March 12-18 is Milwaukee in Las Vegas Week on OnMilwaukee.com. Last month, Funjet Vacations sent our editorial team to Vegas, where we sought out connections between Brew City and Sin City. These are our stories…
LAS VEGAS -- Standing amidst the shimmery extravagance that is Las Vegas's visual legacy of famed pianist Walter Valentino Liberace, it's a little hard to remember that the man who has became the unrivaled "king of bling" is also a man who, for 18 years, called West Allis home.
Although Milwaukee is where the legendary piano player was born, schooled and carefully molded into a virtuoso, it was his years performing to swooning crowds in Las Vegas that launched his career, eventually rendering him the wealthiest piano player in history.
It makes sense then that Las Vegas is home to the one and only Liberace Museum -- the site of the largest collection of Liberace artifacts in the world.
A couple miles east of The Strip at 1775 E. Tropicana Ave, the plaza that houses the museum's two buildings -- which Liberace purchased in 1979 -- isn't huge and appears surprisingly modest, given the flamboyant and showy nature of the late entertainer.
A walk through the doors proves to be another story, entirely. Just past the reception area stands a still life of Liberace in a nutshell: a rhinestone-studded piano, a classic car adorned in glitter and his trademark, a magnificent candelabra.
The museum's visual timeline begins with a wall of photographs tracing Liberace's family's lineage back to 1906 -- when his grandparents emmigrated from a small Italian seaport village and settled in West Allis. Many of images exhibit Liberace's life in early-20th century Wisconsin, including his training at Wisconsin Conservatory for Music and performances with the Milwaukee Symphony.
The gallery beyond the first wall reveals just the first half of the pianist's personal effects: a large sampling of his 30-plus bejeweled car collection and 39 full-sized pianos, each carrying with it a plethora of interesting and almost unbelievable stories -- many of which the museum's manager of archives and special projects -- and OMC's tour guide -- Jerry Goldberg was happy to share.
"One of his first cars, a 1962 Rolls Royce Phantom V, had a full bar in the back and a telephone," says Goldberg. "He wanted to use it on stage but he ran into a problem. When you buy a Rolls Royce you sign a gentleman's agreement that you won't modify it. Liberace not modify something? I don't think so. He gets permission from Rolls Royce, has his friend John Hancock deck it out with intricate stallions studded in mirrors and immediately fashioned a coordinating piano and costume."
A short stroll across the plaza to the second building walks you past the studio of one of Liberace's top clothing designers, Anna Nateece, who is often working on-site. Liberace's costume gallery then greets you with a cosmic collection that ranges from regal to ridiculous.
"People often ask about the Elvis Presley influence and there was one, definitely," says Goldberg. "But remember that in the early '50s Liberace was already an established star in Las Vegas and Elvis was the new kid on the block. Liberace was performing at the Riviera, Elvis was in the audience and when they met up after the show ... Liberace explained to Elvis, 'You're not going to make it in Vegas unless you put some glitz in your costumes.' In later years Elvis got into wearing jumpsuits and capes and that's where he influenced Liberace, although Liberace far outdid Elvis in the quality and cost of costumes."
Goldberg mentions that the Liberace Museum has been in contact with Milwaukee's Polish Fest director Lidia Sobierajski and hopes that this summer's festival will feature some of Liberace's costumes.
Liberace had seven homes -- six in California and one in Vegas -- but never owned property in Milwaukee in his adult life. According to Goldberg, Liberace sought to open his museum in Milwaukee near Marquette University, but was shot down when the University dubbed the effort "too tacky and tasteless" and purchased the land from under him.
Though, for all his extravagance, fortune and fame, "Mr. Showmanship" remained a man dedicated to the arts and was a philanthropist until his death in 1987. In 1976 he founded the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, something he considered to be one of his greatest achievements.
The 27-year-old non-profit museum supports the foundation, which has given more than $5 million in scholarship grants to more than 2,200 students, including many students from Liberace's alma mater, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
The museum's rare and vivid collection of items from the musician's public and private life showcases the extraordinary life of a Milwaukee native who captured the hearts of millions world-wide and is well worth a stop for any Milwaukeean -- or Liberace fan -- finding himself in Las Vegas.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”