Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010 | 6:18 p.m.
On the day of the big protest, Joseph Gabriel clutched a puppet.
This was no ordinary puppet. It was a little Liberace marionette, wearing a wide grin and a sky-blue sequined suit.
That's what it's come to: Dolls and demonstrators. So very Liberace.
"We want a full accounting of what has happened with the Liberace Museum's finances," said Gabriel, a master magician and puppeteer featured in David Saxe's "Vegas! The Show" at Miracle Mile Shops. "It has been sad to see how the decisions that have been made over the years have hurt more than they have helped the museum."
Gabriel, who performed for six years in Wes Winters' "A Musical Tribute to Liberace" at the museum, used his mini-Lee to draw attention to the day's cause, which is to shine a light on the museum's books. Gabriel shared today's sidewalk sideshow with between 60 and 70 protesters lined up at the Liberace Museum's sidewalk on the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street.
Most held signs critical of Liberace Foundation Chair Dean Koep and Foundation President Jack Rappaport.
"No Hope With Koep," and "Hit The Road Jack" were typical of that scrawled signage. Horns of bemused motorists blared at the colorful crew, which included Tina Turner and Elvis impressionist Larry Edwards dressed in something resembling Liberace's famous star-spangled stage costume (an image that graces countless refrigerators across the great urban landscape), and Gabriel's showgirl-costumed wife, Katalin.
"I love Liberace, love him," Joseph Gabriel said. "I know more about him and the museum than most people care to know."
To a person, the crowd clearly cared deeply about the famous Vegas landmark, to be closed Oct. 17 for a lack of operating funds. The protest was assembled by former Liberace Museum staffer Jeffrey White, the attraction's sales and events manager from 2000-2005. White is one of the more vocal critics of Koep and Rappaport, who many museum supporters contend have mismanaged the museum so badly that an outside entity needs to be called in to review the foundation's financial records to account for millions in losses.
"We want a third party to look at the books to shed a light on what has happened," White said. "It can be three years, or four, five or six years. It doesn't matter to me."
What might that third party turn up?
"We'll see, won't we?" White said.
And who should that third party be?
"I have no idea," White said, chuckling. "I just got this (protest) together." Some protesters called on the IRS to step in and look over the financial records of the non-profit Liberace Foundation.
Opened by Liberace himself on April 15, 1979, the museum once drew about 450,000 visitors a year; over the past nine months that number has collapsed to 36,000. For several years the foundation's endowment, which funds scholarships to gifted music students across the country, has been tapped to cover payroll and operating costs at the museum. The resulting scholarship allotment has plunged from a high of $500,000 per year to around $65,000.
During an interview on KNPR's State of Nevada, in which he appeared with independent museum curator and local historian Brian Paco Alvarez (himself a former Liberace Museum staffer) and myself, Koep re-stated that, "costs rising, income not coming in, and our balance sheets not balancing," were the reasons the museum was forced to close.
However, Koep did say that during his tenure the foundation had not investigated paring back its operating costs — including its payroll of what Koep reports are 30 employees, 15 of whom are full-timers — to help staunch the financial bleeding.
Koep said he believed the full staff was needed to keep the attraction running properly, but also added, "I am not an expert in museums. That is the number (of employees) that has been used for years. ... It's possible you could do it with less."
Such a move might have bought the museum valuable time to at least move toward financial health. As it was, Koep said, the museum paid out $700,000 annually in wages alone while bringing in about half that sum in revenue.
The ways the museum has leaked money are sometimes as staggering as any of Liberace's costumes. As landlord of the plaza on which the Liberace museum sits, the foundation has seen more than half the parcels on the land go vacant. It is also paying about $265,000 a year on a $2 million loan taken out in 2000, locked in at what Koep said is the "ridiculous" rate of 9.3 percent. That loan was for renovations to the plaza, and Koep said it has helped cripple the museum.
The quick math to the Liberace Museum's financial demise is about $1 million in payroll and mortgage payments alone, and about $365,000 in income. The foundation would like nothing more than to sell the plaza, too, and shed its role as landlord for a dying-on-the-vine strip mall.
Also, important to the protestors who crave for the removal of Rappaport, Koep clarified that every paid staffer — including Rappaport, whose holds the position of president of the foundation — would be let go Oct. 17. Three new positions will subsequently be opened, including a museum curator. Koep said Rappaport would be welcome to apply for any of the new jobs at the museum.
Rappaport, who declined formal comment on this afternoon outside his office at the museum, seemed unaware of this development and said he would likely discuss his future with the foundation and museum with the Liberace Foundation Board of Directors. Regardless of the outcome, such a session would make for great reality TV.
Also earlier in the day, Koep said he understood the protesters' concerns and was open to hearing from those who had specific complaints and could suggest ideas of how to contribute to the museum's future. The museum is closing, he reiterated, to solidify its finances so it can re-open elsewhere.
"We are not selling the collection," said Koep, who added that since the museum's closing was announced nearly two weeks ago he has received offers from around the country from collectors who want to purchase costumes or mirror-plated pianos.
Instead, the collection will be pieced out and sent on tour. The touring company Entertainment Development Group will represent the Liberace Foundation for such an effort — Koep said the foundation signed a contract this week with the St. Paul, Minn.-based company.
The tour would provide a revenue stream, as the foundation would receive a payment to loan its artifacts for a two- to three-month exhibit and also receive a percentage of ticket sales. Ideally, profits would be from the touring show would be used to fund a move to a location on or near the Strip.
Also, plans for a Broadway-style musical, endorsed by the foundation and based on Liberace's life, are moving forward, and of course there is still hope that the film starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Liberace's longtime lover Scott Thorson might inject some interest into an entertainment brand and cultural legacy in dire need of a lift.
And if a stunt double is needed for that film, contact Joseph Gabriel. He has a great candidate.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.