We’re standing on the front steps of Liberace’s house, gazing down at the torn-up yard, which, like much of the home’s ornate interior, is under renovation. The gilded door finally opens, and a good-looking young man wearing shorts and a T-shirt pokes his head out and invites us in, apologizing for the delay. We understand. It’s a 15,000-square-foot house, after all.
He introduces himself as Gerzain Valenzuela, the property manager who’s been living in the famous Shirley Street residence since October and is working with owner Martyn Ravenhill to turn the Liberace Mansion into a nonprofit organization. Valenzuela often deals with uninvited tourists who show up, knock on the door and look in the windows at all hours.
There isn’t much to see right now, but in collaboration with the Liberace Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts, they plan to make the residence a tourist stop decked with Liberace’s personal items—ornate costumes, pianos, candelabras and furniture that once belonged to the famously flamboyant showman and which, after being moved out of the former Liberace Museum and into storage, are now sitting in a banquet room off the kitchen.
“The collection came home,” says Jonathan Warren, Liberace Foundation chairman, when he arrives a few minutes later. He leads us down the famously opulent first-floor hallway lined with mirrors and chandeliers and into a sunless, cooled space where crates filled with Liberace’s artifacts are stacked from one end to the other. “And with what we intend to do,” Warren says, “a large part of [the collection] will remain here. We want to furnish it back to its magnificence.”
To get an idea of that magnificence, one needs only watch a video introduction to one of Liberace’s Las Vegas stage shows on YouTube. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto 1, it opens with the camera moving in through the home’s double gates, French doors and polished foyer with its curved staircase, before landing on a pajama’d Liberace stretching in a four-poster bed. From there it captures his daily routine: wrapped in a gold and white cape-like robe, pounding out a couple bars on a candelabra-topped piano, swimming in his piano key-tiled pool.
The camera pans along the statues, the Victorian furniture, the pianos and chandeliers, eventually catching Liberace in an opulent bathtub, chasing bubbles in gaiety. Finally, in a jeweled tuxedo, he bids farewell to his dogs, slides into his fur draping, exits through the front door and steps into a mirrored Rolls Royce, driven onto the stage at the Las Vegas Hilton by his lover and driver, Scott Thorson.
It’s the kind of self-made royalty, outlandish display of ostentation and joie de vivre that has surpassed the fame and attention that the Wisconsin-born musician’s florid piano skills earned him early on. He was a flamboyant showman like no other, the original “King of Bling” as Michael and Karen Feder’s Fame Farm licensing company dubbed him when rebranding his image through a new line of products nearly 10 years ago.
This outrageously diamond-studded persona, still lingering 27 years after Liberace’s 1987 death, is what draws new fans to a pop-up exhibit of his costumes at the Cosmopolitan, Too Much of a Good Thing Is Wonderful: Liberace and the Art of Costume. The renowned showmanship is what inspired Ravenhill to buy the performer’s run-down Valley home and begin the project to restore it. And it’s what Warren, who is also Honorary Consul of the Principality of Monaco, hopes will keep fans interested as the foundation moves forward with ambitious plans to bring Liberace’s collection back into the light.
The foundation’s next plan is to open a 15,000-square-foot space in one of Liberace’s old haunts on the Strip. Details are still being finalized, but Warren says the foundation will likely begin a crowdfunding campaign this month and to start moving into the new venue in September.
The move would complete the next incarnation of the Liberace collection on the Strip, a longtime fantasy of some former museum representatives and devotees as a way to build exposure and reinvigorate interest while the aging Liberace fanbase thins. Making the showman cool again—and relevant to younger generations—had long proven a challenge.
That changed when Michael Douglas played Liberace in last year’s HBO drama Behind the Candelabra opposite Matt Damon as Thorson. Told via a salacious narrative based on Thorson’s tell-all book, it portrayed the famously generous and internationally loved performer as a promiscuous, if not slightly creepy, old man. It also introduced Liberace to a whole new generation.
The Steven Soderbergh-directed movie earned two Golden Globes and a handful of Emmy Awards and brought Liberace back into the spotlight, but it came too late for his namesake museum, which closed in October 2010 after 31 years—a messy situation that had critics and protesters crying foul and claiming board mismanagement of funds.
At the time, the Liberace Museum was staffed top-heavy, with more than $600,000 annually going to salaries and payroll and no accommodations made for the recession and dwindling attendance. The foundation—created by Liberace himself as a way to provide scholarship funds to talented young students—filed for bankruptcy soon after in 2012, when U.S. Bank sued, asserting that the organization still owed $1.27 million on a $1.9 million loan.
But as the foundation faltered, Liberace’s name was coming back into the mainstream, with the HBO movie, Cee Lo Green’s Liberace-inspired show on the Strip, talk of a Liberace-based Broadway musical and headlines covering Ravenhill’s $500,000 purchase of Liberace’s Las Vegas home in August 2013.
The British Liberace fan, who has been granted a brand license by the foundation, permitting him use of the name “Liberace Mansion,” says the first phase of the home’s renovation is scheduled to end in late October and includes the private quarters, landscaping, roofing and plumbing. Phase two will be the fine-tuning.
Ravenhill adds that restoration costs will exceed the purchase price of the house, but that he didn’t buy the property as a commercial project. Anyway, he’s a huge fan of the late entertainer: “All my life, since I was a small child. I learned the piano because of Liberace and his showmanship.”
How the tourist destination plan plays out will depend on what Clark County allows, according to Warren and Ravenhill. The 1962 two-bedroom, 10-bathroom house that Liberace reportedly bought in the 1970s later served as an event center for years under different owners, becoming a thorn in the side of neighbors who complained about traffic and noise and will likely chime in on the decision.
Meanwhile, the one-month engagement of Liberace’s collection at the Cosmo exceeded expectations, with thousands of visitors streaming into the free exhibit to witness the grandeur of Liberace’s costumes and photograph the rhinestone-encrusted roadster in front of the hotel’s Chandelier bar. The crowds include scores of younger visitors, tweeting photos and engaging with the staff.
“The new audiences are as diverse as you can imagine,” Warren says. “It’s everyone from the hip-hop crowd to the granny from Milwaukee.”
Deirdre Clemente, associate director of the public history program at UNLV who curated the exhibit at the Cosmopolitan, says part of the appeal is that the costumes stand on their own: “You could know nothing about Liberace, walk into that museum and learn something about 20th century American material culture.”
Now in its eighth month, the exhibit puts money into the foundation and promotes Jason of Beverly Hills’ limited-edition Liberace ring, sales of which will benefit the foundation, according to Warren. Located on the Cosmo’s second floor, the jewelry store also has eight original rings from Liberace’s collection on display.
All of this—along with the donated storage space at the mansion, which has reduced storage costs of “six figures a year”—has helped move the foundation into the black, according to Warren. “There are no salaries, no rent. The Cosmo pays us. The foundation and the collection are not in any danger.” (Cosmopolitan wouldn’t confirm the arrangement.)
But lingering criticism from local museum wonks and those long associated with the foundation cite concerns that there’s neither a professional museum staff handling the collection nor anyone with museum experience helping to navigate its next phase.
Clemente says she believes the foundation has the collection’s best interests in mind but that its survival going forward relies heavily on stewardship and relevance. “From a museum professional standpoint, I hope the foundation will rise to the gold standard in preservation,” she says, adding that it really needs a conservator. “Moving forward with any decisions to display these costumes, the stewards of this collection need to pay an incredible amount of attention to the environment in which these costumes are displayed.”
The last year has seen a dramatic shake-up in foundation leadership. Former chairman Brian “Paco” Alvarez stepped down in January, citing differences and a “hostile” takeover by Warren. Collections manager Melanie Coffee also left this year, and Kris Darnall left the board of directors. Aside from Warren, the remaining board members include Anna Nateece (Liberace’s furrier, long associated with the foundation), Cindy Doumani (a former showgirl) and Mark Wherry, coordinator of vocal music at CSN.
Warren says that the foundation plans to use advisory board members, such as costume experts Clemente, Jan Jewett and Connie Furr-Soloman, extensively, and to replace the departed board members with those on the advisory board, including Bo Ayars, Liberace’s former musical conductor and arranger, and Ravenhill. Additionally, Warren says the group is responding to interest from parties in Boston and Miami to host free-attraction shows using the collection, much like the one currently at the Cosmo. “The more we can have it out there the better,” Warren says.
“People think they saw the whole collection when it was on exhibit at the museum. It was a third of the collection. It is a significant collection, and it’s getting bigger.”
Bigger? He says an anonymous donor gave the costumes from Behind the Candelabra to the museum, along with financial donations, and that the foundation is interested in original photographs, cars, furniture and other items owned by or relating to Liberace, pieces that could be exhibited by or donated to the museum. “We have 100 costumes,” Warren says. “There are 300 we don’t have.”
Clemente considers Liberace’s costumes to be one of the most important material culture collections on the West Coast, partly because of the entirety of each costume—shoes, ties, dickeys, coats—and partly because of the extraordinary workmanship.
“It’s this high-level, highly intricate bead work. What makes this collection so amazing is that it’s the last hurrah of elaborate American beadwork,” Clemente says. “You can’t even get stuff made like that anymore, because the artisans are gone.”
Standing in Liberace’s former banquet room, which will eventually be renovated to look like the Palace of Versailles, Warren rattles off the contents in the crates and under the shipping blankets that may one day fill the home’s rooms or a dedicated Strip exhibit hall: “One hundred costumes, 17 pianos, 38 chandeliers, 18 candelabras …”