Friday, Sept. 10, 2010 | 9:40 a.m.
One of Las Vegas' jewel attractions, and a significant part of its cultural and entertainment history, is closing.
The Liberace Museum, which has exhibited the jewelry, pianos, garish gowns and other artifacts owned by the great pianist and showman, announced today it will close effective Oct. 17. The museum opened April 15, 1979.
Liberace Foundation Board of Directors Chair Jeffrey Koep informed the staff this morning that all paid positions — full- and part-time — would be eliminated as of closing on that Oct. 17 date, which is a Sunday. A total of 31 employees, including 12 to 14 full-timers, will be let go, Koep said.
"This is a pretty straightforward business decision that's basically been a long time coming," Koep said. "The biggest thing to the board is the human beings affected, that we are going to have to get rid of our employees. ... But also, we recognize what Liberace meant to the history of Las Vegas, and that makes this very difficult and sad for us."
Sagging visitation numbers, which have led to insufficient funding to meet the attraction's payroll and operating costs, are the stated reasons for shuttering the famous museum.
At its peak, the Liberace Museum rivaled Hoover Dam as one of the region's most popular off-Strip tourism destinations, drawing 450,000 visitors per year. That number is closer to 50,000 today, even with an aggressive marketing effort by the museum that has helped boost raw visitor numbers through such promotions as 2-for-1 ticket packages. But actual ticket revenue has not matched even modest gains in visits to the museum.
Officials long have said that the museum has suffered as the competition from the Strip has become more enticing to tourists and that Las Vegas residents are not compelled to visit an attraction that sits far from the city's heaviest population bases.
"You know, there are a lot of people in the town in the years I've been associated with the board who say, 'Yeah, I'm aware of (the museum), I've never been there, it would be interesting to go there sometime,' and never make it there," Koep said. When it was noted that the museum had thrived at that very location for years, Koep said, "You bet, you bet, and in one sense there is more competition (from the Strip), and the other part that I find in this town — I don't know if other people do — if you live in the southeast, you really don't want to drive to Summerlin. If you live in Summerlin, not inclined to drive over to the southeast. Getting people who live in Las Vegas to the museum hasn't been easy.
"Our tourism numbers from the Strip have actually been pretty steady, but getting locals to turn out has been a challenge."
The museum has suffered a slow demise, suffering from financial struggles for more than a decade.
"The past dozen years the whole museum and foundation operation has not been as financially healthy as it should have been, " Koep said. "It's not something that happened suddenly."
The museum's profitability was further compromised because the museum and foundation owns the plaza on which the attraction and a number of businesses share space at the retail center. Several businesses have closed recently and have not been replaced, leaving the museum with a financial shortfall as landlords for that parcel (Carluccio's Tivoli Gardens, the restaurant once owned by Liberace, is independently owned and not affected by the museum's closing).
As a result, the Liberace Board has been forced to draw money out of its endowment account — its saving account, in effect — to meet expenses and payroll at the museum. This has been going on for several years, said Koep, who uses as an example the purchase of a shuttle a few years ago to transport visitors to and from the museum from the Strip. The van itself was funded through the Foundation's endowment account.
And playing landlord for the parcel originally purchased by Liberace also has helped drive the museum into the red.
"The plaza has not been completely rented out, and frankly it's not the most desirable rental space in the valley," Koep said. "But six years ago, before the market crashed, we were able, from our endowment funds, to pick up the losses of the museum and the plaza and keep Liberace's name alive through the museum. When the market crashed, our endowment fell, and with less people coming into the museum and buying things from the store, that money simply was not coming in."
The memorabilia that has been displayed at the museum will be stored and maintained by the Liberace Foundation Board of Directors, which is in final negotiations for a national tour of pieces of the attraction that might begin as soon as the summer of 2011. This tour would be similar to "Bodies" or "Titanic," with the artifacts displayed in a single city for a three- or four-month run.
Koep stressed that the attraction closing "indefinitely, but not forever." The plan and hope of the Liberace Foundation is that it will one day move the museum from its current home to a busier retail center. Museum officials, led by foundation president Jack Rappaport, were in talks to move the attraction to Town Square, but a deal was never struck. Regardless, the museum still is weighing options for a new home.
"We're very interested in looking at one of the centers — whether it's CityCenter or Town Square or any of the centers that have gone up in Las Vegas, or a Strip location," Koep said. "Somewhere where we would be more prominent, where we wouldn't have to worry about leasing extra property we don't need, setting up the museum and the (gift) store and going back into business in that sense. That is something we truly are pursuing. When say we're closing the museum, we're saying we're closing at this location for now and gather ourselves financially so we can remain solvent at this point, so we can take advantage of a move in the future."
The final decision to shut down the museum was made during an Aug. 26 meeting of the Board of Directors (which will remain intact, as it is a group of non-paid officials), which voted unanimously — 8-0 — that closing the museum was the most prudent option to maintain the financial health of the Liberace Foundation's scholarship program.
The foundation has awarded more than $6 million in financial aid to gifted music students since Liberace himself initiated the program in 1976.
To conceivably remain open at its current location, Koep said a gift from "some angel" would be required. At the beginning of the summer the museum announced a fund-raising campaign to reach the magic number, which is $5 million, to remain open. But donations have been stagnant, to put it kindly, and even such events as last year's 30th anniversary celebration, Liberace's birthday party earlier this year and the museum's frequent performances at its cabaret could not generate enough interest to keep the doors open.
Also, an announced feature film adaptation of Liberace's life was to begin filming in the spring of 2011, a project that could provide a huge boost to Liberace's name recognition. But the star of that film, Michael Douglas, is suffering from throat cancer, rendering the project uncertain.
What is certain is that the Liberace Museum as it has been known in Las Vegas for more than three decades soon will be a part of the city's past.
"We feel it's not just Liberace the entertainment icon, it's the Liberace who represented the city, change in entertainment," Koep said. "People are amazed when they learn his story, amazed to know he was once the highest-paid entertainer on the Strip at one time, and one of the highest-paid entertainers in the country. He was culturally important, and still is, and by closing the doors now, and focusing on the national tour, we can keep our scholarship program alive and plan for the future."
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