The Gloomy Story Behind Lola the Showgirl in Barry Manilow’s 1978 Hit “Copacabana”

The Copacabana first opened in New York City in 1940, and in its heyday as a celebrity hang, the venue catered to the likes of Frank Sinatra and even showcased the comedy of Martin and Lewis, Pat Cooper, and Danny Thomas, before becoming a hotspot for disco during the 1970s.

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Still in operation today after multiple location shifts throughout the years, the venue was also the inspiration behind one of Barry Manilow’s biggest hits, “Copacabana (At the Copa).”

The Meaning: Lola, the Showgirl

Co-written with Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman, and released on Manilow’s fifth album, Even Now, in 1978, the song was inspired by a visit to the Copacabana Hotel in Rio de Janeiro, once a bygone escape for Marlene Dietrich, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Brigitte Bardot, Jayne Mansfield, Walt Disney, and Princess Diana, among many other famous faces. 

After visiting the Brazilian paradise, Manilow wanted to tell the story of the other Copacabana—the hottest spot north of Havana.

Set in the late 1940s, the song focuses on Lola, a Copa showgirl, who would merengue and do the cha-cha with yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there.

“This story talks about love and passion and hatred and violence and murder and alcoholism and neurosis, all the fun things in life, don’t you think?” Manilow says in an introduction of the song. “This is a very sad story.”

Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
And while she tried to be a star
Tony always tended bar
Across the crowded floor, they worked from eight til four
They were young and they had each other
Who could ask for more?

The Death of Tony

Mid-way into the song, Copa bartender Tony has to intervene when patron Rico, who wore diamonds and is escorted to his chair, becomes enamored with his girlfriend Lola.

The story takes an ugly twist when Tony and Rico fight over Lola, resulting in the bartender’s death.

His name was Rico
He wore a diamond
He was escorted to his chair, he saw Lola dancing there
And when she finished, he called her over
But Rico went a bit to far
Tony sailed across the bar
And then the punches flew and chairs were smashed in two
There was blood and a single gunshot
But just who shot who?

Lola: 30 Years Later

The end verse fast-forwards to The Copa, 30 years later. It’s transformed into a discotheque, and Lola still wears her showgirl outfit, now with faded feathers in her hair, and she is now a Copa patron who drinks herself half-blind at the bar.

Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl
But that was thirty years ago, when they used to have a show
Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola
Still in dress she used to wear
Faded feathers in her hair
She sits there so refined, and drinks herself half-blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she’s lost her mind

Copacabana on Screen

The nightclub was used in films, including the 1947 musical film, Copacabana, starring Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda, along with The French Connection, Tootsie, Carlito’s Way, and Raging Bull, among many more. 

In 1985, Manilow, Sussman, and Feldman brought the song to life on the screen in a made-for-TV musical Copacabana

When released in 1978, “Copacabana” peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.

At the copa Copacabana
The hottest spot north of Havana
At the copa Copacabana
Music and passion were always in fashion
At the Copa don’t fall in love

Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

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