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Liberace Called Tune in His Many Real Estate Ventures : Pianist Relied on Gut Feeling but Made Profit

November 29, 1987|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

Liberace had a dream:

The late pianist, known as "the king of pizazz" and the "sultan of schmaltz," wanted to turn his Palm Springs home into a museum of Liberace memorabilia.

No matter that he already had a museum like that in a small Las Vegas shopping center he bought in 1977. Liberace had enough collectibles when he died last February to fill his six homes plus the Las Vegas museum, which is being expanded to accommodate his costumes, show jewelry and stage cars.

The Palm Springs museum is still a dream--one that may never be realized, because the city council denied an application for a conditional use permit this fall, which would have allowed the home to be used as a museum,

But it was, after all, only one dream of many that Liberace had about real estate. And he realized quite a few.

It all started soon after his lunch with Mae West, when the actress encouraged him to buy "snazzy" homes for his own enjoyment but also with an eye toward selling.

At the time, he was living in an apartment at the Sunset Towers, which is being turned into the first London-based St. James Club in the United States. (See related item in the Hot Property column.)

Liberace had owned a house in the San Fernando Valley before lunching with West, but after that lunch, he bought a home on Valley Vista Boulevard that became nationally famous for its piano-shaped swimming pool.

In his third book "The Things I love," published in 1976, Liberace talked about how he "stupidly mentioned the house" on national TV, telling his fans that if they were ever in California, they should stop by.

They did. They scaled his fence and sat on his lawn furniture. For privacy, Liberace had to keep his curtains closed.

Disturbed by His Fans

The house became even more of a tourist attraction when he was made honorary mayor of Sherman Oaks and decorated his property at Christmas, playing Liberace recordings over a loudspeaker.

That may have been a dream turned into a nightmare, as fans came to the house night and day, knocking on the door to see Liberace. "There were times he couldn't even get in his own driveway," Jamie James, his long-time publicist, said.

Liberace sold the house for $150,000 in 1960 after owning it for only a year or two, but he made a profit of $50,000 to $75,000, according to James.

"'That was the beginning of his piano-shaped world and the beginning of his interest in real estate," James said.

Negative Comments

From then on, Liberace bought and sold real estate, always keeping a few properties in his portfolio, while ordering piano-shaped and other elaborate furnishings.

Richard Mark, a West-Side real estate broker, said of Liberace's decorating taste: "For the most part, the clients I've shown through his Malibu co-op (purchased in 1984) have had negative comments about the furnishings, but the furnishings were him, and I think we would be disappointed if they looked any different. The man was not a phony."

He was, however, a paradox. He seemed to live as lavishly at home as he appeared on the stage, but he was also self-effacing.

In his show, he'd look at the audience, then at his dazzling apparel and say with a laugh, "You know, sometimes I can't believe this myself." James said, "That's the way he looked at his properties, too."

Offered Slippers to Guests

The first time James went to one of Liberace's homes, the publicist felt intimidated by the opulence and the pianist's importance, but Liberace had a way of making his visitors feel comfortable. James remembers Liberace offering gold lame slippers to women wearing high heels at the entertainer's home on Harold Way in Hollywood. "And he'd say, 'Don't you want to relax?"'

Liberace bought that house in 1960 for about $85,000 and put $125,000 into improvements before selling it for a bit more than $1 million, said James, adding, "He bought real estate from a gut feeling, but he was always successful at selling at a profit."

The Hollywood house was a 32-room, three-story Mediterranean-style pad built in the '20s above Sunset Strip. Liberace opened his first museum there in 1975 but closed it after six to eight months when neighbors complained about tour buses trucking people up the hill and jamming traffic. He sold the place in 1979.

That was a year after he bought the Los Angeles office building with residential penthouse on Beverly Boulevard, which is in escrow. He bought the office building after he sold five commercial buildings he bought in 1968 on La Cienega at Santa Monica boulevards.

Gave Home to Housekeeper

Liberace operated an antique store there for six years but sold the property about 1974 after realizing that he was saving more of the antiques than he was selling. He just couldn't part with them.

In 1976, he bought his Las Vegas home, actually a two-house compound that he linked with a marble and glass corridor. In his will, he gave a third house a couple blocks away to his housekeeper of 30 years, Gladys Luckie.

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