Monday, July 18, 2011

Betcha Didn't Know...?

Some of the most notable names from the dawn of film and television are of Latino descent. Here are some of them.

In this edition, famous performers that defy categorization.

Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990), born Samuel George Davis Sánchez al estilo latino, was an entertainer, primarily a dancer and singer. Born in New York, New York, U.S.A. to Sammy Davis, Sr., of African American descent, and Elvera Sánchez, of Puerto Rican heritage (although some sources say Cuban). Both parents were vaudeville dancers.

When he was three years old, his parents separated. His father, not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour. He learned to dance from his father and his "uncle" Will Mastin, who led the dance troupe for which his father worked. He joined the act as a child and they became the Will Mastin Trio. When he served in the U.S. Army during World War II, he was confronted by strong racial prejudice. The Army assigned Davis to an integrated entertainment Special Services unit, and he found that the spotlight lessened the prejudice. "My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking," he said. After his discharge at the war's end, Davis rejoined the family dance act, which played at clubs around Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. He began to achieve success on his own and was singled out for praise by critics, releasing several albums. This led to his appearance in the Broadway play Mr. Wonderful in 1956.

Davis nearly died in an automobile accident on November 19, 1954 in San Bernadino, California, U.S.A. as he was making a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. He lost his left eye as a result. He was fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life. While in the hospital, his friend, performer Eddie Cantor, told him about the similarities between the Jewish and African American cultures. Prompted by this conversation, Davis— who was born to a Catholic mother and Protestant father— began studying the history of Jews, converting to Judaism several years later.

In 1959, he became a member of the famous "Rat Pack," led by his friend Frank Sinatra, which included fellow performers such as Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Shirley MacLaine. He was the only non-white member of the group.
He was a headliner at a casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A., but he was required (as were all black performers in the 1950s) to lodge in a rooming house on the west side of the city, instead of in the hotels as his white colleagues did. No dressing rooms were provided for black performers, and they had to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts. During his early years in Las Vegas, Davis and other black artists could entertain, but usually could not stay at the hotels where they performed, gamble in the casinos, nor dine or drink in the hotel restaurants and bars. Davis later refused to work at places which practiced racial segregation.
In the mid-1950s, he was involved with Kim Novak, a movie star under contract to Columbia Studios. The head of the studio, Harry Cohn, was worried about the negative effect this would have on the studio because of the prevailing taboo against miscegnation. He called his friend, the mobster Johnny Roselli, who was asked to tell him to stop the affair with Novak. Roselli arranged for Davis to be kidnapped for a few hours to throw a scare into him. His hastily arranged and soon-dissolved marriage to black dancer Loray White in 1958 was an attempt to quiet the controversy.
In 1960, he caused controversy when he married white Swedish-born actress May Britt. He received hate mail while starring in the Broadway musical adaptation of Golden Boy from 1964-1966 (for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor). At the time of his marriage, interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 U.S. states, and only in 1967 were those laws ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis and Britt had one daughter and adopted two sons. he performed almost continuously and spent little time with his wife. They divorced in 1968, after Davis admitted to having had an affair with singer Lola Falana (see below). That year, Davis started dating Altovise Gore, a dancer in Golden Boy. They were married on May 11, 1970 by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Although he was still a draw in Las Vegas, his musical career had sputtered by the latter 1960s, although he had a #11 hit (#1 on the Easy Listening singles chart) with "I've Gotta Be Me" in 1969. But then, even as his career seemed at its nadir, Sammy had an unexpected hit with "Candy Man." Although he did not particularly care for the song and was chagrined that he was now best known for it, he made the most of his opportunity and revitalized his career. Although he enjoyed no more Top 40 hits, he did enjoy popularity with his performance of the theme song from the television series "Baretta" (1975–1978), which was not released as a single but was given radio play and he remained a live act beyond Vegas for his career. He occasionally landed television and film parts, including cameo visits on "All in the Family" (during which he kisses Archie Bunker's character, played by Carroll O'Connor, on the cheek) and, with wife Altovise Gore Davis, on "Charlie's Angels."
On December 11, 1967, NBC broadcast a musical-variety special entitled "Movin' With Nancy." In addition to the Emmy Award-winning musical performances, the show is notable for Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. greeting each other with a kiss, one of the first black-white kisses in U.S. television history.
He was an avid photographer who enjoyed shooting family and acquaintances. His body of work was detailed in a 2007 book by Burt Boyar. "Jerry [Lewis] gave me my first important camera, my first 35-millimeter, during the early '50s," Boyar quotes Davis. "And he hooked me." He later used a medium format camera to capture images. Again quoting Davis, "Nobody interrupts a man taking a picture to ask ... 'What's that nigger doin' here?'" His catalog includes rare photos of his father dancing onstage as part of the Will Mastin Trio and intimate snapshots of close friends Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, Nat "King" Cole, and Marilyn Monroe. His political affiliations also were represented, in his images of Robert Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. His most revealing work comes in photographs of wife May Britt and their three children, Tracey, Jeff and Mark.
He died in Beverly Hills, California, US.A. on May 16, 1990, of complications from throat cancer. Earlier, when he was told that surgery (laryngectomy) offered him the best chance of survival, he replied he would rather keep his voice than have a part of his throat removed; he subsequently was treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. However, a few weeks prior to his death his entire larynx was removed during surgery. On May 18, 1990, two days after Davis' death, the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip were darkened for ten minutes, as a tribute to him.

Sammy Davis, Jr.
tap dancing and singing

Gregory Hines's tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr. (note that he was in the final stages of his cancer and was directed by doctors not to dance-- yet he couldn't refuse; he passed away three months after this television special aired)

Lola Falana (1942- ) was born Loletha Elaine Falana in Camden, New Jersey, U.S.A. to a Cuban father and African American mother. She spent most of her childhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. She is a singer, dancer an actress.

By the age of three she was dancing, and by age five she was singing in the church choir. By the time she was in junior high school, she was already dancing in nightclubs to which she was escorted by her mother. Pursuing a musical career became so important to Falana that, against her parents' wishes, she left high school a few months before graduation and moved to New York City.

Her first dancing gig was at Small's Paradise in Harlem. Dinah Washington, the “Queen of Blues,” was influential in fostering her early career. While dancing in a nightclub, she was discovered by Sammy Davis, Jr. (see above), who gave her a featured role in his 1964 Broadway musical Golden Boy. Her first single, "My Baby," was recorded for Mercury Records in 1965. Later in her career she recorded under Frank Sinatra's record label. In the late 1960s she was mentored by Davis. In 1966 Davis cast her, along with himself, Ossie Davis (no relation) and Cicely Tyson, in her first film role in the film, A Man Called Adam.

She became a major star of Italian cinema beginning in 1967. In Italy she learned to speak fluent Italian while starring in three movies. She became known as the "Black Venus." During this time she was busy touring with Davis as a singer and dancer, making films in Italy, and reprising her role in Golden Boy during its revival in London.

In 1969, she ended her close working relationship with Sammy Davis Jr., though the two remained friends. "If I didn't break away," she said in an interview, "I would always be known as the little dancer with Sammy Davis, Jr.... I wanted to be known as something more." The previous year, Sammy Davis Jr. was divorced by his second wife, May Britt, after Davis admitted to having had an affair with her.

In 1970, she acted in the film The Liberation of L.B. Jones and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year-Actress. She was the first black woman to model for a line of cosmetics that was not targeted solely at blacks, in the successful Faberge Tigress perfume ads. American TV audiences became familiar with her during the early 1970s. She often appeared on "The Joey Bishop Show" and "The Hollywood Palace," displaying her talent for music, dance, and light comedy. These appearances led to more opportunities. From 1971 to 1975, she was married to Feliciano “Butch” Tavares (who himself was of Cape Verdean descent), one of five brothers of the popular R&B band Tavares.

She was the first supporting player hired by Bill Cosby for his much-anticipated variety hour, "The New Bill Cosby Show," which made its debut on September 11, 1972 (her 30th birthday) on CBS. Throughout the mid-1970s she made guest appearances on many popular TV shows, including "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," "Laugh-In," and "The Flip Wilson Show." She also starred in her own television specials.

In 1975 her disco record "There's A Man Out There Somewhere" reached #67 on the Billboard R&B chart. That same year, she returned to Broadway as the lead in the musical Doctor Jazz. Although the production closed after just five performances, she was nominated for a Tony Award and won the 1975 Theater World Award.

With help from Sammy Davis, Jr., she brought her act to Las Vegas and became a top draw there. By the late 1970s, she was considered the Queen of Las Vegas. She played to sold-out crowds. She was offered her $100,000 a week to perform. At the time, she was the highest paid female performer in Las Vegas. Her show ran twenty weeks a year and became a major tourist attraction.
While still playing to sell-out crowds in Las Vegas, she joined the cast of a short-lived CBS soap opera, "Capitol" as Charity Blake, a wealthy entertainment mogul. Soon after the show was cancelled in 1987, she suffered a major setback; a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS). At the time, her left side was paralyzed, she became partially blind, and her voice and hearing were impaired. Recovery lasted a year and a half, during which she spent most of her time praying. She attributes her recovery to a spiritual experience which she described as "Being able to feel the presence of the Lord." Though she performed again in Las Vegas shows in 1987, her practice of religion and faith became the center of her life. After another bout with MS in 1996, Falana returned to Philadelphia and lived with her parents for a short time. No longer performing, she now tours the country with a message of hope and spirituality. When not on tour, she lives a quiet life in Las Vegas working on the apostolate she founded, The Lambs of God Ministry. The ministry is focused on helping children who have been orphaned in sub-Saharan Africa, and works closely with the group Save Sub-Saharan Orphans. Her last known musical performance was in 1997, at Wayne Newton's theater in Branson, Missouri, U.S.A.

Live performance by Lola Falana

Lola Falana singing in Italian

Holly Woodlawn (1946- ), born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico. She is an actress (who happens to be transgender) and became famous at first for being one of Andy Warhol's superstars in the late 1960s and 1970s. She is also one of the subjects in Lou Reed's 1972 hit song "Walk on The Wild Side." Note the lyrics from the opening verse below.

"Holly came from Miami F-L-A,
Hitchhiked her way across the USA,
Plucked her eyebrows on the way,
Shaved her legs and then he was a she.
She says, 'Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side'
He said, 'Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.'"

She adopted the name Holly from the heroine of the classic movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, and in 1969 added the surname from a sign she saw on an episode of "I Love Lucy." After changing her name she began to tell people she was the heiress to Woodlawn Cemetery (located in the Bronx, New York, U.S.A.)

She grew up in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S.A. and in 1962, while still a teenager, left, heading north. She recollects that "I hocked some jewelry and ... made it all the way to Georgia, where the money ran out and... had to hitchhike the rest of the way" to New York.

She met artist Andy Warhol at a screening of his film Flesh. Through him she met writer-performer Jackie Curtis, who cast her in her play Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit in the autumn of 1969. In October of that year she was given a bit role in the film Trash (produced by Warhol), but so impressed writer-director Paul Morrissey that she was given a much larger role.

In May 1971, she replaced Candy Darling at the LaMama Theatre in New York in a production of Vain Victory written and directed by Jackie Curtis. In 1972 director Robert Kaplan and cinematographer Paul Glickman concocted the idea of a movie whose premise would be using a transvestite as the lead in a film without revealing the sex of the actress. Woodlawn played a young, starstruck girl hoping for success as an actress in New York City. The film, Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers, was a low budget, 16mm, unsuccessful musical feature. The song "In The Very Last Row," written by Marshall Barer, was performed by Bette Midler.

She continued to make cameo appearances in plays and films such as (Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss) throughout the 1980s and 1990s. After Warhol's death, she was interviewed frequently on his life and influence. Even though saddled with chronic back problems that limit her mobility, she began performing in cabaret shows in sold-out New York and Los Angeles performances in the early 2000s. She continues to travel with her cabaret show, most recently appearing in Kraków, Poland and London, England in 2008. She currently resides in West Hollywood, Calfornia, U.S.A.

Clip of the film Trash with Holly Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro (note there is adult language in this clip)

1993 Interview with Joan Rivers

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