Michael Travis dies at 86; costume designer for Liberace

Liberace, clad in one of costume designer Michael Travis' lavish outfits, performs his honky tonk piano number in the early 1980s. Travis died in Studio City at the age of 86.

Costume designer Michael Travis, who created famously over-the-top outfits for Liberace’s stage extravaganzas, died Thursday at his home in Studio City. He was 86.

He was hospitalized last month with heart problems and other serious ailments, but he wanted to spend his last days at his home, said his nephew, George Lavdas.

Travis also designed for Diana Ross and the Supremes, Nancy Sinatra, Dionne Warwick and many others. He was the costume designer for the frenzied 1960s TV comedy hit “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and for several specials. In 2010, he was given the Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award for television.

But he’s best known for Liberace’s lavish outfits — many with bejeweled capes and matching boots — that played a prominent role in the entertainer’s shows, maybe more than the piano playing. “In Michael, Liberace found someone who could realize his dreams and bring them to life on stage,” said Connie Furr Soloman, co-author of the 2013 book “Liberace Extravaganza!,” on the entertainer’s costumes.


The two began working together in the early 1970s. Some Travis creations were so laden with jewels, beads, sequins, crystals, feathers, fur and gold lamé that they weighed more than 100 pounds. Among the wildest was the 1979 “flame” costume embedded not only with small mirrors but also 1,600 tiny lights.

A tad more sedate were costumes influenced by royalty wear, with elaborate embroidery and long trains, but which nonetheless had layers of jewels. Travis was not happy with one costume he felt went too far: Liberace’s infamous red, white and blue outfit that featured hot pants. “Michael thought it was undignified,” Soloman said.

He was born Louis Torakis in Detroit on April 13, 1928. After graduating from high school, he joined the Army, serving three years in postwar Europe. He stayed on to study fashion in Paris, then moved to New York, where he designed costumes for several plays.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1960, he worked under Edith Head on costumes for Academy Award shows. Producer George Schlatter hired him to design costumes for specials and then “Laugh-In.” After learning in his late 40s that he had multiple sclerosis, Travis sought work away from the steady pressure of weekly television, leading him to design for Las Vegas entertainers. He worked 13 years with Liberace, who died in 1987.

“We were working on the best at the end,” Travis said in a 1997 Los Angeles Times interview. The outfit was to include a cape so huge that it would lift up to become the backdrop. Candelabras in the fabric would then light up.

“It would have been the showstopper of all time,” Travis said.

He left no survivors.