By Bobbie Katz
Like Elvis, showman/pianist Liberace is an iconic part of Las Vegas entertainment history with his own undeniable persona and presence. And, like Elvis, Liberace’s longest Las Vegas contract was at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Still, while their Las Vegas career paths may possess some similarities, there is one major respect in which they diverge. That is, Liberace has never left the building – at least not where the one bearing his name is concerned.
Rather, the entertainer, who died on February 4, 1987 and whose favorite song was “I’ll Be Seeing You,” is still staying true to the words of that song, thanks to the non-profit Liberace Museum, which he opened here in 1979 so that he could share with the public his gratitude for his success and the things that made him who he was. Celebrating its 30th anniversary on April 15th – amid great fanfare and events that the public will enjoy – the museum, which is actually in two separate buildings at East Tropicana and Spencer, houses his famous jewelry, costumes, candelabras, awards, personal artifacts, custom show cars, and numerous pianos. They are truly the “keys” to the pianist’s kingdom as well as to his supreme showmanship that was renowned the world over.
“Liberace first played Las Vegas in 1944 at the Last Frontier,” says Tanya Combs, Director of the Liberace Museum. “He was hired for $750 a week and after the first week, the entertainment director called him in and doubled his salary. Liberace also was the one who introduced Barbra Streisand at the Riviera in 1963. He had opened the Riviera in 1955 and he was responsible for her being on the bill with him – she was billed as the ‘Extra Added Attraction.’”
“It was back in 1952 at the Hollywood Bowl when Liberace was performing there that the while costume thing started,” she continues. “Most musicians wore black at that time but someone had suggested to Liberace that he and his brother George, who played violin with him, should wear white so that they would stand out. They did and as Liberace was leaving the venue with his sister, Angelina, a reporter yelled out, ‘What’s it going to be next time?,’ referring to Liberace’s clothes. Angelina was wearing gold lame so Liberace yelled back, ‘Gold lame.’ Still, it took until 1955 at the Riviera for him to wear his first costume. His outfits became such a huge hit that he felt like he had to top himself every time he performed. Off stage, however, he was not flamboyant at all.”
His background also played a role in who Liberace was and came to be. While in 1955, he was the highest paid entertainer in Las Vegas history, he had been born Walter Valentino Liberace into a poor family in Wisconsin. Again, like Elvis, Liberace had had a twin that died at birth. His father, who was from a shipping town in Italy, played French horn with John Philip Sousa’s band. His mother, who was Polish, was from Wisconsin and played piano, though never professionally. Liberace had three siblings, George, Angelina, and a younger brother, Rudy, who died at the age of 36.
A child prodigy who started playing piano at the age of 4, Liberace picked everything up by ear by listening to his sister play. A family friend and well-known pianist, Ignace Paderewski, was instrumental in getting the talented youngster a long-term scholarship to the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. It was a scholarship Liberace held for 17 years, from age 7 to 24.
Hating the name Walter, the entertainer first performed under the name Walter Buster Keys then changed it back to Walter Valentino Liberace. In 1950, he legally had his name changed to just Liberace. As his career started to escalate, he began to buy the things he had never been able to afford, such as the custom cars that he used to drive on stage. But, as it turns out, that was more than just for show.
“Liberace was about 5’10” and weighed 185 pounds, though his weight would fluctuate,” Combs relates. “With all their rhinestones, sequins, fur and jewels, some of his costumes weighed more than he did. One actually weighed 200 pounds. So it helped that he could drive on stage instead of walking on. He would say, ‘My clothes may look funny but they’re making me the money.’ Another thing he would say was, ‘I’m the world’s most expensive joke but the joke’s on me.’ He had five main designers.”
What it really meant was that Liberace was an innovator and smart businessman who knew what people wanted to see. He even made a flying entrance on stage once, via a harness. But during the 1950’s when television was relatively new and he had his own show, he came up with a novel idea. At that time, performers had been told not to look directly at the camera but rather to perform to the studio audience. Wanting also to connect with the TV viewer, Liberace, who was a Baldwin artist at that time, went to the company and got them to replace the hood of his piano with a clear Plexiglas top. That way, not only could people could see him play from any angle, observing what happened when he played, but he could also wink and smile to all watching.
Liberace also became known for the candelabras on his pianos. It was in a 1945 movie called “A Song To Remember” that he observed Chopin putting a candelabra on the left side of his piano. That same year, Liberace did the same thing at his performance in the Persian Room of the Plaza in New York. It became a tradition from that point on.
Again, because he came from a poor background and realized how difficult it was for someone to make a career in the arts, in 1976, Liberace created the Liberace Foundation to provide scholarships for those in the performing and creative arts. Scholarships are based on merit as opposed to need and proceeds from the Liberace Museum go to the foundation to fund the scholarships. To date, 120 colleges and universities have benefited and $5.2 million has been given to 2,500 students.
It all goes to show that long after he’s gone, Liberace still keeps providing music to the
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