At Liberace Museum, pianos, cars -- and lots of rhinestones

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Travel Weekly contributing editor Amy Baratta visited two museums that celebrate the lives and careers of two of the city's entertainment icons, Liberace and Elvis Presley. Her reports follow:

LAS VEGAS -- Visitors to this city should not even think about leaving until they've wandered through the Liberace Museum.

To see the transformation of a classically attired, tuxedo-clad young man into a seasoned, sequined powerhouse of a performer is to witness the evolution of Las Vegas itself. It's history in the making, times two.

Initially, the museum was not at all what I had expected. Located at the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street -- well off the Las Vegas Strip and in a shopping plaza, of all places -- the small, red-roofed building with a light-colored stucco facade could have housed just about any business establishment. The only hint that something out of the ordinary existed here was a piano-shaped neon sign.

Although it looks unassuming from the outside, the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas houses a wealth of the flamboyant performer's memorabilia. Liberace purchased the entire shopping center, now known as Liberace Plaza and owned by the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, and opened the museum himself on April 15, 1979, a year after he created the foundation, according to Sandra Harris, executive director of both the museum and the foundation.

"It was a place to show his collection [of items]," Harris said.

"He was a collector, and it also would provide a marketing tool for the foundation."

At the time, she said, Liberace chose the museum's location because of its proximity to his home -- within a mile -- and to McCarran Airport.

The museum also "was really kind of far away from what was happening on the Strip," Harris said.

"Liberace wanted it to be a family destination. He wanted it to be off the Strip."

The museum, which includes upward of 80,000 individual pieces of memorabilia, actually is divided into two exhibit areas. What is known as Building 1 houses some of Liberace's cars, pianos and awards.

Building 2, which is located across the parking lot from Building 1, contains some of the performer's costumes and jewelry as well as furniture, china and crystal from his Palm Springs estate. The building also features exhibits on Liberace's family history and a museum store.

Some of the museum's highlights include:

  • A hand-painted French Pleyel piano played by Frederic Chopin in the early 1800s. This is the most valuable piano in the Liberace Museum's collection.
  • A Baldwin piano covered in Austrian rhinestones that was used in the finale of Liberace's last performance at Radio City Music Hall.
  • A 1934 Mercedes Excalibur covered in Austrian rhinestones and with a tool kit under the front bumper.
  • A 1954 red, white and blue Rolls-Royce custom designed to commemorate the country's bicentennial.
  • The car was used again in Liberace's salute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. Also on display is the matching red, white and blue hot-pants costume Liberace wore for the Statue of Liberty centenary.

  • A collection of miniature pianos, including one made by a fan from 10,000 toothpicks.
  • The world's largest Austrian rhinestone, totaling 115,000 karats and weighing more than 50 pounds.
  • The performer's stage jewelry, including a diamond grand-piano ring given to Liberace by Barron Hilton.
  • Although there are no rotating exhibits currently at the museum, Harris said she hopes in the future to have a permanent collection as well as a portion of displays that will change from time to time. The problem is that there is not a lot of room, she noted.

    "We want to attract different types of visitors, and to do that we need to broaden the scope [of the displays]," she said.

    The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday; it is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

    Admission is $6.95 for adults, $4.95 for students and senior citizens and free for children ages 12 and under. Group rates are available.

    Liberace Museum
    Phone: (702) 798-5595
    Web: www.liberace.org

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