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Time running out for Liberace fans

By Chris Welch, CNN
  • Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, is closing October 17
  • The museum was opened by the celebrated entertainer in 1979
  • Low attendance is a key reason for closing; the collection is likely to tour
  • Liberace died in 1987; he was 67 and synonymous with Vegas glamour
  • Liberace
  • Museums
  • Las Vegas

Las Vegas, Nevada (CNN) -- There are few things in this world that get Pauline Lachance more jazzed up than Liberace.

"He's made such an impact on my life; it's unbelievable. I get kind of choked up talking about him," said Lachance. As the archivist and historian at the Liberace Foundation and Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, she's the go-to gal for anything and everything Liberace.

She could tell you about all sorts of things, from "Walter" Valentino Liberace's early life as a child piano prodigy to his prime years as the highest-paid entertainer in the world, with the highest flamboyance factor to boot. He was a man who, in the midst of his battle with HIV, sold out New York's Radio City Music Hall so fast that his record has yet to be broken.

Lachance's very first experience with Mr. Showmanship himself was a night that almost didn't happen.

"I really didn't want to go," she recalls of the show her husband roped her into attending. But that evening sparked a passion, some might say obsession, for the king of bling. Up until his death in 1987 at 67, she attended no less than 50 of his shows.

Liberace played to sold-out crowds in Vegas and on tour for decades.
Liberace played to sold-out crowds in Vegas and on tour for decades.

"All you need to do is go to one performance and you want to go to every one after that. He just captivates you with his charm and his music."

But when the museum shuts its doors for good on October 17, it'll be a lot harder for Lachance to share her knowledge with the eager tourists she's used to running into. Even though she will continue to work for the Liberace Foundation part-time, there will be no more camera-wielding visitors ooh-ing and aah-ing over Liberace's rhinestone studded piano, complete with matching costume and Roadster.

See an iReporter's snapshots of the glitzy museum

The musician's remarkable costumes became more elaborate as the decades went on, some taking more than a year to construct. In many ways, Liberace was the epitome of Las Vegas: glitzy, unapologetic and over-the-top extravagant. Throughout his career, he played eight major hotels in Las Vegas, with his longest run at the Las Vegas Hilton.

But despite Liberace's dynamic history, the draw of the Liberace Museum has been eclipsed by some of Vegas' increasingly lavish attractions.

Video: Liberace's pianos disappearing

Low attendance is the primary factor in the decision to close, said Liberace Foundation President Jack Rappaport. Liberace himself opened the museum in 1979, and in its prime, it brought in 450,000 visitors a year.

"We've dwindled down to 50,000," Rappaport said.

Fewer visitors mean less money for the Liberace Foundation to do what Liberace originally created it to do -- provide scholarship money to students of the arts. To date, the foundation has given more than $6 million to more than 2,700 students. But what it's able to offer these days has diminished significantly. Two years ago, the scholarship fund amounted to $112,000. The following year that number dropped to $62,000.

Rappaport blames the low attendance on the museum's location three miles off Las Vegas Boulevard, or what is commonly known as The Strip.

"We are just geographically not desirable," he said. [When the museum opened in 1979] we weren't competition for The Strip. We actually complemented The Strip."

Liberace Museum archivist Pauline Lachance looks at photos of the celebrated musician.
Liberace Museum archivist Pauline Lachance looks at photos of the celebrated musician.

Rappaport feels the megaresort style of the new casinos of Las Vegas -- complete with high-end shopping, an abundance of restaurants, shows and other museum-type attractions -- gives tourists everything they could ever need from Las Vegas.

"It's kind of like going to Disney World or Disneyland resort. You go there, and you don't really have to go anywhere else."

If there is a bright side, it's that since the closing was announced weeks ago, attendance has nearly tripled, according to one tour guide's estimate.

A significant part of this influx is locals who've lived in Vegas for decades but never made it to the museum. But positive attendance news in the 11th hour doesn't change that for most of the 23 employees, not only will they be out of a job, but they'll be out of a way to educate people on a man they've come to admire.

"I mean [Liberace] was Las Vegas," said museum director Tanya Combs. "Reading everything and seeing everything ... you start to believe in what a nice man he was, and you really wanted everyone to know that."

Rappaport said people can be rest assured that the collection, which includes more than 60 of Liberace's intricate eye-popping costumes, his 9-foot mirrored Baldwin grand piano and his seven-foot rhinestone studded Baldwin grand, won't go into hiding for too long.

A traveling tour of part of the collection is planned. The tour might be under way as early as summer 2011, according to Jeffrey Koep, chair of the Liberace Foundation board of directors.

A new incarnation of the museum isn't out of the question.

"The board felt it best to close while we are still solvent and create a new business plan as we examine ways to sell our current location and search for locations that would allow for more patrons," Koep said in an e-mail.

Tour guide Howard Shapiro said he wasn't terribly surprised the museum in its current form won't be around forever, but he agrees that Liberace is too much a part of Sin City to be totally forgotten.

"Las Vegas has a history of tearing down and not preserving. It's a sad commentary, but that's what this town is about, reinventing itself," Shapiro said. "I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere down the line, Liberace gets reinvented again. By whom and how, I don't know. But it is sad to see it close."