Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Liberace's Performance Jacket

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Liberace's Performance Jacket | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeLiberace's performance jacket

Liberace's performance jacket, late 1970s

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2008.77.1

EnlargeJacket detail

Jacket detail, late 1970s

The back of Liberace’s jacket features birds of paradise as its primary design elements. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2008.77.1

EnlargeLiberace wearing the jacket

Liberace on the cover of a program of his show, c. 1980

Liberace wearing the jacket shown above with its original matching vest and pants on the cover of a program for his show, c. 1980. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2008.77.2

EnlargeMichael Travis, designer, shows off the bird-of-paradise jacket

Designer Michael Travis shows off the bird-of-paradise jacket, 1975-1980

Michael Travis shows off the bird-of-paradise jacket he designed for Liberace, 1975-1980. Source: Image courtesy of The Liberace Museum, Las Vegas

An elaborately beaded jacket worn by pianist, performer, and Wisconsin native Liberace during his performances in the late 1970s.
(Museum object #2008.77.1)

Liberace, the flamboyant pianist, may have made a name for himself in glitzy Las Vegas, but he grew up in West Allis, a suburb of blue-collar Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Midwestern performer was especially famous for his outlandish costumes, one of which now resides at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. This off-white jacket, embroidered with beads and sequins, features birds of paradise and weighs a daunting 6 pounds 5.5 ounces. It certainly is different from the black tails worn by traditional pianists. But then again, Liberace was anything but traditional.

Wladziu ("Wally") Valentino Liberace was born in West Allis, Wisconsin, on May 16, 1919, to Frances Zuchowski and Salvatore "Sam" Liberace. Liberace's father, also a musician, played the French horn and encouraged music lessons for his family. Liberace later said the family's piano served as a central object in the household. Although Sam Liberace encouraged his children to play music, he was reportedly unhappy that Liberace, a child prodigy who could play difficult classical works by age seven, chose to perform modern and popular pieces. According to a biographer, "Wally Liberace discovered his capacity to delight folks. They responded enthusiastically to his talents. His turning to popular music then represented a unique mix of social, economic, personal and domestic motives."

At the beginning of his career, Liberace wore the traditional black tails, but eventually decided to garner attention by wearing flashy costumes and using an elaborate candelabra on his piano. In 1952 at the Hollywood Bowl, Liberace explained his flashy clothes by declaring fans in the balcony seats deserved to see him as well. Liberace also told reporter James Green, "I didn't come here to go unnoticed." In his autobiography, he said "that was not just a silly remark on my part. I knew what I was saying. I knew it would be quoted. It's a part of the showmanship that I rely on. The clothes attract attention. They get me newspaper headlines and interviews. They get me audiences." In a single word, Liberace narrowed down his showmanship and success to "panache" — something he deemed incredibly important.

As a result of his commitment to showmanship, Liberace formed strong bonds with his clothing designers. He worked with only one at any single period of his career, each for many years at a time. Liberace wore Sy Devore's designs in the 1950s, Frank Ortiz's in the early 1960s, Frank Acuna's from the mid 1960s to 1970s, and Michael Travis's from the early 1970s to 1986. The Museum's Travis-designed jacket was made by Primo Costume Tailors, who also produced stage clothing for other 1970s performers like Tony Orlando.

In the 1970s, when Liberace performed in this bird-of-paradise jacket, he was regenerating a flagging career. While he continued to have successful European tours through 1970s, he had peaked in the United States by 1957. Liberace began to rebuild his American popularity and fan base during the 1960s by playing in supper clubs and making TV appearances. By the 1970s he again drew large crowds to his Las Vegas shows. In that decade Liberace also wrote autobiographies and cookbooks, created a motel chain (Liberace Chateau Inns), designed a line of men's clothing, and, on April 15, 1979, opened a museum in Las Vegas housing many of his costumes and stage props.

Liberace's outlandish costumes and lifestyle seemed far removed from the small Wisconsin town where he was born and raised. Yet he often returned to the Milwaukee area to play local theatres "with special enthusiasm," never really losing his Midwest connection. According to one of his autobiographers, "the trajectory of his career, and his ambition, energy, perseverance and good nature all represent elements of his baptism in Midwestern American values." Beneath the bejeweled jacket and fancy stage set beat the heart of a true Midwesterner.

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[Sources: Pyron, Darden Asbury. "Liberace: An American Boy" (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000); Thomas, Bob. "Liberace: The True Story" (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987); Liberace. "Liberace: An Autobiography" (New York: Popular Press, 1976); Biography and other information available from The Liberace Museum and Foundation website]

EJS

Posted on July 03, 2008