Entertainment became linked with Las Vegas in the 1940s when savvy city planners and casino entrepreneurs rightly reasoned that even hard-edged gamblers would need an occasional respite from the drudgery of table games and the challenge of sports betting that had lured them to this desert outpost in the first place. Of the many who came to sing, dance and tell jokes was one so unique that he set the standard for the glitzy performances that have become the city’s staple. He joins Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Howard Hughes as the third of four men who helped make Las Vegas the most unique city in the world.
Part 3: The Man Who Played Las Vegas
Although classically trained and universally recognized as one of the foremost pianists in the world, Walter Valentino Liberace, the recipient of six gold record albums and two Emmy Awards, became even better known as the symbol of Las Vegas entertainment, a flamboyant, over-the-top performer who represented the scorned image of wretched excess often associated with many of Las Vegas’ stage acts.
It is perhaps ironic that Liberace, who first performed in Las Vegas in 1942 and whose talent on the keyboards was without dispute, nevertheless helped pave the way for a succession of marginal performers who offered more style than substance to their audiences. Without Liberace, there probably never could have been a Charo, a Lola Falana, or the slew of Elvis impersonators who continue to earn their livings in the city that brazenly refers to itself as “the Entertainment Capital of the World.”
But marginal musicians and singers weren’t the only beneficiaries of Liberace’s conscious, if insidious, pushing of the Las Vegas entertainment envelope.
In a city where reality is no closer than the next bus ride home and the unexpected now has become the anticipated, illusionists such as David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, and Lance Burton owe a measure of their success, if not their very existence, to Liberace’s underrated ability to transcend the boundaries of traditional entertainment.
And it’s something less than a stretch to suggest that the audience’s acceptance of Liberace’s effeminate manner cleared the path for the acquiescence of such long-running gender-bender acts as Boylesque and La Cage.
Through it all – the ostentatious sequined gowns, the ever-present candelabra, the gaudy gems, the spectacular pianos, the shtick that overwhelmed the music – Liberace understood what he was doing.
“I’m the first to admit my stage costumes have become a very expensive joke but I have fun with them and the audience shares that fun with me,” he said.
But Liberace, who died in 1987 at age 67, had a serious side, too. In 1976 he created the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts which, over the years, has funded over $5 million in scholarships to 2,200 students at 110 colleges and universities across the nation.
In 1979, Liberace also built the Liberace Museum, a fantasyland for adults comprised of a trio of buildings located in southeast Las Vegas. Walking through the non-profit museum, one can easily imagine how Alice felt when she first peered through the looking glass. The museum, which is stocked with mementos and items from Liberace’s professional and personal life (though it’s not easy to tell the two apart) has little relevance to most people’s reality. In other words, it fits perfectly in Las Vegas.
Liberace wasn’t a visionary in the mold of Siegel or Hughes but he was as much an innovator, bringing a new, bolder type of entertainment to Las Vegas that transformed the industry and attracted people, many of who didn’t fit the prototype of the average gambler, to the city. After one of his shows, these same folks would hit the slots and table games and engage in sports betting, an unexpected but welcomed part of the legacy that is Liberace’s enduring influence on Las Vegas.