Dripping with delicious grease, four pizza slices—two plain cheese, two with meatballs sliding exquisitely off said cheese—are consumed mere feet from garments worth, more or less, the gross national product of a Caribbean nation or two. Not to mention so uber-gaudy they make anything worn by Elton John and Lady Gaga look like off-the-rack at The Gap.
Had Liberace not died in 1987, the sight of this impromptu lunch might have killed him. Yet this interviewer and his interviewee—Deirdre Clemente, curator of this exhibit of Liberace-wear at the Cosmopolitan—are chowing down carefully, and at a relatively safe distance from the famed frocks.
“It was kitsch and flamboyance to a degree that you could only laugh at it, and I think Liberace laughed at it and thought it was fun,” says Clemente, a UNLV history professor who studies and teaches about clothing as cultural history. “But in the same breath, it demanded such meticulous construction.”
Titled Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful: Liberace and the Art of Costume—and excepting a modest memorabilia display to promote HBO’s Behind the Candelabra—this new assemblage is the first exhibit of Mr. Showmanship’s outrageously excessive accoutrements since the Liberace Museum on Tropicana Avenue shuttered in 2010.
“Liberace is the perfect fit at the Cosmopolitan,” says Brian Paco Alvarez, chairman of the Liberace Foundation, about the collection mostly gathered in the casino’s “pop-up” space by the Strip-side entrance and billed as the elaborate entertainer’s Strip return after a 30-year hiatus. “Just walk into that casino and look at the enormous amount of rhinestones.”
Even 26 years after his death in a city that grows exponentially glitzier each year, Liberace’s belongings are so over the top they’re practically in low-Earth orbit. Right by the entrance, thousands of jewels are encrusted on the Rhinestone Roadster that was onstage during his final Radio City Music Hall shows in 1986.
Similarly shimmering inside the exhibit room is its rhinestone twin, Liberace’s Baldwin grand piano, flanked by a dozen of his showiest outfits—“showy” being an almost insulting understatement—including sequined jumpsuits and highlighted by his virgin fox fur coat with a 16-foot train. Such opulence demanded names: “King Neptune,” “The Phoenix Suit,” “Matador,” “The Christmas Suit” and the “Piano Key Suit.” Accenting the exhibit are bejeweled, custom-made boots, shoes and bow ties, as well as Liberace performance footage on wall-mounted monitors—and two European-designed candelabras that were meticulously cleaned by Clemente’s students with wet Q-Tips.
“The reason the costumes are kept so well is the capes are on them, but some don’t have capes because it would have been so heavy it would have pulled the mannequin over,” Clemente says.
“It’s fascinating from a historical view. Who made this stuff? There’s a costume designer, then a costumer who decides on the weave and cobbles together what’s needed, then sends it to others to do the beading and applique. I love the craftsmanship.”
Resurgence of interest in all things Liberace was sparked by Behind the Candelabra. Earning an Emmy for his portrayal of the flamboyant pianist, Michael Douglas co-starred opposite Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson, who sued the performer in 1982 in a $113 million lawsuit, including a palimony suit.
“It started the conversation again, talking about who he was as an individual and entertainer,” Alvarez says. “I wish the movie [based on Thorson’s memoir] wouldn’t have been so much of Scott’s perspective. It was only a five-year period and didn’t look at his entire life and what he did for the entertainment industry. The movie did its part, but now the foundation has to tell the rest of the story.”
(Next month, the foundation is set to open new offices at Neonopolis. A new attraction, the Liberace Entertainment Experience, is in the works.)
“We’re moving forward to the next phase of LGBTQ, with cultural and social acceptance,” Clemente says, noting that gay Americans are embracing gay icons of yesteryear.
“[Liberace] never came out, but his clothes created a smoke screen. It could be written off as showmanship if you were the little old lady who didn’t want to see what was right there. But if you were part of those cultural times, post-Stonewall but pre-AIDS, the costumes let it be OK to be flamboyantly gay and wear pink ostrich feathers. If you put the costumes in the context of his sexuality, you get an amazing cultural ripple.”
When you put the costumes near meatball pizza, you get an amazing anxiety attack. Assuming Liberace’s spirit hovers amid the beads, jewels, cuffs, collars, trains and capes, the thought of it is likely turning his pink ostrich feathers pale.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING IS WONDERFUL: LIBERACE AND THE ART OF COSTUME
3-10 p.m. daily through Feb. 28, the Cosmopolitan, 698-7000, free.