Lola Falana is an all-around American entertainer who earned the title, “First Lady of Las Vegas,” at the peak of her career in the 1980s. A singer, dancer, model, and actress, Lola’s show business career flourished for more than two decades and at a time, she was the highest-paid female performer in Las Vegas with a salary of $2 million. Sadly, her career took an unexpected turn in 1987 when she came down with multiple sclerosis for more than one year.
Even though she eventually recovered and returned to Las Vegas, she never really went back to her old life of singing and dancing as her spiritual encounter with the Lord while she was sick had transformed her life with her new-found faith taking the place of showbiz. Lola slowly transitioned into a religious career and now has her own Christian ministry.
Popularly known by her stage name Lola Falana, Loletha Elayne (also spelled Elaine) Falana was born on the 11th of September 1942, in the city of Camden, New Jersey. A born entertainer, she began dancing as a three-year-old child and by the age of 5, she was already singing her heart out as a member of the church choir.
In 1952, Lola moved with her parents and two siblings at the time, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she studied dance at Sidney King’s Germantown dance studio. By the time she was 12, she was teaching jazz, ballet, and tap. Aware of her talent in the performing arts, she was convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that a spot in the limelight already awaits her in the future.
She kicked off her career, performing in nightclubs while she was just a junior high school student and her mother or dance instructor would usually serve as her escort, watching over her as she sang and danced the night away for a fee of ten dollars per show. The young girl took the moniker Lola from the song “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.”
Despite her parents’ advice against a show business career, Lola Falana went against their will, ditched her high school education just a few months to her graduation and moved to New York City to launch her musical career. She landed her first gig at the age of 16, as a dancer at Small’s Paradise, a nightclub in Harlem. At the club, she met the most popular black female recording artist of the ’50s in the person of Dinah Washington aka Queen of Blues and like any newbie would do, Lola befriended her, much to her advantage in her early career.
After a few months of performing on stage, the upcoming star had her big break when Sammy Davis Jr. saw her performing in a chorus line in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He became not just her mentor but also her friend and soon their friendship graduated to a romantic relationship, leading to the end of Davis’ marriage.
Being involved with Davis, Lola fed fat off his popularity as he cast her in a starring role in the production of his 1964 Broadway musical Golden Boy. Sequel to the musical, Lola began her music career in 1964, signing a record deal with Mercury Records and releasing her first single “My Baby” the following year. She later moved on to the big screen in 1966, courtesy of Sammy Davis who cast her in her debut drama film role alongside himself, Cicely Tyson and Ossie Davis in A Man Called Adam.
While she toured Italy with Davis as a singer and dancer in 1967, the all-around entertainer also made appearances in a number of Italian western films. Owing to the fact that she had learned to speak Italian fluently, by the end of the 1960s, Lola Falana had already become one of the biggest stars in Italian cinema, earning the name “Black Venus”. Following her desire to be known as something more than the little dancer with Sammy Davis Jr., Lola ended her working relationship with Davis in 1969, but still remained friends with him.
In 1970, Lola Falana made her American film debut, playing the role of Emma Jones in The Liberation of L.B. Jones which received mixed reviews and was a box office flop. That notwithstanding, she received a Golden Globe Award nomination for New Star Of The Year Actress for her performance. She subsequently focused on television and live performances, establishing the 1970s as the greatest decade of her career with her music, dance, and light comedy performances on TV shows such as The Hollywood Palace and The Joey Bishop Show.
As a result of these performances, more opportunities came calling. She was hired by Bill Cosby to perform on his show The New Bill Cosby Show and this was followed by many other guest appearances on several popular television programs such as The Flip Wilson Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Laugh-In and The Muppet Show in the mid-1970s.
In 1975, Lola Falana released a disco record titled “There’s A Man Out There Somewhere” which boosted her music career as it made it to the 67th spot on the Billboard R&B chart. In the same year, she made her way back to the theatre, starring in the musical Doctor Jazz for which she earned a Tony Award nomination and a Theater World Award. The entertainer later took her act to Las Vegas, thanks to Sammy Davis, Jr. There, she became a big shot as she performed sold-out shows at various popular venues, earning the title “Queen of Las Vegas” towards the end of the 1970s.
Just when she was enjoying her career which was at its peak, Lola was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987. As a result, she became blind in one eye and lost her hearing while her voice, as well as the left side of her body, became paralyzed. At this weakest point of her life, she encountered God and had a spiritual conversion. Within her period of recovery which lasted for a year and six months, she devoted herself to prayer.
After she recovered, she returned to Las Vegas but never really went back to singing and dancing as her newfound faith had already replaced show business.
Lola Falana had a robust showbiz career all through the 1960s and 1970s. While performing in Las Vegas at The Sands, The Riviera, and MGM Grand hotels, The Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood Las Vegas) made her an offer of $100,000 per week to perform. This amount, in addition to her earnings from other engagements, made her the highest-paid entertainer in Las Vegas with a salary of $2 million in the 1970s.
While appearing at Bally’s hotel and casino in Atlantic City in 1983, Lola Falana played baccarat and won a minority stake in the New York Mets. By the time she eventually sold the stake in 1988, she became 14 million dollars richer.
Although Lola’s net worth of $10 million was mostly gotten through her entertainment career, a little part of it also came from the few modelling jobs she did.
Family of The Singer & Actress
Born into a middle-class family, Lola Falana is the third of her parents six children (two girls and four boys). Her father Bennett Falana was an Afro-Cuban while her mother, Cleo Falana, who passed on in 2010, was an African-American. While Lola’s mother earned a living from sewing clothes, her father, moved from his homeland to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps and later became a shipyard welder not long after he met Lola’s mother.
Although her parents were not so comfortable with their daughter building a career in showbiz, they still supported her, so much that her mother even escorted her to various nightclubs where she sang and danced.
Other Interesting Facts About Lola Falana
1. Lola Falana learned to speak Italian fluently while she was in Italy, starring in some films.
2. She is the first black woman to appear in advertisements for a major perfume company. This follows her appearance as a model in Faberge “Tigress” perfume ads.
3. Having converted to evangelical Roman Catholicism, Lola Falana established her own ministry, The Lambs of God Ministry, in Las Vegas.