By Alexandra Lippin – June 3, 2013
When I first picked up the metallic silver book “Liberace Extravaganza!” (Harper Collins), by authors and Costume Designers Connie Furr Soloman and Jan Jewett, I did not know what to expect. At first glance, it is hard to believe that such a book, which documents 50 of the late performer’s most elaborate and ornate costumes had never before been written.
“These are some of the finest examples in the world of this kind of beading and stonework. There are techniques that are used to make these costumes that are disappearing. This is couture,” said Jewett of Liberace’s ensembles, which the entertainer himself referred to as “works of art.”
After traveling to the Liberace Museum in Southern Nevada (which is now closed to the public) and mining the Liberace Foundation’s archives, the two women embarked on the extensive project, photographing, recordingand documenting,to the finest of details,the stylistic highlights from throughout Liberace’s four decades of stardom.
This never-before-seen look at Liberace’s wardrobe, adorned with ostrich feathers surrounding rim-set mirrors, rhinestones, fur, sequins, bugle beads, gold seed beads, freshwater pearls, crystals, hand embroidery and gemstones, reveals just how intricate, hypnotic and truly stunning each costume was.
Liberace was one of the most famous performers of the 20th century. Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace on May 16, 1919 to a humble family in West Allis, Wisc., he learned to play the piano by ear at the age of 4. His Italian immigrant father, who played the French horn in bands but worked as a laborer, recognized his son’s gifts. Liberace, who took lessons with Florence Kelly, studied classical piano and also played popular music and jazz in theaters and cabarets. At the age of 20, Liberace made his debut as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony.
In order to earn a living, Liberace moved to New York to play in theaters and night clubs, finding success in mixing his love of classical music with more contemporary tunes. His career break-through came in 1951 with the premiere of The Liberace Show, a musical program thatfirst aired locally in Los Angeles before airing nationally a few years later. The program, which at its height brought in close to 35 million viewers, not only showcased Liberace’s talent as a musician, but also his charisma and charm.
In some ways, Liberace’s rise to stardom can be measured by his outfits. When he started out in the 1950s, his wardrobe consisted of tuxes and tails. In time, his looks began to get a bit more flamboyant, prompting rumors about his homosexuality.Soon after, Liberace won a lawsuit against a journalist in London who suggested the entertainer might be gay. After that, he fired his manager and went with a more buttoned-down stage presence, but it failed miserably with audiences.
Recognizing that his fans had grown to love the more extravagant looks, Liberace went back to his “grand” statement style.
As he once described, “no one else in show business could afford to wear or would dare to wear [costumes such as these].”
In addition to his appearances on numerous television shows and films, Liberace sold out many live concerts and millions of records. Equally famous for the glitz and glamour of his shows and costumes as for his music, Liberace amassed enormous wealth throughout his career, at one time becoming the highest-paid entertainer in the world.
Liberace passed away at his Palm Springs home on February 4, 1987 at the age of 67 due to complications related to AIDS.
Michael Travis is widely known as one of the most gifted and talented costume designers in American television and theater and was the man responsible for creating Liberace’s costumes for his shows for 16 years.
Born in Detroit during the Great Depression, Michael Travis was sent to post-war Germany (in 1945) and after three years of service, he went to live in Paris where he attended L’Ecole Des Beaux Arts, the Sorbonne, and later, L’Ecole Guerre Lavigne to study fashion and period costumes. He worked in boutiques while submitting sketches to the Paris fashion houses, but Travis grew impatient and felt he would do better in New York. He landed a job at the famous Eaves Costume Company while he looked for work in the fashion world, marking the beginning of his new career. Travis worked as the assistant to the owner, Andrew Geoly, cataloguing Eaves’ extensive historical costume collection and building costumes for Broadway productions. Recognizing his potential, Geoly later “fired” Travis, saying “You’re too talented to hold back. Go out and get a show.”
After assisting Raoul PeneduBois, Miles White, Motley and Irene Sharaff, among others on Broadway, he began to work in television, designing costumes for the series “Play of the Week,” “The Voice of Firestone,” and “The Bell Telephone Hour,” with Ginger Rogers, Janet Blair, Jane Powell and Alfred Drake.
In 1960, producer Richard Dunlap brought Travis to Los Angeles to work under Edith Head designing the production costumes for the Academy Awards (the first of seven). While working on the Academy Awards he met NBC producer George Schlatter, who hired him to design “The Steve Lawrence Show” in New York, and “The Ernie Ford Special.”
Travis’ successful relationship with Schlatter led to a six-year collaboration on “Laugh-In,” where he created up to 400 costumes per week. He subsequently went on to design several other variety shows, including “The Shape of Things,” “The Tony Orlando Show,” “Lily Tomlin,” “John Denver” and “Linda Carter” specials.
At the same time, Michael began designing costumes for Motown’s Supremes, and other Las Vegas personalities, including Dionne Warwick, Wayne Newton, The Fifth Dimension, The Temptations, Connie Stevens and others.
In 1969, Travis was approached by Ray Arnett, Liberace’s producer and choreographer and the person who staged all of his shows. Arnett had explained to Travis that Frank Acuna, who had worked as Liberace’s tailor for many years, was planning to retire and that Liberace was looking for a designer.Travis met with Liberace at his Palm Springs home, where he asked Travis to create a chauffeur’s costume that he planned to wear on stage in one of his limousines.
The chauffer’s costume was made of patches of different shades of blue, each embroidered with bugle beads, rhinestones, jewels and sequins and further embellished with mink on the cuffs, collar and tops of the boots (which were also designed to match the suit).
Liberace loved Travis’s first design and over the next 16years, Travis was given carte blanche to fantasize along with Liberace, presenting sketches, experimenting with exotic designs, unusual materials, color, beads and embroideries. He designed the outfits and all of the beading patterns himself, overseeing all aspects of the costumes’ creation, from the tailoring to the beading, stoning and sequin application. Most often the costumes, which were each worked on by a team of seamstresses, tailors and beaders, would take months to manufacture and complete.
Travis mostly worked with Primo Costume Tailors for the tailoring and Getson D. Eastern Embroidery Company for the design, hand and machine embroidery. Travisalso worked in close collaboration with Anna Nateece, whom Liberace commissioned to create many of his elaborate fur coats and accessories, which became an integral part of his personal and onstage wardrobes. Nateece was also responsible for creating one of Liberace’s spectacular capes, which was lined with more than 40,000 2.5 karat Austrian rhinestones, each one sewn on by hand.
Like Nateece, Travis loved working with Liberace as he was able to let his imagination go wild. “Nothing was ever too much. Every time he would play to a new audience he wanted to see what he could shock them with,” said Travis.
Oftentimes, Liberace would change six to seven times during each performance. From a black diamond mink coat lined with Czechoslovakian rhinestones weighing almost 400 pounds to a costume illuminated with more than 400 lights, the combination of his electrifying piano performances and spectacular outfits earned him the nickname “Mr Showmanship.”
In addition to his spectacular costumes, many of Liberace’s shoes, which were designed by Los Angeles based shoemaker Pasquale Di Fabrizio, featured a chunky heel. The height in the heel not only gave him presence, but as Travis described, “[also] helped shift some of the weight of the capes and helped to balance him.”
In 1982, Liberace donned his most expensive outfit ever when he performed at The Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma. The costume, which cost $300,000 in total, was made of 137-pound fox fur with a 16-foot train worn over a completely jeweled tuxedo valued at $50,000.
From a white ostrich feather cape adorned with Tiffany-mounted crystal and AB crystal rhinestones, rim-set mirrors, silver sequins, bugle beads, rocaille beads and pearls, to an ice-blue cutaway suit with rows of baroque pearls and crystal pear-shaped jewels, Michael Travis designed works of art. He had the perfect subject with whom he could express his “knows no bounds” creativity.
“BEHIND THE CANDELABRA”- Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick
Directed by Steven Soderbergh and produced by Jerry Weintraub, HBO Films’ “Behind the Candelabra” originally premiered last Sunday, May 26 to rave reviews. The film, whichis based on an autobiographical novel written by Liberace’s live-inlover of five years (1977-1982), Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), focuses on the private and intimate relationship between the two.
For “Behind the Candelabra,” BAFTA and Emmy-nominated Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick was grateful to be working with her longtime collaborator Michael Douglas (in the role of Liberace), with whom she has worked since his role in “Fatal Attraction.” Despite her close relationship with Douglas, she was still faced with the daunting yet exciting challenge of re-creating Liberace’s elaborate costumes and aesthetic on both a tight budget and a tight schedule.
In order to prepare for the film, Mirojnick studied photographs, souvenir pieces, show programs, books and watched as much video as possible, spanning a period of 30 years from his early TV shows and stage shows to his final performance at Radio City Music Hall.
In addition to the massive amount of research, producer Jerry Weintraub was able to secure access to the archives of the Liberace Foundation, allowing Mirojnick to closely examine the performer’s extraordinarily embellished stage costumes designed by Michael Travis as well as his off-stage personal wardrobe. (The book, “Liberace Extravaganza!” had not yet been compiled during the time in which Mirojnick was conducting her research.)
Soderbergh was also very clear about his overall vision- he wanted it “straight, no tricks.” For Mirojnick, this meant fulfilling the design challenge and portraying “the two and their relationship in the most honest and beautiful way,” as it had been in “real life- true to what they were, their lifestyle and who they were to one another.”
With only eight weeks of pre-production, thirty-five shooting days, and over 60 costume changes for both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon alone (not including the other characters and supporting cast in the film), Mirojnick had to work in a very precise, strategic and ordered manner.
“It was like conducting major surgery,” she describes. “I had to be accurate with each decision, creatively selecting the fabric and studying the appearance.To be in the fitting room and be able to hand Michael Douglas a costume that would enable him to transform into Liberace was magical.”
Since every costume had to be custom built, Mirojnick worked closely with Mary Elllen Fields at Hargate Costumes, Dennis Kim, Anto of Beverly Hills and Maurizo at Western Costume to get everything just right. When designing and producing the elaborate and wonderfully dramatic stage costumes, the two decided to use new fabrications and embellishments that would havethe perfect amount of sparkle on screen. As Mirojnick describes, “it was the most fabulous challenge that I have ever been given.”
Despite an all-star cast of characters, which also includes Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa and Debbie Reynolds, after watching “Behind the Candelabra,” it is impossible not to recognize the costume and production design as stars in and of themselves.