On Friday, at the crack of dawn, I was on a Delta flight from New York to Las Vegas. The Liberace Museum had just announced it was closing in October, and I was on assignment for the Wall Street Journal. Mind you, I have never been a fan of Liberace's music. I didn't dislike him when he was alive or his brand of classical music "with the boring parts left out," as he used to say. Like you, his music and scene just weren't my bag.
And yet, he was a phenomenon and a overwhelmingly popular entertainer. As I sat on the plane, I realized that for this story to work, I couldn't take a mocking approach, which would be too easy and disrespectful to those who cared. But I also couldn't celebrate music that was kitsch and for most people passe.
Somewhere over Oklahoma, the story's angle became apparent, and the result of my trip a few days ago is on the "Leisure & Arts" page of today's Wall Street Journal and online here.
How could the Liberace Museum be closing?, I thought to myself. Las Vegas is all about hype, self-promotion and marketing. Didn't the people who run the museum understand this? What's more, Liberace was in effect the city's George Washington. His bejeweled outfits, quarter-mile furs and shameless spending sprees all but created Las Vegas' image and penchant for flamboyance and extravagance. Despite teaching Vegas how to survive through serial makeovers, Mr. Showmanship's museum was going down. A sign of the times? Or bad management, shortsighted marketing and dim networking skills?
When I had researched Liberace prior to my flight, I came to realize how remarkable this guy really was—not as a pianist but as a self-promoter and charmer. How often has one person singlehandedly influenced generations of entertainers on the art of filling seats? By the 1950s, Liberace was the highest paid performer in Las Vegas and one of the first one-name national stars. Think about it. Elvis Presley was deeply moved by Liberace as early as 1956—even knocking off the pianist's gold lame suit jacket in 1958 and adapting his spangled jumpsuit look in the 1970s. The same can be said for Elton John, Cher, Wayne Newton, Barry Manilow, Lady Gaga, Cirque de Soleil and all of today's flashy rappers. Liberace was the father of bling.
And then there was the guy's ticklish self-mocking sense of humor. Lines like, "As long as you enjoy seeing them, believe me, I enjoy wearing them," "Well, what do you think? Too much?," and "Do you want to see the rings? Why not, right? After all, you paid for them." Never in the history of show business has someone earned so much ($1 million a year as early as the 1950s) and been so in sync with the tastes of the mass market.
Liberace was a genius for laughing at himself, a quality that we've all but lost today. He also worked tirelessly to do his best and make people happy. Another trait all should live by. And he understood the value of over the top, that people sitting in theater seats deserved to be entertained, excited and wowed.
Make fun of him if you wish. But beyond the capes and Swarovski crystals, drive-on Rolls Royces and feathers, and turning pianos and gooey piano playing was a guy who went to impossible lengths to give audiences their money's worth. And he was funny, to boot.
Perhaps Marian Lockwood, 24, from Portland, Ore., a visitor at the museum, said it best: “You come here and realize that over-the-top starts with this guy. The things here are way cool.”
Let's hope that one of the massive hotels on the Las Vegas Strip has the smarts to make room in a gallery for the amazing Liberace Museum collection. Costumes, cars, jewelry and pianos—all expensive and all part of the city's fabulous history. What a shame if it all were to be ignored and forgotten. Love him or hate him, Liberace's contribution was regal. And delightfully out of control.
JazzWax clips: Here are three clips showing off Liberace's influence, style and humor. Here's Liberace and Elvis in 1956...
Here's Liberace in the 1940s playing Twelfth Street Rag...
And here's a taste of the Liberace humor, which to me remains way more entertaining than his playing...