Remembered as a master showman renowned for spectacular costumes and lavish productions, longtime Las Vegas headliner and pianist Liberace started life a century ago in more humble surroundings.
It was 100 years ago, May 16, 1919, when Władziu Valentino Liberace was born in West Allis, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Some of his highlights before, during and after his life are presented from the Review-Journal archives.
A 24-year-old Liberace was his own agent and negotiator in 1943 when he made his first deal to play on the Las Vegas Strip, earning $750 a week at the Last Frontier hotel. Liberace patted himself on the back for getting $400 a week more than his previous salary — until discovering that Sophie Tucker, who had been the hotel’s headliner, had made $6,000 a week.
Shortly thereafter, Last Frontier officials raised their new star’s salary to $1,500 a week and then received a long-term commitment.
Liberace said that he got an offer to move to the Flamingo from the hotel’s entertainment director, Benjamin Siegel. Before Liberace could make a decision, Siegel was gunned down June 20, 1947, in Southern California, ending the performer’s options.
When the Riviera opened in 1954, it handed Liberace a then-unheard of $50,000 per week to headline its showroom.
Longtime RJ columnist Norm Clarke shared the story of Barbra Streisand’s Las Vegas debut as the opening act for Liberace in July 1963 at the Riviera.
According to the Streisand biographer William J. Mann, Liberace had concerns about the reception Streisand received from his fans.
Mann wrote: “The first couple of nights, the audience of ladies with much costume jewelry and reluctant husbands sitting beside them hadn’t applauded Barbra quite as loudly as she was used to. Nor had they seemed to get the jokes.
“Barbra’s long, rambling African or Estonian or Armenian folktales probably fell horrendously flat in Vegas; even sophisticated hipsters in New York and San Francisco didn’t always know what to make of them.
“Peter Daniels, cringing at the piano, thought those first two nights were ‘disastrous.’ So Liberace had decided to come out at the top of the show and do a bit of an opening number, then introduce Barbra as his ‘discovery.’ ”
The buildup from Liberace benefited the young star, and the rest is history.
Liberace set up his own museum in 1979 at 1775 E. Tropicana Ave., off Maryland Parkway. Featuring memorabilia from his career and gifts from his many worldwide fans, the museum helped fund the Liberace Foundation for Creative and Performing Arts, which was used to fund more than 2,700 music scholarships.
Declining attendance forced the museum to close in 2010.
In 2014, the Liberace Foundation was allowed to move into the “Thrilla Villa,” built in 1992 and once the home of music legend Michael Jackson. Inside, you’ll find numerous Liberace pieces, including pianos, costumes, candelabras and facts about the famed showman.
The star built his Las Vegas mansion in 1974 in a neighborhood near East Tropicana Avenue and Swenson Street, and lived their until his death.
The mansion went through changes of ownership as well as changes to the home. At one point, it was used for events, weddings and even proms. After being purchased in 2006 for $3.7 million, the mansion went into foreclosure, lost its sense of grandeur and fell into disrepair.
In 2013, British businessman Martyn Ravenhill bought the Liberace Mansion out of foreclosure for $500,000, and says he has spent millions of dollars restoring it to pretty much the way it looked when Liberace was there.
‘Behind The Candelabra’
The 2013 acclaimed film from Steven Soderbergh starred Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, his lover of several years who ended up suing the entertainer after being fired from the show and thrown out of his home.
Las Vegas served as one of the filming locations, and in 2012, Damon and Douglas wowed an audience at the then-LVH (now the Westgate) and recreated the notable entrance of Thorson driving a Rolls-Royce onto stage and helping Liberace gloriously emerge from the car in a white furlike coat with a 16-foot train.