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October 24, 2014

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Liberace Museum is planning a move downtown — to Neonopolis

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Mona Shield Payne/Special to the Sun

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.

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 »

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Liberace, in full glitter.

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Neonopolis' Rohit Joshi during the opening of the ShoeZeum in downtown Las Vegas, Thursday, August 30, 2012. His investment group, Wirrulla Hayward, paid $25 million for the 250,000-square-foot mall in 2006.

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Liberace's vintage clothing, donning sparkling jewels, line the walls of the Liberace Museum during its final hours of business Sunday in Las Vegas.

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Many vintage custom-designed pianos were on display for the final time during the last day of business of the Liberace Museum on Sunday.

A plan is in place to move the Liberace Museum, or a version of such, to a new locale.

The region is not a surprise: Downtown Las Vegas. But the specific site is worthy of a double take: Neonopolis.

Liberace Foundation Chairman Brian “Paco” Alvarez said the organization has delivered a memorandum of understanding to Neonopolis property manager Rohit Joshi, a document signed by both parties on Jan. 18. That agreement is the first step in what is expected to be a yearlong process to open what is tentatively being called the Liberace Experience. The targeted opening is January 2014.

The working Liberace Experience title is certain to change, likely to something more suited to acronym treatment, as plans for the venue take shape.

But the long wait for the public display of Liberace’s fabled costumes, jewelry, vehicles, pianos and personal belongings is ending. The financially crippled museum has been dark since October 2010, with officials citing a serious lapse in visitors (from a high of 450,000 to 35,000 annually) and an expensive mortgage payment on its property at Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street.

The plan is for the scaled-back Liberace Experience to take up 10,000 square feet on the ground level of Neonopolis in the space originally occupied by Jillian’s. Windows are to be added to the area facing Las Vegas Boulevard to give passers-by a look directly into the attraction.

Plans for the new downtown display space coincide with a boomlet of publicity for the Liberace brand. HBO's "Behind the Candelabra" biopic, starring Michael Douglas in the lead role and Matt Damon as the pianist's partner Scott Thorson, airs this year. And Alvarez says he hopes that CeeLo Green will allow his stage costumes from his upcoming production “Loberace” at Planet Hollywood to be displayed along with Liberace’s original suits and capes.

The new venue would be about half the size of the original Liberace Museum, which was opened in April 1979 by Liberace and his brother, George, and took up about 20,000 square feet in two buildings.

Some thoughtful selection will be required to resurrect the most dynamic, relevant and interesting items in the new space.

“Not everything will be able to fit in there,” said Alvarez, who is qualified to make those tough decisions as a lifelong Liberace fan and a well-known scholar of Las Vegas history. “The selection will be the best of the best, with an emphasis on Lee’s costumes because of the blossoming of fashion downtown. We want to allow students to come in and study that fashion and be inspired.”

But the overarching value is Liberace’s position as one of the more influential artists in Las Vegas entertainment history.

“It’s an educational as well as entertainment space,” Alvarez said. “We are showing the history of American entertainment and how he fits into that history.”

The Liberace Experience also fits into a history of Las Vegas museum triumvirate in the downtown region, with the Mob Museum nearby at 300 Stewart Ave. and the Neon Museum a bit to the north on Las Vegas Boulevard. But how Liberace fits into the spotty history of Neonopolis is worth examining.

Over the years, dozens of Neonopolis tenants have come and gone, many with complaints about the management of the property, including such business needs as a functioning air conditioning system. Alvarez said the atmospheric requirements of storing and staging many of the delicate items will be addressed as officials move forward in the design phase.

But he is optimistic in his relationship with Joshi that the museum and property will prosper in the new partnership.

“Ever since I first met with Joshi about the idea of bringing Liberace over there, we have kept the line of communications going,” Alvarez said. “We knew we needed to make some major changes, including our location, and, in the end, he made us an offer that would have been foolish not to consider.”

The demographic of Neonopolis also is coming into focus as a gay-friendly entertainment center. Along with Denny’s and Heart Attack Grill (always a potential news source for truth in advertising in its title), Krave Massive nightclub is to debut this spring, and Drink & Drag lounge and game center is open at Neonopolis. The latter two venues are specifically targeted to a gay clientele, and Liberace was one of the more famous gay entertainers ever — though he never referred to himself as such.

“That’s the question: Do we ‘out’ the dead? Liberace never outed himself, and even in the early days of the museum, there was a tendency for our volunteers to deny that he was gay and died of AIDS,” Alvarez said. “But, slowly, over the past decade, he has been coming out of the closet.”

Alvarez said the new museum is folded into the Liberace Foundation’s bankruptcy restructuring plan. The foundation filed for that protection in October to counter a lawsuit filed by U.S. Bank, which was foreclosing on the organization’s property on East Tropicana in an effort to recoup what it alleges is more than $1 million in defaulted mortgage payments. Courts must approve the museum’s plans to move to allow the foundation’s financial reorganization to proceed.

The Liberace Foundation is, finally, attempting to sell its interest in the plaza it has called home since 1979.

“The Liberace Foundation should never have been in the property management business,” Alvarez said. “That has been holding this foundation back.”

The objectives, for now, are modest: to draw 35,000 visitors annually to an attraction that is educational and entertaining. Funneling money back into the Liberace Scholarship Fund for gifted students in the arts in Southern Nevada is a must, Alvarez said, as is celebrating one of the greatest showmen to grace a Las Vegas stage.

“The collection is irreplaceable,” Alvarez said. “Not just in monetary value, but, also, and most important, in historic value. People should be able to see it, and that’s why we are doing this.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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