Rhinestones, pianos and Bicentennial short shorts

30 years later, the Liberace Museum’s celebration of the gaudy still brings the crowds.

Frankie Scinta, right, joins Lena Prima and pianist Tommy Deering for a rendition of “Just a Gigolo” in the Liberace Cabaret Showroom.
Photo: Bill Hughes

Long before Criss Angel called flying on a Vegas stage a magic trick, Liberace did it as showmanship. He would end his show by getting into an overdecorated Rolls Royce while telling the crowd, “Now, I must fly.” Then man and car would lift off and start flying above the stage, spreading one of his bejeweled capes that weighed in the range of what a Marine must carry on his back. “You can see I am doing my part to conserve gas,” Liberace would say.

A Look at Liberace

Liberace died in 1987. The official biography of the Liberace Museum offers only that he died before his 68th birthday. Liberace would have approved of that, as he never acknowledged or referred to his HIV-positive status publicly. Liberace’s world was not one in which reality was allowed a place: even fake jewels were preferred to real ones. Who else would aspire to own the world’s largest rhinestone?

So, too, Liberace would have been pleased by the turnout for the 30th anniversary of the museum he opened in his own honor. The Liberace Museum on Tropicana was so packed that there were men directing traffic to an overflow lot. Inside, people walked in awe through one building packed with the flamboyant headliner’s piano collection. The back building contains the costumes, rhinestones and bric-a-brac of gaudy fraud. There was something not exactly typical about the crowd: There were a lot of young people and even children during the day. In reality, Liberace’s fan base is so old that in the past 12 years the museum attendance has dwindled from more than 250,000 visitors a year to around 50,000. The day’s crowd was the result of marketing and a special one-day 15-cent admission, as well as free entertainment from various local piano players. But in truth, the unfamiliarity with Liberace’s legacy allowed for surprise and delight at the outrageousness of it all, instead of the usual nostalgia aroused by Liberace’s glittering Bicentennial short-shorts, which no sane person would wear today or, really, any day.

Liberace Museum Tour

The music also attracted more attention. A packed side room offered the sensibly dressed Philip Fortenberry (whose day gig is playing in Jersey Boys) playing one of Liberace’s exquisitely expensive (yet visually low wattage) pianos and offering songs of his own as well as those associated with Liberace, including signature show-closer “I’ll Be Seeing You.” This is a reminder of Liberace’s other important legacy, his foundation, which has granted $5 million in music scholarships since being created by the piano player in 1976.

One young fan was eating in the museum snack shop, wearing what he told me was one of his three pairs of Liberace-themed sneakers. The museum licensed them a few years ago, and they are the most glittery and attention-getting sneakers you could imagine. All I could think is that Liberace beat some rapper to this one. In fact, if the jewels weren’t all fake, Liberace 30 years on would be given credit as the original master of bling.


Richard Abowitz

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