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“Liberace Extravaganza!” explores the costumes of iconic pianist
A performer whose flamboyant costumes and showmanship inspired the likes of Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and other modern celebrities.
Connie Furr Soloman’s new book “Liberace Extravaganza!” is quickly becoming a bestseller 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.
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,” Furr Soloman and Jewett 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 2008-09 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 Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919-1987) to Polish immigrant parents, Liberace’s world-famous career spanned four decades of concerts, recordings, motion pictures and television performances. During the 1950s–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.”
Project Date: April 2013
ASU School of Theatre and Film Assistant Professor Rachel Bowditch was named one of the 100 most creative people in Phoenix by Phoenix New Times in 2012, and she is not resting on her laurels. This month, Bowditch will debut a new site-specific work for the IN FLUX series in Scottsdale, which brings multidisciplinary temporary art installations to vacant storefronts in downtown Scottsdale. Memory Wall: A Performance Installation about Women, Writing, and Memory, is a multi-media experience loosely inspired by Viriginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
Viewers will see a Victorian room resembling a faded sepia photograph or a memory. Periodically, a female performer in 19th century costume will mark the walls, floor, desk, the chair with memories from the notebooks and journals of famous women writers.
At night, the space will be dramatically lit with a warm ochre light attracting viewers to the storefront window from afar. Once they are there, they will see a woman moving at a glacial pace as she writes her memories on the wall. This piece promises to be both beautiful and haunting.
Bowditch’s ongoing interest in physical theatre, ritual, avant-garde performance and innovative digital technology can be seen at ASU MainStage performances on which she directs, teaches and serves as advisor, and through Vessel, the experimental theatre group she founded and in which she performs. You may have seen Vessel at the Phoenix Zoo Lights or Mesa Winter Arts Festival, where Bowditch debuted Chrome.
Inspired by Oskar Schlemmer’s 1922 piece Triadic Ballet, Chrome spotlights three women, including Bowditch, dressed in metallic silver Renaissance-style costumes with corsets with peacock tendrils, horn headdresses and steel hoopskirts. Bowditch spent more than a month constructing the elaborate costumes. Vessel performances are often “site specific,” where the actors walk through a public event in dramatic costumes and make-up at a slow, methodical rate. The effect is riveting.
“Because we are moving at a slower pace, we slow down time and engage with the architecture around us and transform the space,” Bowditch says.
Bowditch, who also received wide critical and public acclaim for her work in directing Childsplay’s 2012 production of The Sun Serpent, teaches devising in the undergraduate and graduate MFA program and dramatic analysis in the theatre and film core curriculum among a variety of other classes at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.
Project Date: February 2013
Linda Essig, professor and director of the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship at the ASU School of Theatre and Film, is founder and co-editor of a new online journal aspiring to disseminate innovative thinking and perspectives on arts entrepreneurship theory, practice and pedagogy.
Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts is committed to publishing research-based articles and case studies of interest to scholars, artists and students in the areas of entrepreneurship theory as applied to the arts; arts entrepreneurship education; arts management; arts and creative industries; public policy and the arts; the arts in community and economic development; nonprofit leadership; social entrepreneurship in or using the arts; evaluation and assessment; and public practice in the arts.
A diverse group of scholars and artists comprise the editorial board. Artivate is published by The Pave Program in the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The first issue is available online.
Essig’s blog, creativeinfrastructure, covers arts entrepreneurship, arts policy, higher education in the arts and, occasionally, cooking. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
Project Date: September, 2012