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Marketing Liberace to new audiences with a glitz blitz

Liberace (above in 1963) died in 1987, but his foundation is now marketing the pianist as the originator of ostentation. Liberace (above in 1963) died in 1987, but his foundation is now marketing the pianist as the originator of ostentation. (file)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ashley Powers
Los Angeles Times / March 15, 2008

LAS VEGAS - Liberace, he of pink-feathered cape and "Beer Barrel Polka" fame, hasn't attracted too many fans among a generation weaned on pop-music tarts and gangster-rap thugs.

His legacy's caretakers can't stomach the idea of the pianist, who died in 1987, becoming a footnote. But if his devotees have learned anything from a man who branded himself Mr. Showmanship, it's how to fine-tune an image.

They haven't focused on his music, which he took very seriously, but on his legendary flamboyance: They've retooled him as the originator of ostentation and trademarked him as the King - and Queen - of Bling.

For the Liberace Foundation's sake, he needs to wow a new audience.

In recent years, the number of visitors to the Liberace Museum off the Strip has dropped by half, to about 50,000 annually. Surveys say many of them are Midwesterners old enough to remember hearing Liberace perform - as a young man.

"His audience is slowly dying off," says Darin Hollingsworth, executive director of the nonprofit foundation that oversees the museum and has awarded millions of dollars in college arts scholarships.

So look for Liberace in new places. His sequined self is plastered on postcards, bumper stickers, T-shirts, tote bags, wallets, and a book of paper cutouts called "Liberace: Your Personal Fashion Consultant" that has sold 10,000 copies. Online, fans can buy Liberace rings, Christmas ornaments, teddy bears, shot glasses, thimbles, and even a $1,600 Swarovski crystal miniature grand piano.

Though some have grumbled that the glitter is outshining Liberace's musical legacy, museum officials hope it will help folks fall for his life story. A once-impoverished Wisconsin virtuoso, Liberace sold out concert halls, won two Emmys, and set up a charity long before it was a common celebrity accessory.

There have been few other attempts to resurrect a pop culture household name after his or her demise, says University of Southern California marketing professor C.W. Park. But hip-hop's high rollers, he says, seem a good match for Liberace, whom a reporter once dubbed His Lord High Excellency of Glitz.

"It's like pouring gasoline on fire. It could really take off," Park says.

To that end, the foundation recently rolled out $99 sneakers named Liberace Kicks - the latest of 50 or so Liberace products sold in the United States, London, and Australia. With the sparkly piano-key-trimmed shoes from urban footwear company Kashi Kicks, "Liberace's street credibility is absolutely bumped up," a news release says.

Liberace rates a shout-out in "Bling: The Hip-Hop Jewelry Book" as a pioneer of the luxe life - along with the movie "Scarface" and TV shows popular during hip-hop's infancy, "Dynasty," "Dallas," and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

"He was very flamboyant and had no hesitation in showing his wealth," says "Bling" coauthor Reggie Osse, a former music industry attorney. "The guy was just glowing with jewelry."

Indeed, his bubble-gum-colored "Volks Royce" and mirror-tiled Rolls-Royce could be creations of MTV's "Pimp My Ride." His candelabra, Moser crystal, llama-fur bedspreads, and 50-pound rhinestone - among the world's largest - could easily anchor an episode of MTV's "Cribs."

And he's probably the only pianist in hot pants to receive nods from 50 Cent and Dr. Dre - who brags in the song "California Love" that he's got "diamonds shinin', lookin' like I robbed Liberace."

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