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Liberace, spirit of Christmas past

A tribute with his favorite seasonal music recalls the pianist, known for making the holidays an extravaganza of generosity.

December 16, 2007|Jay Jones | Special to The Times

The holiday season may be blessed and bright, but for many, it's also a headache. The parties. The traffic jams at the mall. The wrapping. But for Liberace, Christmas was joyous and festive.

"Mr. Showmanship" found a way to avoid the holiday headaches. He'd simply take December off and spend his time entertaining friends at lavish parties at his ornately decorated homes in California and Nevada.

"It was his favorite season," says Wes Winters, a pianist who performs a tribute show three days a week at the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. "He kept a warehouse for Christmas presents. He shopped all year. . . . He bought so many gifts for so many people that he had to have a warehouse for them."

Liberace's love of Christmas lives on. Each December, Winters presents a special holiday show, chock-full of the famed entertainer's favorite seasonal music.

Liberace, who died in 1987, was Winters' mentor, even though the two men never met. While growing up in Kansas in the '60s, Winters learned to play the piano by ear, listening to a Liberace record his grandmother gave him.

"I had a record player, the kind you carried like a suitcase," he remembers. "My dad bought this old upright piano from a farmer for 25 bucks and put it in our garage."

"It had to weigh 1,000 pounds," says Ken Winters, Wes' father, who still lives near Kansas City, Mo., but flies to Vegas to see his son play. "He would sit there and beat on that thing."

As a grown-up, Winters plied his musical trade for 17 years in Midwestern lounges. "I'd play the piano and sing and entertain a room full of drunks," he recalls with a hearty laugh.

In 2003, in search of more appreciative audiences, Winters moved to Las Vegas, where he was encouraged to enter an annual Liberace play-alike contest.

"I don't read music," he told people at the Liberace Foundation. They urged him to enter anyway. Winters competed against a group of classically trained pianists. "The one who had the least amount of training had 15 years of piano lessons," he says.

Winters finished first in a field of 18. He persuaded museum leaders to turn a storage area into a showroom and began his Liberace tribute show in October 2003.

"I don't want to be him," Winters says. "He didn't like impersonators. He thought you should find your own gift and grow it as best you can, because that's what he did."

But some Liberace accouterments are inevitable. Each Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, Winters appears dressed in a sparkling, crystal-studded beige jumpsuit and a pair of matching boots.

"You don't know how hard it was to find these at Payless," he jokes with the audience.

Winters works on a Baldwin grand piano bedecked with even more crystals -- 40,000 2.5-carat Swarovski crystals. The piano was one of Liberace's favorites and the last one he played in public.

"It's surreal, it's amazing to sit at that piano," Winters says. "If you have any kind of connection to him whatsoever, it's very difficult to sit down at that piano knowing that it's the last one. He loved that instrument."

Museum visitors seem to appreciate Winters' tribute.

"Wes is phenomenal," says Diane Habell-Jowell, a travel agent from the Bay Area enjoying a long weekend in Vegas. "He has his own style but very much a soulful connection to Liberace."

Habell-Jowell, who saw the off-Strip production last month, now recommends it to her clients. "This is far from the madding crowd and well worth the effort," she adds.

In the runup to Christmas, Winters includes several Liberace favorites in his show. Included are a Santa Claus medley, "Jingle Bell Boogie," and a moving rendition of "O Holy Night."

Ironically and maybe fittingly, Liberace was last seen publicly on Christmas Day 1986, when he appeared on Oprah Winfrey's then-fledgling talk show. The ailing performer played two medleys of Christmas tunes. He died six weeks later.

"It's his name, it's his museum, it's his legacy, and he would like to have a Christmas show here," Winters says. "I think it's the least I can do."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

If you go

WES WINTERS

Performances: 1 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Liberace Museum, 1775 E. Tropicana Ave. A free shuttle ferries passengers to and from the Strip (schedule at liberace.org/liberace_contact/shuttle.php), about two miles away. The Christmas special continues through Dec. 22. Tickets are $17.50. (702) 798-5595; www.liberace.org.

Dinner shows: Mondays at Palace Station, 2411 W. Sahara Ave. (702) 367-2411; www.palacestation.com/promos.

Lounge shows: Each Wednesday evening, Winters plays in the lounge of at Carluccio's Tivoli Gardens, a restaurant first owned by Liberace. It's next door to his museum; (702) 795-3236.

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