Las Vegas Sun

June 27, 2017

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Reintroducing Liberace glam

Last fall Liberace's Volks Royce was featured at a trendy clothing convention geared toward youth.

The hybrid Volkswagen Beetle and Rolls Royce, painted bubblegum pink and covered in mirrors, was a hit. So were the stylish Liberace T-shirts and handbags dripping in kitsch.

"They loved the imagery," said Karen Feder, the licensing agent who placed the car at the convention.

"A lot of people didn't know who Liberace was or how to pronounce his name, but they loved the imagery."

Liberace, she said, "really was a fashion icon."

"If you think about it, he introduced glam before we had a word for glam."

So what happened? How could a star who shone so brightly and flamboyantly, a fixture in American popular culture and Las Vegas culture, fade so quickly?

His name is synonymous with Las Vegas, but he's nowhere on the Strip. He was indeed the King of Bling - before bling was ever cool, or even dubbed bling - yet he's so far out of the spotlight today and fading further into history.

"Let's wake up and smell the rhinestones," said Brian "Paco" Alvarez, who worked at the Liberace Museum from 2000 to 2003.

Alvarez attributes the waning interest in Liberace to poor marketing by the foundation that runs the museum.

"That collection is fundamental to the cultural community of Las Vegas," Alvarez said. "In a city like Las Vegas that changes every day, they are so slow to change."

For a man who was so vastly ahead of his time, Liberace, who died in 1987, is losing relevance daily as his fans age and Las Vegas booms into high gear focusing on a younger generation not familiar with the extravagant piano player or his television show.

That's a major problem facing the Liberace Foundation, which houses its museum at 1775 E. Tropicana Ave., and uses revenue from the museum to help support a scholarship fund.

It's a concept that has not escaped Darin Hollingsworth, executive director of the foundation, who came aboard six weeks ago to breathe new life into Liberace's legacy.

Hollingsworth is aware that annual attendance in 2002, the year of the museum's remodel, was over 100,000 and that last year's attendance was less than 57,000.

But Hollingsworth is faced with a huge challenge: Where to go with marketing and repackaging a personality so intensely private in his personal life and so gregarious in his professional life.

As a performer and philanthropist, Liberace reached out to all of America while publicly denying his homosexuality.

Liberace could be marketed as a gay icon, but some say his friends still try to "protect" Liberace according to his wishes, not mentioning his homosexuality or his death, which came from complications of AIDS.

Hollingsworth, an openly gay man, is caught in the middle.

"We are very attentive to the authenticity and accuracy of his life," Hollingsworth said. "When he was alive, he was very sensitive to his privacy. But we don't want to alienate people who have a connection, be it gay or straight.

And though Hollingsworth recognizes the camp and kitsch in the collection, he says, "What we have is a loyalty to a dignity (of Liberace). There is still enough of the traditional Liberace fans who are respectful of Liberace's privacy and the life he lived. There is a fine line among those fans' belief in tradition and camp and kitsch."

Others want to turn on the cheese factor and celebrate "Mr. Showmanship" in all of his rhinestone glory.

As Feder explains, "Liberace said he was always about making fun of himself. He would say, 'I'm laughing all the way to the bank.'

"He knew it wasn't just about piano playing. It was all the pieces together that made Liberace."

Feder got involved after she moved to town a year ago. One of her first stops was the museum. She said she saw a lot of potential and called the next day to volunteer.

"They didn't have a costume curator or any collection curator at that point," Feder said. "The other amazing thing is that they have never licensed the rights. These images, no one has ever seen before and they are so prevalent."

Even Volvo, she said, is reportedly working on a new slogan, "What would Liberace drive to the Mardi Gras?"

But as everyone tugs at Liberace's legacy, pianist David Lomascola, is concerned that too much energy is spent on Liberace's costumes and cars, rather than his music.

Lomascola, who has transcribed 38 arrangements from Liberace's recordings, received his master's degree in music from UNLV and has taught pianists and impersonators in the Liberace style.

"I play it to keep that memory alive, that style alive so people can hear it," said Lomascola, who also tours for Baldwin records. "It's important to remember he was a great pianist because he was an American product. He created his own unique playing style. He had great technique and great delivery."

Either way, the future of the foundation relies on people coming through the door and that number is dwindling.

Hollingsworth said that even though the scholarship foundation has investments and was designed so they wouldn't need to fund-raise, it relies on a percentage of money brought in by the museum.

Liberace formed the foundation in 1976 as a way to provide scholarships to students studying the arts. It was Liberace's response to the scholarships he received in his youth to the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music in Wisconsin.

The foundation has given $5 million to students studying visual and performing arts through accredited universities and a couple of non-accredited programs in Las Vegas. It encourages institutions to match the grants, which vary according to the need. Some are $3,000. Some are more.

This year, there were 50 applicants by the March 15 deadline. Roughly 20 of them will receive scholarships, Hollingsworth says.

Before joining the foundation, Hollingsworth worked as an investment advisor for Merrill Lynch. Before that, he was director of development at UNLV's College of Business.

He also served as associate director of development at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee, where he grew up around the Elvis persona and has friends who work for Graceland Enterprises.

Hollingsworth, who sees Liberace as a local and international treasure, is in this to perpetuate the arts and perpetuate Liberace's philanthropic vision.

To do that, he must get Liberace's name out there into the community. He has plans to begin a happy hour, a free day for locals and to present live performances by jazz and string performers, rather than Liberace play-alike performances.

He'd like to raid the vaults to rotate the collection of costumes and offer more display items, such as a 30-shoe installation and build an alumni mentoring program from its scholarship recipients.

The costumes, he said, could be included in campus displays, costume shows. They could also be loaned for commercial endeavors for advertising.

Moreover, he said, a new location for the museum would be key, especially if it were in a Strip hotel.

"That's exactly where we'd want to go if we'd move," Hollingsworth said. "I would like to explore whether there can be a collaboration with a Strip property for our collection."

The fact that Liberace fell so far into the background means that there is a lot of catching up to do.

"If the board doesn't start thinking out of the box, then the museum will close," Alvarez said. "The most positive thing they've done is hiring Darin. He's gay. He's got business sense. He's local. He knows the local market. He understands the academic side of museums."

But the aging board is bringing in new life. Jeff Koep, the dean of UNLV's College of Fine Arts, joined the board in recent years and says that the purpose of the foundation is to "get back to a focus on supporting talented students, which was Liberace's wish."

Also, Koep said, the foundation needs to work at "making one of Las Vegas' best-kept secrets more accessible, not only to visitors but to locals who really don't know that treasure that's there ... It's actually a look at modern and cultural history."

Board member Anna Nateece, who has been around since the foundation's inception and was a friend of Liberace's, admits, "Perhaps we didn't work hard enough."

Nateece said she looks forward to new life for the foundation.

"We knew he had all the assets of a good executive director," she said of Hollingsworth. "He's a young fresh face with a lot of goals. We have a mission to spread the word, to educate the young on who Liberace was and what he left for him."

For now, the biggest move forward might be in the retail. Even though museum attendance has decreased, Hollingsworth said that gift shop revenues are up and sees that marketing value.

"We will absolutely be exploring as many ways to get exposure on the Strip and local properties," he said.

"We don't want some young person getting a scholarship 50 years from now and not know who Liberace is. We will infuse a new perspective."

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