Poland’s Villas, once Las Vegas star, laid to rest

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WARSAW, POLAND (AP) - Family members and hundreds of fans bid farewell Monday to Violetta Villas, a Polish coloratura soprano who spurned opera for popular music and once reigned in a Las Vegas cabaret.

Villas died at her home earlier this month of untreated pneumonia and complications from a broken leg. She was 73 and lived alone in a house in Lewin Klodzki, in southern Poland.

Her funeral at Warsaw’s Powazki cemetery, a burial ground for many Polish celebrities, drew hundreds of fans of her powerful voice that spanned four octaves. They came with flowers, her picture, and the national white-and-red flag with a black ribbon attached to it in a sign of mourning.

Culture Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski said in a message that her “unique talent and unconventional ways will not be forgotten.”

“She was exceptional, unusual, one of the best recognizable personalities on Poland’s musical stage in recent decades,” Zdrojewski said in a letter that was read during a funeral Mass at the packed St. Borromeo Church in Powazki.

From 1966 to 1969, Villas _ a cascade of curly blond hair and crinoline dresses her trademarks _ sang at the Casino de Paris and at the famed Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, performing with luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Paul Anka and Eartha Kitt.

She also recorded songs for Capitol Records.

She appeared in several United States movies, including 1969’s “Paint Your Wagon” with Lee Marvin and “Heaven with a Gun” with Glenn Ford.

In 1970, she returned to Poland to tend to her ailing mother, and found herself trapped as the communist authorities refused to approve her passport. She did not return to the U.S. until 1987 with a tour that started at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Born Czeslawa Cieslak in Belgium in 1938 to a Polish coal miner, she once said her career was launched in 1960 by the head of state Polish Radio, composer Wladyslaw Szpilman _ whose own story of survival during the Holocaust was the theme of director Roman Polanski’s 2003 Oscar-winning movie “The Pianist.”

Villas was also known as a colorful personality who refused to bend to the requirements of a career. Since the late 1980s, she had given only occasional performances and sometimes failed to turn up for studio recordings.

In recent years she lived alone and ran a shelter for animals in her home yard, but the shelter had to be closed due to overcrowding and insufficient care.

Villas was married twice: in 1954 in Poland to Piotr Gospodarek, and in 1988 in Chicago to Ted Kowalczyk, a businessman of Polish descent. Both marriages ended in divorce.

She is survived by her only son, Krzysztof.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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