18, 2010, on page A9 of the New York edition.

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