Connie Furr Soloman’s new book “Liberace Extravaganza!” is quickly becoming a best-seller on Amazon.com. Published by Harper Collins, the beautifully printed and designed hardcover book looks at the life and costumes of the iconic 20th century pianist, performer and entertainer: Władziu (or Vladziu) Valentino Liberace.
Furr Soloman, associate professor of costume design in the ASU School of Theatre and Film, came to the project through a serendipitous glimpse at a magazine advertisement for the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. Furr Soloman and her friend and fellow costumer Jan Jewett made the trek to the museum and were amazed by the artistry and complexity of the costumes on display.
“We were mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of colors reflecting off the glittering costumes,” they write in the winter issue of Theatre Design and Technology magazine. “It reminded us of the magic of opening a beautiful, ornate music box … we rushed to find the gift shop to take home a keepsake book but there were none to be found. Stunned, we looked at each other and we knew we had found our next project.”
Thus began a four-year odyssey to photograph all of the costumes in the collection as well as to unearth the stories behind them. Furr Soloman and Jewett studied the people who created the costumes, the man who wore them and the pageantry and flamboyance in which they were unveiled.
The team interviewed several of Liberace’s surviving designers, his showrunner and other contemporaries for the book. Furr Soloman made Liberace her sabbatical project during the 2008-2009 academic year.
“It is in so many ways an American story,” she says. “All of the designers were first-generation Americans and Liberace himself was a rags-to-riches tale.”
The costumes are works of art, she adds: “Their construction would rival those of any monarch from any era. They were completely hand-sewn with beading and rhinestones ... and then of course there were those that were electrified.”
Born in 1919 to Polish immigrant parents, Liberace’s world-famous career spanned four decades of concerts, recordings, motion pictures and television performances. During the 1950s through 1970s, he was the highest paid entertainer in the world. Known for his signature candelabra placed atop his piano, a typical Liberace performance would open with him arriving in a chauffer-driven Rolls Royce right up onto the stage. He would emerge in whatever fantastical cape or outfit he was unveiling that day.
“He wore them just long enough for people to see him and then he would remove the cape and the chauffer would drive it away,” Furr Soloman says. “They were too heavy to wear for very long.”
Contemporary artists who knew Liberace and acknowledge his influence on some of their work include Cher, Michael Jackson and Elton John. But Liberace’s influence reaches further into the new millennium.
“Lady Gaga’s entry to the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards in the Faberge egg is straight out of Liberace,” Furr Soloman says, while musician Ceelo Green’s current Las Vegas show, “Loberace,” is a direct tribute to the 20th century entertainer.
“Ultimately, we discovered a man who has against all odds realized his wildest dreams,” Furr Soloman says. “His flamboyant stage persona changed the world of show business and his designers provided the razzle-dazzle.”