Liberace Museum Closes Its Glittery Gates

  • The exterior of the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.
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    The exterior of the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.
    Courtesy of the Liberace Museum
  • Valentino Liberace poses at a piano with his mother and brother at the Society Restaurant in London in September 1956.
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    Valentino Liberace poses at a piano with his mother and brother at the Society Restaurant in London in September 1956.
    M. Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
  • Surrounded by well-wishers, Liberace shakes hands with a fan as he and his brother and manager, George, sail from New York to Europe on the liner Queen Mary in September 1956.
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    Surrounded by well-wishers, Liberace shakes hands with a fan as he and his brother and manager, George, sail from New York to Europe on the liner Queen Mary in September 1956.
    AP/DG
  • Liberace with Elvis Presley, at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas in November 1956.
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    Liberace with Elvis Presley, at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas in November 1956.
    AP
  • Liberace performs at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in May 1971.
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    Liberace performs at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in May 1971.
    AP
  • This costume was designed by Michael Travis for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
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    This costume was designed by Michael Travis for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • This Rolls Royce Limousine model is reportedly one of seven models made with a retractable landau top. Liberace used it onstage in the 1970s at the Las Vegas Hilton, and in the 1980s at Radio City Music Hall.
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    This Rolls Royce Limousine model is reportedly one of seven models made with a retractable landau top. Liberace used it onstage in the 1970s at the Las Vegas Hilton, and in the 1980s at Radio City Music Hall.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • Known as "Mr. Showmanship," Liberace earned many awards, among them: Best Dressed Entertainer, Entertainer of the Year and Instrumentalist of the Year.
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    Known as "Mr. Showmanship," Liberace earned many awards, among them: Best Dressed Entertainer, Entertainer of the Year and Instrumentalist of the Year.
    Courtesy of the Liberace Museum
  • Liberace takes a bow at New York City's Radio City Music Hall on New Year's Day 1985.
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    Liberace takes a bow at New York City's Radio City Music Hall on New Year's Day 1985.
    Bob Leafe/Retna Ltd./Corbis
  • One of the performer's costumes is on display at The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.
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    One of the performer's costumes is on display at The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • Liberace holds the attention of a group of photographers in a London park.
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    Liberace holds the attention of a group of photographers in a London park.
    Keystone/Getty Images
  • A January 1979 photo of the pianist and entertainer.
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    A January 1979 photo of the pianist and entertainer.
    AP
  • Liberace is interviewed in his hotel room in New York on April 11, 1984, where he is practicing for his two-week performance at Radio City Music Hall.
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    Liberace is interviewed in his hotel room in New York on April 11, 1984, where he is practicing for his two-week performance at Radio City Music Hall.
    Marty Lederhandler/AP
  • This photo was taken in 1987 just before his death on Feb. 4.
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    This photo was taken in 1987 just before his death on Feb. 4.
    AP
  • Liberace, shown in 1975.
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    Liberace, shown in 1975.
    Courtesy of the Liberace Museum

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Before Lady Gaga, before Elton John, there was Liberace. People of a certain age will remember the candelabra on his piano, the flamboyant costumes, even the self-deprecating humor in his distinctive voice.

"My clothes may look funny but they're making me the money," he once said.

At one point, thanks to Las Vegas, Liberace was the highest-paid entertainer in the world. That's where he created the museum that bears his name. It was one of the most-visited attractions in Vegas, but so few people come nowadays that the Liberace Museum is closing Sunday.

Maybe this is just one more story about how Vegas is constantly changing, but maybe not. After all, Sinatra is still Sinatra. Elvis still has impersonators performing here. So what happened to Liberace?

Marion Blank saw him decades ago and still remembers his charisma, personality and showmanship.

"It was really a spectacular show," she recalled. "He came on in a car and all glitzed up as he usually is. It was just a wonderful experience."

She came from Indiana for one last visit to the Liberace Museum to see the outrageous costumes — like a black mink cape lined with 40,000 Swarovski crystals; the over-the-top cars, including a Rolls Royce covered in little mirrors; and the piano collection featuring a mirror-encrusted Baldwin grand.

Liberace was a classically trained pianist, but he wanted to please the masses. He said he played classical without the boring parts.

Museum archivist Jerry Goldberg calls it classi-pop. It made Liberace famous.

"The biggest problem was you didn't leave humming or singing his music because he played other people's music," Goldberg said. "His name more or less has died out because there's nothing to associate him with except the bling and showmanship."

Liberace's biggest fans were middle-aged women in the 1950s through the 1970s — a shrinking demographic. He might have become a gay icon.

Goldberg says many people, including his own mother, knew Liberace was gay.

"But back then it would have been a catastrophe for his career, so he never admitted it up to the day he died, never came out of the closet," he said.

The biggest problem for the Liberace Museum may be its location. It's more than 2 miles off the Vegas Strip, and visitors just don't want to make the trip.

But now that it's closing, locals like Katie Driscoll are coming.

"My mother watched Liberace all the time when I was growing up, played the piano, so did I," she said. "I moved here, became a showgirl and heard that it was closing and I didn't want to miss it."

Then there's Philip Balian. When he heard the Liberace Museum was closing, he got on a plane to Vegas from London.

"I watched him as a child on television and saw him play, and I said to my parents, 'I want to learn to play the piano. I want to be like that guy with the sparkly jacket.' "

Balian learned to play the piano, but he doesn't wear a sparkly jacket. He's on his first trip to the U.S., and was thrilled that the museum staff let him play Liberace's mirror-encrusted grand piano for some of the final visitors.

After Sunday, the piano and the other artifacts at the museum will go into storage, and Liberace's fame will fade a little further.

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