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October 24, 2014

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Liberace Museum aftermath: Nateece, officials, fans wonder about encore

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Mansholt PR

Liberace and George Liberace.

The pain written across Anna Nateece's face told the story.

She's been through this before.

"I am sad today," Nateece said as she gazed, seemingly in disbelief, at a two-page document issued to Liberace Museum employees Friday morning formally announcing the museum would close Oct. 17

"I feel the same as the day we lost Liberace. I feel kind of empty right now."

Nateece was Liberace's costume designer and close friend for the balance of his career. She often refers to Liberace as "Lee," as do most of those who either knew or admired the great Las Vegas showman, who died Feb. 4, 1987 of complications stemming from AIDS.

Lee is gone, and now so is his treasured museum, a victim of a multiplicity of fatal economic trends.

Chief among them:

• The Liberace Museum's visitation numbers, once robust at 450,000 annually, had dropped to 30,000 by 2009. Officials said the East Tropicana-at-Spencer location, selected by Liberace himself for an attraction that opened April 15, 1979, had become bad for business. The dwindling ticket receipts have forced the Liberace Foundation to draw from its endowment fund, intended to finance scholarships, to pay operating costs and meet payroll.

• Las Vegas residents were not eager to visit the off-the-path location unless they were given tickets for free (the monthly Sunday promotions awarding Nevada residents free admissions always have drawn healthy numbers).

• The Liberace Foundation owns the parcel of land on which the museum sits, and over the past several years businesses have melted away and not been replaced.

The resulting shortfall also left the museum swimming in red. On Aug. 26, Liberace Foundation Chair Jeff Koep met with the eight-member Foundation Board of Directors. For the first time, the board voted up-or-down on closing the museum. "Close it" won, unanimously. Thirty-one staffers, including 12-14 full-timers, will be let go effective the end of the business day on Oct. 17, a Sunday.

One of those employees is Museum Director Tanya Combs, who has been at the attraction for 10 years. She cried as she described being, "very, very sad." But Combs added, "I understand the business, and it takes a lot of people a real effort to get here. Locals just didn't support the museum, and it's such a shame because it has such a great history, an incredible history that not enough people have appreciated, frankly."

The Foundation's plans are to store the dozens of costumes, vehicles, pianos, jewelry and assorted artifacts displayed in three buildings. Koep says officials are in the final stages of negotiations with a national artifacts exhibition company that will send pieces of Liberace's belongings on a national tour.

"Bodies" did fine business in such tours, which spend three to four months in a single city before moving on. So did "Titanic" and, to a far greater degree, exhibits of King Tut's artifacts.

The Foundation hopes enough money can be made from the tour to finance a move of the permanent museum from the East Trop location to somewhere either on or near the Strip. But discussion of a move to a busier locale has been going on for months. Nothing has transpired in this real-life game of Monopoly.

Talks with Town Square officials halted when the Foundation could not afford the cost of leasing space there. Instead, word is that a Staples retail center will take the spot facing Las Vegas Boulevard South. Foundation President Jack Rappaport has been in talks with Harrah's Entertainment and MGM Resorts about relocating the Liberace collection to one of their properties, but nothing ever materialized. He's spoken with the Sahara, too, but a tenable deal never has been agreed upon.

"We're trying, we're trying," Rappaport said Friday morning, hours after learning himself that the museum would be closing. Even with the attraction's imminent demise, Rappaport's position with the Foundation is still intact, and he is planning to help work through the possible sale of the plaza, the upcoming tour and whatever move the museum would make if it can find the right suitor.

"What we're trying to avoid now, buy closing the doors, as a board, is getting to the point where the endowment is gone because we have no funds at all," Koep said. "By closing the doors now, focusing on the national tour, which we hope will be in place as early as next summer, we will get the Liberace name out there and create a revenue stream."

Though the vote to close the museum took place three weeks ago, employees and those close to the museum long have feared the attraction was doomed. On Aug. 26, before the most recent Composers' Showcase performance, Combs lit into the audience in the 100-seat Liberace cabaret theater, asking for support and expressing her fear that the museum would be closed within weeks.

A few of those seated for the show, organized by "Jersey Boys" music director Keith Thompson, waved dollar bills in an effort to appease Combs (an account of this episode is in this heated screed by local blogger and show attendee Esther Lynn, who writes under the name "Claire Voyant," and who is a frequent visitor to the museum showcases).

"This is not just a job," Combs said, relating her passion for her position at the museum. "This is something people really believe in. I remember, back in 2005 when Wynn (Las Vegas) opened, the 'Today' show came out here. They could have gone anywhere, but they wanted to visit the Liberace Museum."

The same is true for tourists less famous than Al Roker.

A pair of newlyweds from Carlisle, Pa., stared with wide eyes at the $63 sequined vests in the museum gift shop, unaware the attraction was soon to close.

The husband had the unlikely name of Michael Jackson, and looks about as much like Jacko as the Michael Bolton from "Office Space" resembled his namesake. Michael's wife, MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson, has been a Liberace fan since she was a kid., watching his network-TV specials that originated from such famous resorts as the Las Vegas Hilton.

"The first place we wanted to see was this museum," she said. "He had such a zest for life. It's really a shame they can't keep this going. It's amazing."

Said M.J. "It's very sad to know. I really loved this visit. I didn't realize it was so big, there are so many things to look at. All the pianos and the bling, it's just incredible."

Nateece, fittingly, gets the last word.

"I would like to fight for the place to stay open," said Nateece, aware that, short of an instant $5 million windfall, such talk is fiction. "It should not be anywhere else, unless it is in the Smithsonian."

How would Lee feel about the closing of the museum?

Nateece hardly hesitated.

"He would come out of his grave. Sorry to say it, but he would come out of the grave."

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

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