Liberace Made Vegas a Happy and Gay Town

Entertainment became linked with Las
in the 1940s when savvy city planners and casino
entrepreneurs rightly reasoned that even hard-edged gamblers would need an
occasional respite from the drudgery of table games and the challenge of sports
betting that had lured them to this desert outpost in the first place. Of the
many who came to sing, dance and tell jokes was one so
unique that he set the standard for the glitzy performances that have become
the city’s staple. He joins Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel
and Howard Hughes as the third of four men who helped make Las
the most unique city in the world.

Part 3: The Man Who Played Las Vegas.

Although classically trained and universally recognized as one of the foremost
pianists in the world, Walter Valentino Liberace, the recipient of six gold
record albums and two Emmy Awards, became even better known as the symbol of
Las Vegas entertainment, a flamboyant, over-the-top performer who represented
the scorned image of wretched excess often associated with many of Las Vegas’
stage acts.

It is perhaps ironic that Liberace, who first performed in Las
in 1942 and whose talent on the keyboards was
without dispute, nevertheless helped pave the way for a succession of marginal
performers who offered more style than substance to their audiences. Without Liberace,
there probably never could have been a Charo, a Lola Falana, or the slew of Elvis impersonators who continue to
earn their livings in the city that brazenly refers to itself as “the
Entertainment Capital of the World.”

But marginal musicians and singers weren’t the only beneficiaries of Liberace’s
conscious, if insidious, pushing of the Las Vegas
entertainment envelope.

In a city where reality is no closer than the next bus ride home and the
unexpected now has become the anticipated, illusionists such as David
Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, and Lance Burton owe a measure of their
success, if not their very existence, to Liberace’s underrated ability to
transcend the boundaries of traditional entertainment.

And it’s something less than a stretch to suggest that the audience’s
acceptance of Liberace’s effeminate manner cleared the path for the
acquiescence of such long-running gender-bender acts as Boylesque
and La Cage.

Through it all – the ostentatious sequined gowns, the ever-present candelabra,
the gaudy gems, the spectacular pianos, the shtick that overwhelmed the music –
Liberace understood what he was doing.

”I’m the first to admit my stage costumes have become a very expensive joke but
I have fun with them and the audience shares that fun with me,” he said.

But Liberace, who died in 1987 at age 67, had a serious side, too. In 1976 he
created the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts which,
over the years, has funded over $5 million in scholarships to 2,200 students at
110 colleges and universities across the nation.

In 1979, Liberace also built the Liberace
, a fantasyland for adults
comprised of a trio of buildings located in southeast Las
. Walking through the non-profit museum, one can
easily imagine how Alice felt when
she first peered through the looking glass. The museum, which is stocked with
mementos and items from Liberace’s professional and personal life (though it’s
not easy to tell the two apart) has little relevance to most people’s reality. In
other words, it fits perfectly in Las Vegas.

Liberace wasn’t a visionary in the mold of Siegel or Hughes but he was as much
an innovator, bringing a new, bolder type of entertainment to Las
that transformed the industry and attracted
people, many of who didn’t fit the prototype of the average gambler, to the
city. After one of his shows, these same folks would hit the slots and table
games and engage in sports betting, an unexpected but welcomed part of the
legacy that is Liberace’s enduring influence on Las Vegas.

This article was written on behalf of
by Luken Karel for

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