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Michael Travis, 85, Liberace’s costume designer for 16 years, tells THR exclusively that he believes he was shut out of the HBO biopic, Behind the Candelabra, due to a long-ago costume contretemps with the film’s producer, Jerry Weintraub.
According to Travis, Weintraub hired him to design costumes for his client, the late John Denver, for his 1976 TV special John Denver and Friends. And Denver took Travis aside and asked him create one sparkly suit similar to the ones worn by Engelbert Humperdinck and Wayne Newton.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll have to run it by Jerry. And [Denver] says, ‘Oh no, it’s a secret.’ So I made him a black suit with very subtle black sparkles on the sleeves. He comes out and sings the songs during dress rehearsals. Jerry calls me over from the bleachers and asks me why Denver was wearing such a flashy suit.” According to Travis, Weintraub — also the show’s executive producer — was not pleased and demanded to know why he hadn’t been informed about the costume change.
Travis told him that Denver made him promise not to tell. “I never worked for him again. Now this project comes along and I don’t even get a consultation request.” He does, however, have a hand-written note from Denver, dated April 29, 1976, thanking him for the costumes.
Travis says that Candelabra two-time CDG Award nominated designer Ellen Mirojnick, who has worked with the movie’s star Michael Douglas many times, called to ask where the costumes were. “I told her that the museum was closed and to call the Liberace Foundation. Then she called again, asking for details about a particular costume. I said, “Just tell Jerry to call me. I never heard from him.”
For his part, Weintraub calls Travis’ recollection about Denver’s costumes, “ludicrous and untrue,” claiming he doesn’t even remember the designer ever creating anything for John Denver. So why wasn’t he asked to come onboard the latest on-screen glimpse into Liberace’s life?
“He was not asked because there was no need to ask. The Liberace Museum gave me access to the original costumes so I copied them. I didn’t ask a car consultant to consult on the cars Liberace drove either.”
Travis’s name is not credited or mentioned, though he also designed costumes for Scott Thorston, Liberace’s young lover and author of the book the film is based on. There is a mention in the movie of Liberace’s furrier and friend, Anna Nateece.
Travis was Liberace’s costume designer until the end of his life and elevated the entertainer’s costumes to mind-bogglingly flamboyant heights. He also designed the entertainer’s final costume; a gigantic cape with a candelabra on the back, so huge that, when he walked down the stairs and unfastened it with his usual theatrical aplomb, it would rise up via a pulley and become the stage curtain. Liberace OKed the design from what was to be his death bed in Palm Springs where he died from complications of AIDS before he could wear it. Travis still has the sketch.
Travis and good friend, former Liberace producer Ray Arnett (played by Tom Papa in the film) watched a screener of the HBO movie together. Travis was sent the DVD only because he is voting member of the TV Academy.
Asked by THR what he and Arnett thought of the film, Travis replied, “The acting was great. But we both thought it was a piece of crap. It upsets me so much what they’ve done. Lee kept a good lid on that part of his life. He always kept up the pretense of the woman in his life and everyone went along with the gag and that was it. Those of us in the inner circle knew what was going on but I never had a gay word with him all the 16 years. No admission of anything. It was a different time”
Travis did have quite a lot to do with Liberace Extravanganza, a coffee table book that lovingly details the iconic entertainer’s over-the-top costumes, written by fellow costume designers Connie Furr Soloman and Jan Jewitt. Travis wrote the forward for book, while he and Arnett contributed original sketches to the exhaustive celebration of Liberace’s elaborate silk, satin, Swarovski-crystal smothered costumes with 14 carat white gold and diamond encrusted buttons.
Travis – who was awarded the Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award in 2010 — also designed costumes for Dionne Warwick, The Supremes, Connie Stevens, Tony Orlando, Wayne Newton, and The Temptations, He was responsible for the costumes on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In and was the costume designer for the Academy Awards for six years, starting in 1960 when he worked alongside Edith Head.
At a CDG luncheon last week, Travis — who has long suffered with MS and is confined to a wheelchair– was besieged with well-wishers and friends who assumed he had done — or had input into — the costumes for the HBO film, starring Douglas and Matt Damon. He had to tell them he had nothing to do with it and wasn’t consulted at all. “They were astonished,” admits Travis.
The Liberace Museum is reportedly reopening later this year in Neonopolis, billed as the world’s largest gay night club, in downtown Las Vegas . The new name will be LEE, which is what Liberace’s friends and family called him and an acronym for the Liberace Entertainment Experience. And yes, Michael Travis’ work will indeed be on display.
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