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Lola Falana

by Billy Ingram


She was born Loletha Elaine Falana on September 11, 1942 in Camden, New Jersey but you may know her as Lola Falana, an entertainer who's career is - or was - the stuff of legends. A fiercely determined young lady, Lola (escorted by her mother) was dancing in nightclubs while still a student in Junior High. She moved to New York at 17 with $23 in her pocket to break into show business and reportedly slept in the subway during the early, lean times. That was before Sammy Davis, Jr. plucked her from an Atlantic City chorus line to make her his protege; casting Lola as the lead dancer / ingenue in his Broadway smash Golden Boy, which ran from October 20, 1964 until March 5, 1966.

She was big talent in a small package, a triple-threat dynamo who could do it all - act, sing and dance. Lola Falana released a single called "My Baby" on Mercury Records and this led to her primetime solo debut on Hullabaloo December 6, 1965 where she sang the single and "Loverly" from My Fair Lady. She moved over to Warner Brothers records in 1966. Following her run on Broadway, Lola was given a small part in the motion picture A Man Called Adam in 1966 starring Sammy Davis, Jr., Ozzie Davis and Frank Sinatra, Jr. Davis also introduced Lola to the world of Las Vegas where she quickly scored a gig opening for comic Don Adams at the Sands Hotel where Sammy often worked.

Lola attained movie stardom first in Italy where she was hailed as the "Black Venus." Her first picture there was a 1967 Spaghetti Western, Lola Colt: Face to Face With The Devil. Two more Italian films followed, Stasera Mi Butto and Quando Dico Che Ti Amo in 1968. In between productions she toured as a background singer / dancer with Sammy Davis, Jr. and traveled with him to London for a revival of Golden Boy; it was while on-stage that the cast learned of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. Falana split with Sammy in 1969 but not before a sizzling star turn in the one-hour special, The Swinging World of Sammy Davis, Jr. "If I didn't break away," Lola told TV Guide, "I would always be known as the little dancer with Sammy Davis, Jr. I wanted to be known as something more."

On November 16, 1969, Lola was seen a dramatic role along with Billy Dee Williams on The FBI in addition to musical comedy appearances on The Hollywood Palace and the Joey Bishop Show. Lola Falana had a brief career in what many would call the 'Blackspoitation' market - except that a couple of her films might be better categorized as 'Whitesploitation' or 'Grindhouse' movies since they centered around the violent behavior of rednecks down South. Her first American big screen starring role occurred in The Liberation of LB Jones, directed by the legendary William Wyler in 1970. 

Wyler teamed Lola with Lee Majors (6 Million Dollar Man), Lee J. Cobb, Yaphet Kotto, Barbara Hershey and Anthony Zerbe in a sticky story of murder, adultery and bigotry in a small town (is there any other kind of town in the South?). Famous for his work with the greatest screen actresses of all time - stars like Bette Davis, Merle Oberon and Barbra Streisand - this was Wyler's disappointing follow-up to the box office smash Funny Girl. It would be his last motion picture, he died soon after. Screenwriter Sterling Silliphant described The Liberation of LB Jones as dealing with a rich Black man (Roscoe Lee Browne), "who is cuckolded by a white man and who, as a man cherishing his dignity, demands that his white lawyer get him a divorce - an action that uncovers a a barrel of civil rights fish in a Southern town..." Lola costarred as the two-timing wife who ignites a race war by having an affair with a white cop.

One reviewer proclaimed The Liberation of LB Jones, "the first American movie to countenance and even condone bloody revenge by the black against his white oppressor." Director Wyler stated his simple intent, "I wanted the audience to go out with a sense of guilt, of embarrassment at knowing what was going on and perhaps a feeling that they should do something." Lola was a guest on The Flip Wilson Show in the fall of 1970, where this was an exchange between the lady and the host:

Flip: "Lola, do you have a boyfriend?"

Lola: "No."

Flip:" Maybe it's because you use too many four letter words. Like don't, can't, won't."

She was photographed in the nude for a Playboy spread that year to promote the film and increase visibility - so to speak - for her career. In 1971, she announced her marriage to Feliciano Tavares, a musician from Cape Cod and began a string of eight appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson between November, 1971 and December, 1972. Lola Falana was the first supporting player Cosby hired for his highly-anticipated variety hour, The New Bill Cosby Show, debuting September 11, 1972 on CBS. Cosby met Lola back in his college days, when he was a struggling comic and she was all of 14 years old dancing in the Philadelphia nightclubs for ten bucks a show. 

With Lola Falana's saucy gyrations and music provided by the superlative Quincy Jones Orchestra, The New Bill Cosby Show was one of the funniest and freshest programs of the 71-72 season. Produced by Laugh-In creator George Schlatter, this highly-entertaining program had Lola serving as announcer and acting in skits as well. The show lasted only one full season but Falana and Cosby appeared together again on TV several times during the seventies.


That hand grenade of a woman
Lola Falana - explodes

People magazine headline, March of 1976

Lola's next motion picture, The Burning Cross (aka The Klansman), was directed by Terrence Young, the man behind two of the best James Bond films, Dr. No and Thunderball. Another violent race based movie set in the South, The Burning Cross thrust Lola together with Richard Burton, Lee Marvin and O.J. Simpson in a graphically violent potboiler; mid-seventies Drive-in fare. The Burning Cross was intended to be a higher quality film than most movies considered a part of the Blacksploitation genre, which was in full swing by 1974. But both Burton and Marvin were rip-roaring drunk throughout the entire production, and the movie was fronted by an exploitative ad campaign that screamed: "Red necks. White hoods. And raped black girls. O.J.'s grabbing a gun and going to war."

Lady Cocoa (also released as Pop Goes the Weasel) cast Lola as a sexy con artist released from prison for 24 hours to snag her ex-boyfriend / pimp. This obscure 1975 film featured football players Gene Washington, Alex Dreier and Mean Joe Greene; footballers were popular actors in the Blacksploitation genre. Lola had a minor disco hit in 1975, "There's A Man Out There Somewhere." That same year she entered into what must have seemed like a dream project - returning to the Broadway stage as the lead in a new musical, Doctor Jazz. With music and arrangements by Buster Davis & Luther Henderson and orchestrations by Dick Hyman & Sy Oliver, Doctor Jazz should have been a winner. Jazz music was popular again and the nation was in the throws of a nostalgia craze in 1975; but Doctor Jazz failed to click and closed after five performances in four days.

Despite this failure, NY Times critic Clive Barnes praised Lola as, "a hand grenade of a woman." She scored a Tony nomination and won the 1975 Theater World Award for her performance. Single-again, Lola could be seen staring out from the cover of Jet magazine in 1975. "Sex is easy to take," she told Jet readers. "Love is hard to give." Lola was booked on the Tonight Show June 4th, then landed a regular spot on Ben Vereen's August, 1975 NBC summer replacement series, Comin' at Cha. This was a natural pairing as Vereen had just come off the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Pippin. On the four-week series Lola sang, danced and clowned with Vereen and stars like The Smothers Brothers, Liz Torres and Arte Johnson; she was one of the only bright spots in this otherwise overindulgent production. 

In the midst of the busiest period of her career, Lola looked cryptically to the future in a People magazine interview, "One day I'm going to be a middle-aged lady and I don't want people to think I committed a crime or that I've got some strange disease. I don't believe in time. The past you can't account for and the future you can't count on. Everything is now." She had conquered just about every aspect of show business by 1976; besides television, Lola was performing in Vegas at the MGM Grand and posing provocatively in advertisements for Faberge. In the highly-successful Faberge Tigress perfume ads, Lola was seductively displayed in a cat suit with enormous hair. She proudly told the press, "This was the first cosmetics company that ever employed a black woman to show a line that wasn't made just for blacks." 

Photo shoots and TV commercials for L'eggs and others followed; there was even a seductive Lola poster on sale at Spencer Gifts similar to the million-selling Farrah Fawcett poster. Four years after her season on The New Bill Cosby Show, and six months after her stint on the summer series Ben Vereen- Comin' at Ya, Lola Falana finally took center stage as the host of her own excellent variety series. 

The Lola Falana Specials

Lola! was a series of four ABC specials broadcast during January and March of 1976. To distinguish the production from other variety shows of the era, Lola! took a decidedly urban attitude, often tackling serious issues hidden within cleverly-written comedy sketches. The specials were produced by Allan Blye and Bob Einstein of Sonny & Cher and Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour fame. The program's roster was a familiar one, including Sonny and Cher veteran supporting players Billy Van, Ted Zeigler, Murray Langston and announcer Peter Cullen along with ventriloquist Willie Tyler. Guests included Billy Dee Williams, Dinah Shore, Gabe Kaplan, Bill Cosby, Art Carney and Dennis Weaver. 

Clad in glittering Bob Mackie gowns (just as Cher was on her show), Lola was one of the most talented and exciting performers ever to headline a television variety series. If you ever wondered what would have happened if the producers of the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour had produced the Cher show (and darn it, they should have) Lola! might have been the result. Undeniably, Lola Falana could put across a monologue in a way that Cher could only dream of. On the four specials, there were lots of segments with Lola front and center singing and dancing the soul hits of the day in that overly-shrill mid-seventies fashion; contemporary tunes like Ain't No Mountain High Enough, I Wanna Be Where You Are, Let's Do It Again and Save The Country were covered. 

One regular feature included a seriocomic skits with Lola as a sassy child playing on tenement steps. In this scene, guest star Dennis Weaver (McCloud) chases away some kids who are bullying Lola as the kid:

Dennis Weaver: Hey fellows, fellows. You see this end of the broom? That's for sweepin'. And this end - well - that's for something else! Now, unless you fellows want to find out what that end is used for, I suggest you just mosey along. 

Lola Falana: I bet you expect me to thank you, huh? Well, you didn't need to do it anyway. I could have tied both of them dummies up in a knot and used you for the ribbon. 

Dennis: Hey, would you open your mouth just a little bit wider? I think I found someplace to put this trash.

Lola: That ain't funny, big-time shoe store owner. You didn't want to help me, anyway. You don't even know me, and if you did, you wouldn't like me. Huh! Nobody likes me. 

Dennis: Hey now, hold on, hold on, calm down there a minute. You know, I've seen you around the neighborhood, you're always arguing with the boys, always competing, always getting into trouble. And I want to tell you something. In spite of everything I've seen, in spite of everything the kids have told me about you, I can honestly say - I don't like you either. 

Lola Falana bid the audience good night at the end of each show with her signature closing, "Be as good to each other as you have been to me." In the fall of 1976, Lola was seen on Cos, Bill Cosby's second unsuccessful variety series of the seventies and on the Bob Hope Christmas Special airing December 13, 1976 with guest star John Wayne. Las Vegas beckoned again when Lola became known on the Strip as 'The First lady of Las Vegas Entertainment,' working for twenty weeks a year and earning up to $100,000 a week, often opening for Wayne Newton. Consumed with a busy schedule, her primetime TV forays were mostly limited to Las Vegas based productions like Circus of the Stars in 1977 and 1979 and the Liberace Valentine Special. She also turned up on the Muppet Show in 1979 and Dionne Warwick and Friends.

Lola did concerts with Neil Sedaka in 1983 and in December, 1984 she joined the cast of the CBS big-budgeted daytime soap opera Capitol as Charity Blake, a wealthy art dealer. She left Capitol in 1985. It was shortly after filming the Motown 1987 Christmas Special with Redd Foxx that tragedy struck. "I woke up one day with a crooked face, a crooked mouth, and dragging limbs," Lola told Ebony magazine in 1988. "The whole left side - my arms and legs were dragging. And I woke up one day and said okay, it's not about physical prowess and glamor any more, Falana." She had been stricken with Multiple Sclerosis. Left in a crippled state, Lola found it impossible to continue performing, forcing the cancellation nearly two million dollars in signed contracts.

"My whole world is God."

With help from family and friends (and "the promise that Jesus Christ will come through me and make me well"), Lola Falana methodically battled her way back to health and made a triumphant return to Las Vegas in 1989 with several sold-out shows at the Sand's Hotel. But Lola's priorities had shifted during her illness; she turned her back on the entertainment industry entirely after that Vegas gig. And who can blame her? "I am not a star," she was quoted as saying. "I don't want to be called that dirty word." 

In 1991 she converted to Catholicism and began giving lectures in churches that are described as part sermon, part personal memoir. Since 9/11, Falana has become the spokeswoman for Save Sub-Saharan Orphans but refuses to give interviews about her show biz career - it's said she despises her former life and shuns all publicity. Her sole public performance since 1990 was with Wayne Newton for his 1997 Branson, Mo Christmas show.

Today Lola Falana lives a quiet life in the city of Las Vegas.