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April 17, 2014

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Sadness, disbelief — and a sign from above — mark closing of Liberace Museum

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Mona Shield Payne/Special to the Sun

Overwhelmed with sadness, Anna Nateece, who designed Liberace’s infamous furs, dabs her eyes during the final day of business at the Liberace Museum Sunday.

Liberace Museum Closes

Fans wait in line to enter the Liberace Museum on its final day of business after 31 years of operation in Las Vegas, Sunday, October 17, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Liberace

As the highest paid entertainer in 1955 making $50,000 a week at the Riviera, Liberace paved the way for a generation of marquee entertainers who would draw thousands of people to the Strip with just a mere flashing of their names in lights.

The closing was marked by twin rainbows arching vividly in the distance.

It wasn't the pot of gold Liberace Museum needed to keep the attraction afloat. But like the bedazzled artifacts inside, it was fun to gaze at. As announced in September, the financially depleted museum on the corner of Tropicana and Spencer closed in a melancholy fashion Sunday, hastily dropping the curtain in a manner hardly befitting Mr. Showmanship.

Hundreds of visitors began lining up at the entrance of the museum’s main exhibit hall about 30 minutes before the announced noon opening time. In a rare event, the parking lot at Liberace Plaza was nearly full for hours and there was no need to summon the Slider Truck (a popular fixture during the most recent Liberace birthday celebration in May) to boost interest in the event.

Throughout the afternoon an orderly parade of saddened (if procrastinating) well-wishers came and went. By the end of the day, the scene had dissipated to a late rush of souvenirs, as a single rent-a-cop positioned at the entrance of the gift shop shooed away late arrivers who wanted to cut inside for a final look-see. Confusion mixed with aggravation as many visitors who expected the museum to close at the announced time of 4 p.m. were turned away from the attraction a half-hour before that time.

There was no ceremonial toast or parting words from any museum official; the rain that began to fall in earnest at about 3:50 p.m. seemed to signify that it was time to close up.

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Fans admire the feathered capes and bejeweled costumes of Liberace while visiting the Liberace Museum during its final hours of business Sunday, October 17, 2010, after 31 years in Las Vegas.

Fans and staffers alike spoke of regret that the museum is closing, its finances having shrunk to the point that the attraction was in danger of draining the Liberace Foundation scholarship account completely.

Anna Nateece, who designed Liberace’s costumes for decades and was a friend and confidant of his for much of his life, said, “This is wrong. It’s just wrong.” Nateece has been a living tribute to Liberace, an unfailingly elegant caretaker of his legacy who still carries real clout as a member of the Liberace Board of Directors.

Outgoing museum director Tanya Combs, a 10-year employee whose security code was disabled before she could retrieve all of her belongings from her office, said, “The staff is very sad. It’s like a family here, and we all really believed in this place, and it is like losing a member of your family.”

Tour guide Stephen Mathis, who wore a sequined vest, piano-key tie and a half-dozen oversized Liberace-styled rings, used one word to describe his feelings: “Devastated.”

Among the fans lining up to visit the attraction on Lee Day were Stephen McClelland and Julie Taber of “Jubilee” at Bally’s. Both made their first visit to the Liberace Museum today.

“I can’t believe they would close this,” said McClelland, vocalist in “Jubilee.” “It is sad, yeah. The trend has been against over-the-top showmanship, showgirls and great costumes, and that’s what he was about.”

Taber, a showgirl in “Jubilee,” said, “I remember his TV specials, especially the costumes. That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing.”

Even those who lived in the neighborhood near the museum, and who had long planned to visit the attraction, didn’t make it over until today’s last-chance offer.

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Employee Stephen Mathis shows off his love for bling while working the final day at the Liberace Museum after 31 years of operation in Las Vegas.

“We live on Spencer and Flamingo and pass the museum all the time,” said Kara-Lyn Ahrendt, who was in line with her mother, Linda Price-Ahrendt. Both are originally from Chicago and were the only Liberace Museum visitors wearing Chicago Bears gear (Kara-Lyn sporting a No. 71 Israel Idonije jersey). “We knew if we were going to do it, we have to do it today.”

A few paces ahead of the Chicago transplants was Garen Clark, who once lived near Liberace’s Palm Springs Estate and saw him perform at the Las Vegas Hilton.

“I was talked into seeing him, actually, because I didn’t want to go see a Liberace show,” Clark said. “But he was just great. I remember him saying, ‘You guys thought you’d just see a piano player.’ He was so much more than that. He was funny, he engaged the audience, he was a true entertainer. He was called, ‘Mr. Showmanship,’ and he was exactly that.”

A familiar face, a late arrival who managed to get his tour in just under the locking of the doors, was former Liberace Museum Executive Director Myron Martin, who is now an executive with the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Martin spent several minutes catching up with Nateece before taking his young daughter through the attraction.

“I wanted to come down here and pay my respects,” Martin said. “I’m almost in disbelief that it has come to this. It’s a sad day. I had no idea I would be this sad about it. Saying a last goodbye and talking to Anna has been very difficult.”

There is hope, of course, that the rainbow’s pot of gold will be discovered for the Liberace Museum. The tour of select pieces of the collection might well produce the desperately needed revenue stream for the museum to move to a heavy-traffic locale on or near the Strip. The Liberace Board of Directors might well sell the plaza, shedding its ill-fitting role as a commercial landlord.

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Rose Matin, 5, gazes at a rhinestone-studded costume of Liberace's while visiting the Liberace Museum with her mom, Nahid, and aunt, Maggie, right, Sunday, in Las Vegas.

The collection of officials lording over the collection for the museum’s next phase is certain to change. Nateece said Sunday that Brian Paco Alvarez, who was a museum staffer from 2000-2003, is back, as a board member. There are likely to be other changes this week in that board as a strategic plan for the future of the museum is drafted.

As for the president who was at the helm when the museum shuttered, Jack Rappaport was not addressing his future, other than to offhandedly say he’d be around for a couple of days while the museum begins its transition. But it would not be a surprise for Rappaport to remain in place for a few weeks, if only to ensure someone is in a position of authority as a transition team is put into place.

Even though he didn’t say much, it was Rappaport who closed shop Sunday, leading the final few employees and stragglers out of the museum. As the group waded out, everyone noted the mirrored images of the rainbows in the distance.

There was a hope that, in the darkening of the Liberace Museum, the heavens were sending a sign of life.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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