Fanciful costumes, a rhinestone-studded grand piano, and glowing candelabras were only some of the over-the-top stage props that helped earn Liberace the moniker of "Mr. Showmanship" during a four-decade run in Nevada resort showrooms. The flamboyant pianist with the beaming smile might open a show by flying in on wires, or exit in a bejeweled Rolls Royce while wearing a floor-length fur cape and matching czar's hat. At John Ascuaga's Nugget in Reno, he entered the stage seated on Bertha, one of the showroom's popular performing elephants. Nothing was out of bounds for the performer whose fans, many of them middle-aged women, were as thrilled by his constant costume changes as his skills at the keyboard.
Born in Wisconsin in 1919 to Italian-Polish immigrants, Wladziu Valentino Liberace was a child prodigy who was headlining orchestral concerts in Chicago while still in his teens. By the time he was tabbed to open the Riviera Hotel in 1955—earning a then-unprecedented $50,000 a week—he had an established fan base courtesy of television appearances, touring, and Las Vegas engagements at the Hotel Last Frontier.
Liberace continued to headline in Las Vegas showrooms until the mid-1980s, performing popular standards and classical compositions, and donning increasingly outrageous outfits. Fans grew excited when he would briefly leave the stage "to slip into something a bit more comfortable," assuring them of yet another outrageous costume. Sequins, ostrich feathers, and fur accented many of his outfits.
One of his memorable costumes was a red, white, and blue hot pants ensemble he wore during one of many European tours that he performed in-between his ongoing engagements at various Nevada hotel-casino showrooms. "I didn't come here to not be noticed," he said after a performance in London before the Queen of England.
Liberace—known to his friends as Lee—lived a comparatively quiet and conservative life, determined to keep his homosexuality a secret. His sexual orientation remained mostly hidden until he died in 1987 and, even then, a number of fans refused to believe he was gay despite confirmation from friends and a longtime companion.
Liberace would become the city's first artist to have a museum dedicated in his honor. The now-closed musuem east of the Strip was packed with colorful grand pianos and automobiles, but it was his outlandish costumes that were the focal point for most visitors. The non-profit Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, at 1775 East Tropicana Avenue, continues to assist aspiring young artists via an ongoing scholarship program. The foundation offices are located in a strip mall that also houses another of his legacies: the Tivoli Gardens restaurant, which Liberace opened in 1979 because of his interest in cuisine.
Onstage, the ever-affable Liberace was a perfectionist who demanded elaborate and precise mood lighting as he deftly delivered a blend of vocal-free romantic favorites, light classics, and the occasional pop tune. He was a showroom staple for nearly forty years, consistently drawing large and curious crowds regardless of changing entertainment trends. The performer who influenced flashy contemporary headliners such as Elton John simply never went out of fashion. He set a standard for showmanship on Las Vegas stages that has long survived him.
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