Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Saturday, 25 September 2010 12:03 UK

Liberace's faded Las Vegas legacy

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Las Vegas, USA

The effects of the economic crisis are still being felt in many parts of the United States and the closure of a museum dedicated to a Las Vegas showman reveals further evidence of the fading of the American dream.

Liberace wearing a blue sequin waistcoat in 1973
Liberace represented a prosperous age in an America full of optimism

You could make a good case for arguing that modern America was born in 1954.

The hydrogen bomb was tested on Bikini Atoll, giving us both the weapon and the swimsuit, the Supreme Court heard the case which resulted in the end of racial segregation in American schools and France gave up its grim struggle to hang on to the colony of Vietnam.

Just as significantly in a way, a flashily-dressed concert pianist called Walter Valentino Liberace earned $2m (£1.3m), and this was back in Eisenhower's America where you could still hire a decent piano player for that kind of money.

He was not just about the tunes of course. Liberace once described his act as classical music with the boring bits left out and his act included a version of Chopsticks.

A certain type of modern celebrity invented itself around him.

Like Elvis, Garbo and Chaplin, Liberace was recognised all over the world by a single name.

Americans enjoyed stories about how he drove his pet dogs around in a limousine and how, when he saw a piano he wanted in a museum, he bought the whole museum to make sure he got it.

He knew the darker side of celebrity too.

He spent most of his life denying or trying to ignore rumours that he was gay and once successfully sued the Daily Mirror for a sneering and charmless article which said so more or less explicitly.

When he was asked how he felt about first being libelled and then winning in court he famously declared that he had cried all the way to the bank. His fans who cared nothing about the rights and wrongs of the court case loved him all the more.

Shining star

The truth is that Americans - and plenty of people in the wider world - were in the mood for the kind of flamboyant fabulousness that was Liberace's stock in trade.

One of Liberace's outfits covered in pink feathers
The showman was known for his colourful and extravagant outfits

The dark uncertainties of the Cold War were beginning to erode the sense of prosperity and stability that America had rebuilt since 1945.

If we were going to be bombed back into an irradiated nuclear winter anyway, went the reasoning, then we might as well listen to someone playing Roll Out the Barrel at 500mph while we waited.

Liberace illuminated a dark age. He liked to drive himself on to stage in a Rolls-Royce which he had customised with candelabras and bodywork made of mirror glass.

His costumes were all sequins and ostrich feathers in shades of hot pink and crushed purple and he celebrated the bicentenary of American independence in a pair of glittering hotpants in sparkling red, white and blue.

It worked too. When he was asked how he was doing he said simply: "Remember that bank I cried all the way to? Well I bought it."

Rolls-Royce at the Liberace museum
Liberace's left-hand, mirror-tiled Rolls-Royce resides in the museum

So, when the local newspapers out here in Las Vegas reported that the Liberace Museum was closing down I felt I had to go before it was too late.

I could not help noticing that previous visitors included Paris Hilton and Michael Jackson - almost as though this is where you come to learn how to be a celebrity.

There was a time when the museum attracted 450,000 visitors a year. Now it is down to about 10% of that.

When I stopped by, certainly, business in the section of the souvenir shop where they sell the diamante waistcoats was looking a little sluggish.

Fickle fame

In part, of course, the closure is natural enough. Fame does not last forever and even the brightest flames of celebrity eventually flicker and die.

But it seemed to me there was something more profound at work here too.


Liberace was such an improbable figure that once the museum is closed it will be hard to believe he ever existed at all

Just as Liberace felt like an adornment to the anxious, but prosperous age which he lit up, so he feels like a jarring presence in an age when America's boundless sense of optimism has been badly dented by the grim persistence of the recession.

Seventy percent of the houses in Nevada are worth less than the loans used to buy them and 10% of them are empty.

Add in unemployment in double digits and an American Dream which seems less affordable with every passing year, and you can sort of see why people have stopped going to worship at the shrine of a man who collected Rolls-Royces.

It is a pity in a way. Liberace was such an improbable figure that once the museum is closed it will be hard to believe he ever existed at all.

There is fighting talk among fans that the museum could make a comeback one day if the mood of the nation changes again.

In truth, it is hard to imagine, but it is an engaging thought.

After all, there are already plenty of ways of measuring the American economy but this would be as good as any.

If the country were ever to re-discover its taste for ostrich feathers and Rolls-Royces decorated with diamonds then you will know for sure that the recession is over.

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