Friday, July 13, 2012 | 6 p.m.
The man himself has been dead for 25 years, and the Las Vegas museum he founded that houses his famous costumes, pianos, jewelry and other personal effects closed two years ago.
But the specter of Liberace continues to stride onstage for curtain calls.
A movie about “Mr. Showmanship” is being filmed, and producers have been in Las Vegas looking for a splash of flash. This week, a pair of Liberace’s famous vehicles were loaded on a flatbed at the site of the latent Liberace Museum at Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Road and carted to an undisclosed location in L.A. for filming of the upcoming HBO movie “Behind the Candelabra.” The film stars Michael Douglas as the legendary pianist and showman, with Matt Damon portraying his longtime assistant, chauffeur and romantic partner, Scott Thorson.
Loaded Wednesday for the road trip to L.A. were Liberace’s a 1972 custom Bradley GT and a 1957 London taxi. Also being lent to the HBO production crew by Liberace Foundation officials is the entertainer’s famed mirror-plated 1961 Rolls-Royce Phantom V.
Filming for the movie, to be released sometime in 2013, is about to begin in L.A. Location shoots in Las Vegas are expected to commence next month.
Liberace Foundation Board of Directors Chairman Brian “Paco” Alvarez says other items will be lent to the project, specifically paintings owned by Liberace and a few of his more decadently appointed stage costumes. The decades-old, highly valuable stage attire will be used as background set pieces, not to be worn by Douglas or anyone else in the film.
Word of the potential film treatment of Liberace’s life surfaced more than three years ago but was derailed for a time as Douglas was treated for throat cancer (he is now in remission). The movie is based on Thorson’s book of the same name and focuses on the often-dicey relationship between Liberace and he in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
A high complement of Hollywood heavyweights are involved in the project.
The producer is Jerry Weintraub, who knew Liberace when Weintraub was a kid and considers himself an ardent fan of the trend-setting entertainer. Weintraub’s producing credits include the revived “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise, “The Karate Kid” series and HBO’s Emmy-nominated “His Way,” centering on Frank Sinatra. Steven Soderbergh (“Contagion,” “Traffic” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” series) is directing.
Aside from the two leads, the cast features Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s manager, Seymour Heller; Scott Bakula as Thorson’s friend Bob Black; Rob Lowe as plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz; Paul Reiser (“The Thing About My Folks”) as Thorson’s lawyer (billed as Mr. Felder); Tom Papa as Liberace’s announcer/stage manager; and even Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother, Frances.
It’s a stacked deck, to use a Vegas term, but Liberace Foundation officials are not wholly swayed by the project’s star power. The Foundation is not formally endorsing the film, which is to be an under-the-carriage glimpse into a segment of Liberace’s personal life as told by an ex-boyfriend who has had a frequently hostile relationship with the entertainer. Thorson filed a $113 million palimony suit against Liberace in 1982 (the two settled out of court, with Liberace paying his former lover and personal assistant $95,000).
By Thorson’s account, his five-year romantic relationship with Liberace came unraveled because of his own drug addiction and the entertainer’s chronic promiscuity. It is not the set of potential plot points that those who care for the Liberace Museum collection and the entertainer’s image are eager to promote.
“This is one individual’s side of the story,” says Alvarez, who took his current position with the Foundation in June. “There are a lot of people around him who had stories about him. There is the (film’s) side, and there is the side that shows a much bigger picture of who Liberace was as an individual and what he contributed to entertainment history.”
The Liberace Museum and Foundation has long promoted the entertainer’s philanthropy and trailblazing showmanship, which doubtlessly led to the stage personas adopted by Cher and Elton John, and later Lady Gaga and Cee Lo Green.
“Liberace’s life was far greater than what happened with one person in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” Alvarez says. “It spans from the 1930s all the way through his death (of complications due to AIDS and HIV in February 1987). We are seeing that impact today by those who were not even born when he was performing. I watched Lady Gaga on ’60 Minutes’ talking about how she was more than a recording artist, but was a performance artist, and I kept thinking that Liberace said the same thing — my clothes might look funny, but they make me the money.”
The film coincides with an important moment in the resurrection of the Liberace Museum and the continuing efforts of the Liberace Foundation to fund college scholarships to promising students in the arts. Citing a sharp drop in attendance and funding, the museum closed in September 2010. At the time, there was serious talk of pulling some of the more dazzling personal items out of the museum space and placing them on display for a national tour, with St. Paul, Minn.-based Exhibits Development Group recruited as a partner.
That tour was supposed to have been launched, to some degree, this year. It hasn’t happened. The project has been met with delays because of how to care for and transport items from the collection, and officials continue to entertain offers from parties who want to showcase the Liberace collection in and outside Las Vegas.
Alvarez says a permanent location for the museum collection anywhere but Las Vegas is “out of the question,” and there is a continuing effort to display some of the pieces at the Nevada State Museum’s Las Vegas outpost. There also is discussion of reopening the existing museum for small, select tours. The collection remains locked inside those buildings, under the care of Liberace Museum Collections Manager Melanie Coffee, who Alvarez says is “more qualified than anyone in the state of Nevada” to sustain the integrity of the pieces and document their details as their future is ironed out.
“For some people, these items are just very kitschy, but it is in irreplaceable collection,” Alvarez says. “They are as valuable as Queen Elizabeth’s crown, or Ming vases, and they need to be treated that way. Any damage to them becomes very, very difficult to repair.”
The movie is just one development in the resurgence of Liberace’s brand. Cee Lo Green and Caesars Entertainment are planning the Liberace-inspired production show “Loberace,” scheduled to open Aug. 29 at Planet Hollywood.
Similar to how it is lending cars and costumes to “Behind the Candelabra,” the Liberace Foundation has donated items to Cee Lo for his “I Want You (Hold On to Love)” video, including the collection’s rhinestone-studded piano. There is no formal endorsement by the Foundation of “Loberace,” but there is an opportunity for such. Cee Lo is an ardent fan of Liberace, and the show is far more celebratory of Liberace’s legacy as a master showman than “Candelabra” is likely to be.
A Broadway musical based on Liberace also is being planned, as Robin Leach first reported in May. It all shapes up as a fertile time for a Liberace comeback.
“Ultimately, the goal is to sustain the legacy of Liberace,” Alvarez said. “The importance of these things happening, and using the artifacts to reintroduce him to the public, is unbelievable … I’m an unabashed optimist, and I am very positive about the future of the Foundation.”