Falana, Lola 1942–
Lola Falana 1942–
Successful Career Marred By Depression
Return to Show Business Eclipsed By Evangelism
At the height of her career in the 1980s, Lola Falana was known as the “First Lady of Las Vegas.” A multi-talented dancer, singer, actress, and all-around entertainer, Falana was a sexy superstar. Under the tutelage of blues singer Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Cosby, and Wayne Newton, Falana became, for a time, the highest-paid female performer in the history of Las Vegas.
However, Falana’s career took an abrupt shift in 1987 when she was struck with multiple sclerosis (MS). Although she recovered and briefly returned to the Las Vegas strip, religion had replaced show business as the cornerstone of her life. Converting to evangelical Roman Catholicism, Falana founded her own ministry, devoting herself to preaching and to aiding the orphans of AIDS-ravaged Sub-Saharan Africa.
Danced Way Into Show Business
Loletha Elaine Falana was born in Camden, New Jersey, on September 11, 1942, the third of six children, two girls and four boys. Her father, Bennett Falana, had emigrated from Cuba, served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and worked as a shipyard welder. Lola’s mother, Cleo, was a seamstress. By age three, Lola dreamed of becoming a famous dancer. Her parents struggled to provide her with piano and violin lessons and dance classes that included jazz, modern, Afro-Cuban, and tap. By age five Lola was singing in a church choir.
Lola was nine when the family moved to Philadelphia. She continued to study dance at Sidney King’s Germantown dance studio and by the age of 12 she was teaching jazz, ballet, and tap. During junior high school she choreographed and produced school plays, while working summers as a hairdresser in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Falana’s first break came when she was 16. It was 1958 and Dinah Washington was appearing in Philadelphia. Falana approached her, begging for a job as a dancer. She appeared on stage that very night, wearing a homemade ruffled and sequined costume. But in the middle of her dance routine Falana’s swimsuit strap broke. Embarrassed, but angered at hearing Washington laugh, Falana held the strap in her mouth and continued dancing, executing 16 jetés. The audience applauded wildly and Washington hired her. Within a
At a Glance…
Born Loletha Elaine Falana on September 11, 1942, in Camden, NJ; daughter of Bennett and Cleo Falana; married Feliciano (Butch) Tavares, 1970 (divorced 1975). Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Dancer, singer, actress, entertainer, 1958-90; evangelist, 1990-.
Memberships: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
Awards: Tony award nomination, 1975; CLIO Award for Tigress commercial campaign, 1976; Theater World Award for Most Outstanding New Performer, 1976; American Guild of Variety Artists, Entertainer of the Year, 1977; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, inductee, Oscar Micheaux Award, 1989.
Addresses: Office —The Lambs of God, P.O. Box 70156, Las Vegas, NV 89170-0156. Agent—Capital Entertainment, PO Box 66661, Washington, DC 20035-6661.
year Falana was dancing in nightclubs, chaperoned by her mother or her dance instructor and earning ten dollars per show. She adopted the name Lola from the song “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.”
Over her father’s objections, at the age of 18 Falana left her family to make her way in New York City. Sleeping in subway cars until she could afford an apartment, Falana found a job dancing at Small’s Paradise in Harlem. In 1964 she landed the role of lead dancer in Sammy Davis, Jr.’s Broadway musical Golden Boy, out-competing some 200 other aspiring dancers. Davis nurtured Falana’s career and rumors about their relationship abounded. Although Falana later admitted to having been in love with Davis at the time, her career always came first.
Moved to Television and Film
Falana made her first recording, “My Baby,” for Mercury Records in 1965. She appeared on the television show Hullabaloo and recorded “Coconut Grove” and “Working in the Coal Mines.” Falana appeared in her first film in 1966—A Man Called Adam starring Sammy Davis, Jr. From the 1960s on she was often featured as “beauty of the week” in Jet magazine.
During the late 1960s Falana lived in Italy where her singing and dancing brought her fame. She appeared in television commercials and on the covers of Italian magazines. Falana starred in three Italian films, including a spaghetti western called Lola Colt. Although she spoke fluent Italian, her voice was dubbed in the films. Falana was twice voted number one performer of the year by her Italian public.
In 1970 Falana married pop singer Feliciano (Butch) Tavares. However, their hectic schedules and extensive traveling left them little time together. They divorced on friendly terms in 1975.
Returning after five years in Italy, Falana began appearing on American television. She was featured on The Merv Griffin Show, The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, and The Mike Douglas Show, as well as on numerous variety and game shows. She had guest roles in various television series, including The F.B.I, The Mod Squad, and The Streets of San Francisco.
Rose to Stardom in America
Although Falana had jumped at the chance for a starring role in the 1970 movie, The Liberation of L. B. Jones, the film was dismissed as melodramatic and sexually exploitive. The criticisms of the film jolted her political and social consciousness and Falana rejected her next 11 film offers. Instead she joined Bob Hope’s U.S.O. tour of Southeast Asia in 1972. Although she made two more films, Falana was more often seen on television, as a regular on The New Bill Cosby Show and on Ben Vereen’s summer replacement series, Comin’ At Ya. She also appeared on Bob Hope and Liberace specials, as well as numerous other programs. Aside from acting, Falana continued to record occasionally. Her disco song, “There’s a Man Out There Somewhere,” hit number 67 on Billboard’s R&B chart in June of 1975.
Because of her focus on television and movies, almost ten years had passed since Falana had performed on the stage. Hence, she was reluctant when her manager, Norman Brokaw of the William Morris Agency, urged her to accept a role in the Broadway show Dr. Jazz. She finally agreed to do the show and although it closed after only four nights, Falana earned a 1975 Tony award nomination for best actress in a musical.
In 1976 Falana earned more than $1 million and a Clio advertising award for her commercials for Fabergé’s Tigress. It was the first time that a black woman had represented a major perfume. Between December of 1976 and March of 1977 Falana had four successful ABC television specials. When these programs did not land her a regular television series, she hired Mark Moreno as her new manager.
Successful Career Marred By Depression
It was her nightclub engagements in Las Vegas and around the world that turned Falana into a superstar. Wayne Newton appeared in Las Vegas more than any other performer—30 weeks a year—and Moreno made Falana Newton’s co-star, playing to full houses at the Sands, the Riviera, and the MGM Grand hotels. By 1979 Falana had her own show at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino. At $2 million for 20 weeks a year, her earnings on the strip were second only to Newton’s.
In 1980 Falana co-hosted Ebony’s American Black Achievement Awards television show with Sammy Davis, Jr. Her free performances included a benefit for hotel workers in 1980, the Lou Rawls Parade of Stars telethon for the United Negro College Fund, and the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon for muscular dystrophy. In 1984 Falana was cast as Charity Black, a show-business tycoon, on the CBS soap opera Capitol.
Despite her success Falana felt unfulfilled. She had been keeping a diary since she was ten years old and in 1982 she typed up her recollections and reflections in manuscript form, although Thoughts was never published. She underwent several major surgeries and in 1983 suffered a life-threatening attack of peritonitis. Falana described this period of her life to Jet magazine in March of 1990: “I was out on that road dancing and singing my heart out—and shaking that thing. And then I found that every time I would go back to my hotel room, I was crying. … I didn’t like the person I had to transcend into because I was already changing.”
Stricken with MS
In June of 1987 Falana’s vision began to blur and she had difficulty controlling her voice. In December, just after taping a Motown Christmas Special with Redd Foxx, she rose from bed and fell down, got up again and fell, a total of five times. The entire left side of her body was paralyzed. Falana had MS, a chronic, degenerative, and incurable disease of the central nervous system. Her manager, Joseph Schenk, canceled almost $2 million in nightclub and concert dates. Falana described her situation to Jet in August of 1989: “What a difference a day makes. One day I’m standing tall and listening to applause of fans and the next day I’m a cripple lying in bed reading mail from fans.”
Instead of turning to modern medicine, Falana turned to her friends, neighbors, family, and her God. The comedian Dick Gregory prescribed a diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, and water, as she recuperated in the Los Angeles home of Brenda and Lionel Richie. Despite excruciating pain her exercise regime included weights, a stationary bike, a treadmill, stair climbing, a trampoline, and physical therapy. In less than a month she began to recover. Although Falana had five more crippling attacks within the next eighteen months, her disease went into remission.
In an early 1988 interview from her Las Vegas home, Falana described her experience to Jet: “I could always get up and move my body and make a living or just feel good about myself.… Then I woke up one day with a crooked face, a crooked mouth and dragging limbs. … and I said okay, it’s not about physical prowess and glamour any more, Falana. All the gifts that you counted on, that you identified with as yourself are no longer present.… So I took inventory and I looked in my little bag to see what I had left over. I had one jewel left in the bag, the brightest jewel of all—I had the gift of faith.”
In 1989 when Falana was presented with the Oscar Micheaux Award at the Sixteenth Annual Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Awards, the March 20 issue of Jet quoted her as telling the audience, “I don’t mind if I don’t do it (dance) ever again. God is challenging me to see if I have the faith.” The awards program included taped tributes to Falana’s talent and courage from Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jerry Lewis.
Return to Show Business Eclipsed By Evangelism
Later in the spring of 1989 Falana appeared with Wayne Newton on the stage of the Las Vegas Hilton, singing “Proud Mary.” Although clubs were reluctant to hire her, fearing she would relapse, Falana returned to the Sands in July for several sold-out performances, singing in Spanish and Italian as well as in English. Jet reported in August of 1989 that she had announced that first night, “I’m back.” When an audience member asked if she were cured, she replied, “I’m not cured, but I’m healed. Cure is what medicine does. Heal is what God does.” By early 1990 Falana had offers in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Atlantic City, and Boston. She appeared on television talk shows and spoke on college campuses.
But Falana was transforming herself from sex symbol to spiritual leader. She later told People Weekly: “My car just pulled into the parking lot of a Catholic church … I went in and something inside of me said, ‘Welcome home.’” Early in 1990, from the pulpit of Christ Universal Temple in Chicago, Falana announced that she had been celibate for almost 13 years and that she was abandoning her career and preparing to become a nun. According to an article in Jet in March of 1990, she told the congregation: “When I was growing up, I wanted to be like everything I saw in the movies, on television and in videos—hot, sassy, sexy.… I went and studied hard to learn how to be hotter and sexier and more appealing to the world. … The mother of Jesus—they call her Our Lady. That’s the image of a lady I want to be. I don’t want to boogie when I walk. I don’t want to shake that thing no more. I just want to be a lady.”
On her Lambs of God website, Falana said she became a Catholic in a Carmelite monastery on Christmas day in 1991, after she had seen the stigmata in a video and the Virgin Mary appeared to her. With a simple crucifix replacing her sequins and skimpy costumes, Falana moved back to Philadelphia, to share a two-story brick home in a modest neighborhood with her mother, Cleo Twine, and her stepfather.
Falana again went on tour, this time testifying to her Catholic evangelical faith and giving inspirational lectures. She introduced a video entitled Bridging the Tears, about post-abortion trauma. In a 1996 documentary, Miracles and Visions: (Fact or Fiction?), Roma Downey hosted an in-depth look at Falana’s “miracle” MS cure.
In 2002 Falana founded a new Catholic apostolate called The Lambs of God Ministry. The ministry began working with Save Sub-Saharan Orphans (SSSO), a grass-roots organization devoted to helping the 13 million children of Sub-Saharan Africa who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. More than a million of these children are themselves infected with HIV/AIDS. SSSO raises money to provide orphanages with shelter, medical care, and educational resources. On March 20, 2003, Lola Falana appeared on Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Praise the Lord television program, discussing her life and her work in support of SSSO.
A Man Called Adam, 1966.
Lola Colt, 1967.
Quando dico che ti amo, 1967.
Stasera mi butto, 1967.
The Liberation of L. B. Jones, 1970.
The Klansman, also called The Burning Cross, 1974.
Lady Cocoa, 1975.
“Each Separate Moment Is Important,” Black Stars, 1978.
“Lola’s Love Letter,” Jet, 1988.
“My Baby,” Mercury Records, 1965.
“Coconut Grove/Working in the Coal Mines,” Reprise Records, 1967.
“Stand By Your Man/He’s Chosen Me,” Amos Records, 1972.
“There’s a Man Out There Somewhere/Words,” RCA Records, 1975.
The New Bill Cosby Show, 1972-73.
Ben Vereen’s Comin At Ya, 1975.
The Lola Falana Show, 1976-77.
Television guest appearances
Hullabaloo, NBC, 1963.
The F.B.I., NBC, 1965.
Sammy Davis, Jr. Special, NBC, 1965.
The Mod Squad, ABC, 1970.
Bob Hope Christmas Show, NBC, 1971.
Bob Hope Special, NBC, 1973.
The Streets of San Francisco, NBC, 1975.
Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes, ABC, 1977, 1979.
Circus of the Stars, CBS, 1977, 1979.
Lou Rawls Special, ABC, 1977.
The Muppets, 1977.
Bob Hope’s All-Star Super Bowl Party, NBC, 1983.
Motown Merry Christmas, NBC, 1987.
All-Star Tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr., 1989.
Golden Boy, 1964-66.
Dr. Jazz, 1975.
Getting My Act Together, 1981.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, 4th ed., Continuum, 2001.
Notable Black American Women, Book 2, Gale, 1996.
Ebony, May 1988, pp. 170-176; January 1990, pp. 82-85.
Jet, February 22, 1988, pp. 58-62; July 25, 1988, pp. 24-25; March 20, 1989, pp. 24-26; June 26, 1989, pp. 55-56; August 14, 1989, pp. 54-57; March 19, 1990, pp. 56-58; October 7, 2002, p. 60.
People Weekly, December 8, 1997, p. 115.
“Former Entertainer Lola Falana Founds New Catholic Apostolate,” Catholic Exchange, www.catholicexchange.com/vm/index.asp?vm_id=52&art_id=15217 (August 28, 2003).
The Lambs of God Ministry, www.thelambsofgod.com (September 26, 2003).
“Lola Falana,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (August 27, 2003).
“Lola Falana’s Biography,” Capital Entertainment, www.capitalentertainment.com/news/lola_falana_biography.html (August 28, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through personal communications between Bill Carpenter of Capital Entertainment and Contemporary Black Biography in October 2003.
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