September 11, 1942 – Lola Falana:
“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.”
As a little gay child, I simply loved to watch the talk shows and variety hours to catch my favorite sort of showbiz figure: The Entertainer; the unworldly talent who could do it all. The type who could sing, dance, act, and provide sparkling conversation.
She conquered nearly every discipline in showbiz by 1976; besides television, Falana had performed in Las Vegas and posed provocatively in advertisements for Faberge. For Faberge Tigress perfume ads, she was seductively costumed in a cat suit with enormous hair. She proudly said:
“This was the first cosmetics company that ever employed a black woman to show a line that wasn’t made just for blacks.”
She was born Loletha Elaine Falana in Camden, New Jersey. Even as a kid she was fiercely determined to make it in the biz. She started dancing in nightclubs while in junior high school. She moved to New York City when she was 17 years old and slept in the subway during those early, lean times.
Sammy Davis, Jr. discovered her in an Atlantic City casino chorus line and made her his protégé. He cast Falana as the lead dancer in his Broadway musical Golden Boy, which ran for 593 performance in 1964 -1966. The show featured an interracial kiss that shocked audiences already having difficulty adjusting to the urban jazz score and mentions of Malcolm X.
Falana was a big talent in a tiny package who could act, sing and dance. She released a single, My Baby (1965), which led to her debut on my favorite television show Hullabaloo (1965-67) where she sang the song and Loverly from My Fair Lady.
After Golden Boy closed, Falana was cast in the film A Man Called Adam (1966) starring Davis, Ozzie Davis and Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Davis also took her to Las Vegas where she opened for comic Don Adams at The Sands where Davis often worked.
Falana first became a big star in Italy where she was dubbed “Black Venus”. Her first Italian movie was a Spaghetti Western, Lola Colt: Face To Face With The Devil (1967). Two more Italian films followed, Stasera Mi Butto and Quando Dico Che Ti Amo in 1968.
In between films she toured with Davis and went with him for the London production of Golden Boy. While onstage, the cast learned of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.
Falana had a sizzling star turn in the one-hour television special, The Swinging World Of Sammy Davis, Jr. before going it alone. Falana:
“If I didn’t break away. I would always be known as the little dancer with Sammy Davis, Jr. I wanted to be known as something more.”
She soon became a regular on variety and talk shows. Her first American starring role was in The Liberation Of LB Jones (1970), directed by the legendary William Wyler, and costarring Lee Majors (Six Million Dollar Man), Lee J. Cobb, Yaphet Kotto, and Barbara Hershey. It is a sticky story of murder, adultery and bigotry in a small town in the South. Falana plays a two-timing wife who ignites a race war by having an affair with a white cop.
Famous for his work with the greatest screen stars like Bette Davis and Merle Oberon, it was Wyler’s disappointing follow-up to his box-office smash Funny Girl. He died soon after. It is one of the first Hollywood films to dare condone bloody revenge by a Black character against his white oppressor.
Falana posed for Playboy to promote the film and increase visibility (so to speak) for her career. In 1971, she began a string of eight appearances on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson between November, 1971 and December, 1972.
Falana was the first talent Bill Cosby hired for his variety hour, The New Bill Cosby Show (1971-72) on CBS. Cosby met her when he was a struggling comic and she a 14-year-old girl dancing in clubs in Philadelphia. Falana’s dancing to music provided by the Quincy Jones Orchestra, was the best thing about the show. She also served as announcer and performed in sketches. The show only lasted one season, but Falana and Cosby appeared together again on television specials throughout the 1970s.
Falana’s next film was The Klansman (1974) directed by Terrence Young, the director of two of the best James Bond films, Dr. No (1962) and Thunderball (1963). It is another violent race movie set in the South, but with Richard Burton, Lee Marvin and O.J. Simpson, so classy. This was at the apex of the Blacksploitation genre. Both Burton and Marvin were drunk throughout the filming, and the film featured an exploitative ad campaign with the screaming tag:
“Red necks. White hoods. And raped black girls. O.J.’s grabbing a gun and going to war.”
Lady Cocoa (1975) has Falana as a con artist released from prison for 24 hours to snag her ex-boyfriend / pimp. It features football players Gene Washington, Alex Dreier and “Mean” Joe Greene; NFL players were popular actors in the Blacksploitation flicks.
In 1975, Falana promised a return to Broadway as the lead in a new musical, Doctor Jazz. With a score by Buster Davis and Luther Henderson, Doctor Jazz should have been a winner, but it closed after five performances. Despite failure, New York Times theatre critic Clive Barnes praised Falana as: “a hand grenade of a woman“. She earned a Tony Award nomination and won the Theater World Award for her performance.
She appeared on the cover of Jet magazine that year, with the headline: “Sex is Easy to Take. Love is Hard to Give.”
Falana had a regular spot on Ben Vereen‘s 1975 NBC summer replacement series, Comin’ At Cha. Vereen had just finished the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Pippin. She was also on Sammy And Company, Davis’s talk show taped at Harrah’s Casino in Lake Tahoe. Later that year, Falana finally was the host of her own variety series.
Lola! was different from the other variety shows of that era, with a decidedly urban attitude, and taking on serious issues hidden within the comedy sketches. Wearing fabulous Bob Mackie gowns, Falana proved to be one of the most talented performers to headline a television variety series.
A regular feature included sketches with Falana as a sassy kid playing on the stoop of a building in the projects. Falana said goodbye 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, Falana was on Cos, Cosby’s second stinko variety series of the seventies.
So, it was back to Las Vegas where Falana was known as “The First Lady of Las Vegas Entertainment,’ working 10 weeks a year, earning $100,000 per week opening for Wayne Newton.
In 1984, she joined the cast of the big-budgeted daytime soap opera Capitol as wealthy art dealer, Charity Blake.
After filming the Motown 1987 Christmas Special with Redd Foxx, Falana told Ebony magazine:
“I woke up one day with a crooked face, a crooked mouth, and dragging limbs. 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 anymore, Falana.”
She had Multiple Sclerosis. Falana found it impossible to continue performing, cancelling two million dollars in signed contracts.
But Falana wasn’t done. She made a triumphant return to Las Vegas in 1989 with sold-out shows at the Sand’s. And then she turned her back on showbiz for good after that Vegas gig.
“I am not a star! I don’t want to be called that dirty word.”
Falana had found Jesus and began giving lectures that are part sermon, part personal memoir. She refuses to give interviews about showbiz and shuns all publicity. Sometime during 1965–1968, Falana had an affair with Davis, which became public knowledge after Davis confessed it to his then–wife May Britt, which led to their divorce in 1968. Today, Falana lives a quiet life in that city of religious pilgrimages, Las Vegas.