Legacies, by definition, last.
That's not to say they don't lose cultural cachet.
Liberace unquestionably created the former but fell victim to the latter.
"When this started 30-some years ago, Lee was still a name," says Jeffrey Koep, chairman of the Liberace Foundation board of directors, which voted on Aug. 26 to close the Liberace Museum as of Oct. 17, after a 31-year run. Officials announced the closing Friday.
"Keeping that brand alive has been very difficult."
While the outlandishly showy performer and master musician became synonymous with Las Vegas, his memory as one of the city's holy trinity of legends alongside Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack hasn't received the same care and nurturing.
"When Liberace passed away (in 1987), no one really did what they did with the Presley estate," says Koep, who also is the dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "If you turn on XM Radio, you're going to see a Sinatra station, you'll see an Elvis station. When you look at Liberace, his music is well-played, interpreted by a real talent. But it isn't kept alive the way Elvis or Sinatra's is."
Though Liberace was no less a distinctive personality than Presley or Sinatra -- and arguably more visually memorable than even Presley in his white jumpsuit days -- Koep acknowledges that another possible drawback to a vibrant legacy is that l never charted a hit record. Fairly or not, he is far less remembered for his recording career than for live performances of a genre-hopping repertoire of everything from standards to classical music ("with the boring parts left out," he had said) and of which younger generations have little or no memory.
"There's no one to blame here," Koep says about the museum's inability to maintain a cash flow from Liberace's legacy. "In the early years, there was a fair amount of income coming from what they called intellectual property. That's decreased. The Presley (estate) has a fleet of lawyers. If you want to use the song 'Viva Las Vegas' for something, you better check with them, that's how they're keeping it alive. We didn't necessarily do this. Thirty years of a collective board (of directors) have tried, but we didn't have the income to do it."
Yet Liberace's sense of flair certainly hasn't left the contemporary music scene. Lady Gaga and other visually outrageous performers are "basically taking their lead from Liberace," says Keith Thompson, musical director for "Jersey Boys," who organized the monthly Composers Showcase at the museum's 90-seat Cabaret Showroom.
"He was 'Mr. Showmanship' and he opened the door for so many people who think that way," though Thompson notes that it didn't translate into a "hip and cool" vibe. "He appealed more always to the little old ladies."
Thompson adds that the showcase -- a late-night gathering where working theater professionals from the Strip would test new works -- "brought a renewed energy to the place." But meeting only once a month, "I don't think we could be responsible for doing everything that could be done to save the place."
A planned biopic by director Steven Soderbergh, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, could revive interest in the performer, but its future is uncertain. A recent USA Today article about Michael Douglas noted that although the star is undergoing treatment for throat cancer, he still was attached to the project, set to film next year with Matt Damon co-starring as the man who claimed to be Liberace's lover.
"We have written to the producers of the film and have not heard back," Koep says. "We'd like to get some help from them and see if they're interested in gauging us. We own a lot of intellectual property. But you know how films are. It could be five or 10 years before it finally comes out. If it becomes a big hit, we certainly will attach ourselves to that."
Should the project not go forth, the last burst of widespread attention paid to the late pianist will have been a pair of biographical television movies broadcast 22 years ago, a year after his death.
The Liberace Museum opened in April 1979 with 5,000 square feet and grew with an 11,000-square-foot annex within the same shopping center in 1988. What Koep calls "a straightforward business decision" to shutter the museum at 1775 E. Tropicana Ave. was triggered by steadily declining revenue over a dozen years caused by its "off-the-beaten path" location, competition from Strip shows, space that has not been rented in the plaza anchored by the museum and the overall recession.
"We started about 12 years ago to hit a point where the museum income -- the stuff coming from the store, people buying tickets to visit the collection and what we were making on leases in the plaza -- were not fully covering our expenses," says Koep, noting that they had to dip into their endowment fund to stay afloat. Scholarships for talented music students -- which have amounted to more than $6 million since Liberace began the program in 1976 -- will continue to be granted "at a lower level" by the foundation.
"We don't want to close forever, a contract's in place (with a company) that handles traveling exhibits," he says about showcasing Liberace's vast array of clothes, cars, pianos, blinding bling and other items from his storied career. "We figured that's a good way to create an income stream (and) to get the legacy out there nationally."
One former musician at the museum, however, claims other internal factors inflicted damage on the institution. "It was like a rotten onion, layer after layer after layer," says Wes Winters, who performed at the museum from 2003 to 2008 after winning the Liberace Play-Alike Competition.
He cites a staff meeting he says was headed by Koep, claiming that "everyone was threatened that if you questioned anything, questioned authority, you would be terminated. They're threatening these 80-year-old women, employees and volunteers. So many of us have kept our mouths shut for so long because we didn't want to hurt the place because we love it. This was born out of greed and people who had no business acumen."
Koep emphatically denies Winters' assertions. "I don't even know what he's talking about," Koep says. "I know of no intimidation tactics at any time on any employees. All he was, was talent and entertainment. He had no involvement with the business. I don't know what he means by greedy, because certainly people we've employed are not overpaid. If people were flocking to Wes Winters' show and there was a lot of money coming in, we'd still have him. It's sour grapes."
Closing the Liberace Museum will certainly leave a sour taste as Las Vegas loses a symbol of exuberant excess that is so inextricably linked to this city.