‘Behind the Candelabra’s’ High-Low Design Aesthetic

Liberace’s houses, including his Palm Springs digs, get a second look via HBO biopic

LIberace Behind the Candelabra

If anyone noticed a big run on Michelangelo’s David statues in Vegas and Palm Springs, blame it on production designer Howard Cummings and set decorator Barbara Munch. They’ve been working on Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, to air May 26 on HBO. And their job, as Cummings describes it, was to be on the lookout for “trash and treasure, high and low, and everything in excess.”

Cummings, whose resume runs the gamut from Usual Suspects to Rent, calls the Liberace assignment the most fun of his life. “Absolutely, hands down!”

While it’s easy to laugh at the piano player’s over-the-top camp taste, Cummings developed a certain respect for that aesthetic as he scouted locations in Vegas, Palm Springs and L.A.

(From the pages of the April 23 issue of Variety.)

“Liberace was sensitive to the places, and he did adjust” his decor, says the designer.

For example, “His L.A. penthouse had a black lacquer Chinese look, very 1980s. That was his city look,” says Cummings. “The Vegas house was pastelly and lots of sparkle. And his main house in Palm Springs at the end, the Cloisters, was a Spanish-style 1920s house.”

Cummings painstakingly re-created all of those abodes, although only the L.A. penthouse was used for filming. The Cloisters is under renovation, and the Vegas house — actually three houses attached by a mansard roof — is in foreclosure.

As Cummings is quick to point out, Liberace owned many other homes. “He didn’t invest in stocks, but he bought houses, often for other people. He fixed up ramshackle places, and he shopped and shopped, filling them up with stuff. Mae West said, ‘Too much of a good thing is wonderful.’ She said it. Liberace lived it.”

Liberace’s mother’s residence in Palm Springs makes an appearance in Behind the Candelabra, but again, it’s not the original, although what Cummings subbed in has its own intriguing history. Curiously, the Hollywood Regency-style house sports a backyard area that resembles the spectacular Neptune pool at Hearst Castle.

“It was originally George Randolph Hearst’s house,” Cummings notes. “It contained artifacts from Hearst Castle, and it’s near the Kaufmann House (Richard Neutra, architect) in Palm Springs. Patty Hearst hid out there after her SLA episode.”

Cummings lives in Palm Springs and loves its history.

“A lot of the great architecture in Palm Springs hasn’t been replaced,” says Cummings, who credits much of that preservation to the town’s unique relationship to Hollywood. “Palm Springs was the place where the stars could be wild; it was far enough away from the Hollywood studios, which limited the stars’ travel. It was on the edge.”

As soon as there was jet travel, that limit ceased to exist, Cummings says.

“The rise of the jet set led to the demise of Palm Springs,” he says. “The stars stopped coming here, and there was a real economic slump that actually helped to preserve these houses. By the time the economy turned around, people again valued the architecture.”