Liberace, Part 2
Last time, we were talking about the life and career of Liberace. We couldn’t keep his story to one edition of Nevada Yesterdays—and, showman that he was, he wouldn’t expect us to.
Liberace headlined on the Las Vegas Strip for four decades—an incredible run that few have matched. As time went on, his shows grew more flamboyant. His costumes included not just rhinestones and sequins. He wore expensive and eye-popping jewelry, floor-length fur coats, capes, ostrich feathers—you name it. For the bicentennial, he introduced an outfit that included red, white, and blue sequined hot pants. He called himself a one-man Disneyland, and he was. As he once said of performing before the Queen of England, I didn’t come here not to be noticed.
But he did a lot more in, with, and for Las Vegas that deserves to be noticed, too.
Liberace actually lived in Las Vegas, although he owned several homes elsewhere. Actually, he owned several here—he bought three hours near the Strip and put them together. Not far away, on Tropicana Avenue, he owned the Liberace Plaza. It included several businesses, a couple of which were his own. One was the Tivoli Gardens restaurant, which reflected his interesting in cooking. Liberace published several cookbooks and, in one of his homes in southern California, had multiple dining rooms.
Another was the Liberace Museum. His brother George and then George’s wife Dora ran it. It had multiple buildings and displayed multiple artifacts. Liberace displayed his cars, pianos, costumes, and jewelry. The museum charged admission, and the profits went toward the Liberace Foundation, which supported the performing and creative arts. The Liberace Foundation provided scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students, continuing his legacy for many years.
Unfortunately, the museum closed in 2010. It was hard hit by the Great Recession, and its location wasn’t all that convenient to tourists. The collection is still being held, and parts of it have been displayed in a few different locations, including The Cosmopolitan.
Liberace had another legacy that he attempted to avoid. As we mentioned last time, he filed libel suits against authors who claimed that he was gay, and won them. But the truth is that he was gay. Like other prominent figures in that era, he apparently felt that he could not be public about that and maintain his stardom. He eventually was the subject of various stories and faced a lawsuit from one of his longtime lovers, Scott Thorsen. HBO dramatized their relationship in a film a few years ago.
And Liberace was one of the first well-known figures to die of complications related to AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. He was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985 and died a year and a half later. He did have emphysema and heart disease—he was a longtime chain smoker. But an autopsy showed he died of pneumonia that resulted from complications from AIDS.
After his death, he has remained a pop culture icon, showing up in video games, movies, animated programs … and his foundation and his collection have done much to keep his name alive. So does the fact that, in Las Vegas, he was and always will be … Mr. Showmanship.