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Las Vegas loves its neon, but will it again embrace Liberace?

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The salvaged Liberace Museum sign at Neon Museum.
Photo: John Katsilometes

Liberace Museum Closes

Neon Museum Illumination

One of the signs at the Neon Museum sits unambiguously at the base of the old Aladdin magic lamp. You have to crane your neck to read its looping, blackened lettering -- and to notice the faded orange design is actually a tiny piano.

It’s a sign rescued from the Liberace Museum, and you stumble upon it almost accidentally.

The Neon Museum’s opening was marked by a series of invitation-only events last week leading to its public opening Saturday. Small groups of curious guests were led on advance walking tours of the attraction at 770 Las Vegas Blvd. North, a bit north of L.V. Boulevard and Fremont Street and just south of Cashman Center.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Neon Museum officials Bill Marion and Danielle Kelly spoke at one of these events, Tuesday’s “first lighting” party attended by such luminaries as Rep. Dina Titus and one of the Las Vegans most responsible for raising the funds to bring the La Concha lobby to the property, KSNV Channel 3 exec and Las Vegas history devotee Bob Stoldal.

The downtown hierarchy was well-represented by such advocates as El Cortez executive Alex Epstein; attorney, writer and commentator Dayvid Figler; and longtime Las Vegas enthusiasts the Rezas -- James P. and Staci. At Friday’s official opening party, it was more of the same, as the swingin’ surf-rock trio Thee Swank Bastards performed at the lip of the attraction to yet more touring and toasting.

At one of these fetes, I ran into Brian Paco Alvarez. Finding Alvarez at the opening of the Neon Museum was no surprise, a development as expected as happening upon the old Golden Nugget sign.

Alvarez has been immersed in Las Vegas history and culture practically his entire life. He has served in some capacity on every significant Las Vegas urban preservation organization. Years ago, he was interim curator at the Neon Museum and helped organize, collect and index the signs being donated to the attraction.

Today, Alvarez is the chairman of the Liberace Foundation Board of Directors. The same week other Las Vegas history advocates and he were ebulliently celebrating the opening of the Neon Museum, Alvarez and the Liberace Foundation announced that the organization had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

There might never be an ideal moment to announce a bankruptcy filing, but the timing of this action was most egregious.

More than two years after the Liberace Museum closed, ending a spirited if ill-fated 31-year run at Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street, the foundation has recently been fighting to maintain the relevancy of the Liberace brand

Filing for bankruptcy has not exactly advanced that cause. The foundation’s move to seek bankruptcy protection was an attempt to stave off a lawsuit filed by U.S. Bank, which has been pushing for a Clark County-appointed receiver to take over the Liberace Foundation’s property and the vast Liberace collection still being housed in the original museum space.

The bank is operating on behalf of investors in the foundation’s $1.9 million mortgage on the property on East Trop. In a lawsuit filed in September, those investors charged that the foundation owes $1.27 million on the loan and is in default now because it hasn’t made a payment since February.

The foundation counters that it never signed for that loan because it is a nonprofit organization and the money was borrowed by a companion company, Liberace Plaza LLC, which also is a defendant in the original U.S. Bank lawsuit.

Signs from Las Vegas' past are seen during the grand opening of the Neon Museum on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012.

Signs from Las Vegas' past are seen during the grand opening of the Neon Museum on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012.

The Neon Boneyard at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012.

An HBO crew secures cars, once owned by Liberace, onto a car carrier at the Liberace Museum parking lot, Wednesday July 11, 2012. The cars, a 1972 custom Bradley GT and a 1957 London taxi, are on loan to HBO for a project titled "Behind the Candelabra," an official said.

Sadness and disbelief mark the closing of the Liberace Museum.

The legal wrangling is just beginning. The foundation is required to present a reorganization proposal to the court, and Alvarez says that plan is already being assembled. He also says the bankruptcy action was taken primarily to prevent a receiver with no experience in handling such valuable artifacts as the Liberace Museum collection from seizing control of those items.

“We are trying to protect the collection,” he says. “Nobody is coming in and trying on the clothes and jewelry and driving the cars. That is not going to happen, and the board is with me on this.“

It is conceivable the foundation can come up with an acceptable financial agreement in the lawsuit filed by U.S. Bank, and it might be, as Alvarez says, that the Liberace Foundation can emerge financially stable through this process. He’s counting on that, actually, as surrendering the Liberace Museum collection is not even in his hypothesis.

“As long as I am alive, I’ll do whatever it takes to preserve the collection and the mission for the Liberace Foundation,” Alvarez says with his characteristic theatrical flair. “We are taking a look at examples of other organizations that have gone through this and come out stronger.”

The foundation has been trying to go about its business as usual. It held a fundraiser this month at the former home of Michael Jackson, where songs from the in-production musical based on Liberace’s life were sampled. The show is being co-written by Johnny Rodgers and Barbara Carole Sickmen, and plans are for the musical to premiere on London’s West End and build momentum to a run on Broadway.

The long-awaited HBO Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, finished filming in Las Vegas in August and airs next year, a project that will re-introduce the master showman to a vast audience who might not know of his profound influence on generations of entertainers. One of those celebs is CeeLo Green, who plans to open his delayed Liberace-inspired “Loberace” show in February at Planet Hollywood.

The foundation also is planning to return the collection to a space in Las Vegas, and Alvarez is right when he says the creative energy for such an attraction would be downtown. (An effort for the foundation to partner with St. Paul, Minn.-based Exhibits Development Group for a national tour has gone dormant.)

Even if the Liberace Foundation can restructure its finances and return to raising money for scholarships (now donated exclusively to students in Southern Nevada) and promoting the Liberace image and legacy, its challenges are daunting. Beyond even the financial implosion caused by what one board member once called “a bad mortgage” and the unfortunate East Trop location of the museum in the face of downtown redevelopment is the absence of passion for the artist himself.

The stats have long supported that assertion. By the time the Liberace Museum closed, annual visitor numbers had sagged to 35,000 from a high of 450,000. Scholarship funding dropped from a high of $250,000 a year to $60,000 at the time the museum doors were locked.

More difficult to measure is the energy of those who will be reminded of -- or even introduced to -- Liberace’s remarkable life and career. There is a far difference between understanding the fame and influence of an artist and being moved to take a trip to see his costumes, cars, pianos and jewelry.

The crowds lured to the opening celebration of Neon Museum were nothing like those that protested the closing of the Liberace Museum two years ago. Most telling, no elected officials turned out in support of those who sought a canvassing of museum records, which they were certain would outline gross mismanagement of foundation funds.

It has become clear, in the time since, that Las Vegas will celebrate the iconic signs of its past. The widely applauded opening of the Neon Museum proves such.

But whether that creative mass will again celebrate this entertainment icon, and return that battered Liberace sign to a position of prominence, is far from certain. To rekindle the candelabra’s flame is the great challenge of the Liberace Foundation.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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