Article written by dance company member, Robin Nunnally
So, I must admit, I’d never heard of Lola Falana until just last night, when my parter was doing the NY Times crossword puzzle. The clue was “once known as the Queen of Las Vegas”.
My brain started to go through all the different women it could be…. I knew Marlene Dietrich had been huge in Vegas…. was it Judy Garland? Eartha Kitt? Had Josephine Baker performed for a run in Vegas?
And then, the answer eventually revealed itself: It was Lola Falana.
Lola Falana, I thought….. who was Lola Falana?
I needed to know!
My partner pulled up wikipedia to read about Lola, while I pulled up YouTube to search for a performance of hers.
This is the first video of hers that I watched.
Now, I will say, these videos I’m going to share with you are VERY Disco era (Lola’s performance years were 1961–1997), and… while I am not really a fan of Disco music (personally), I can appreciate it and I’m obsessed with the glamour and fashion of the Disco era.
That all said, YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS VIDEO BELOW. The song and performance start off romantic and sultry, but if you want to see where the song really gets on FIRE, then you’ll want to skip ahead to 1 minute 40 seconds in. TRUST ME – this gold will blow your mind.
The routine above is striking to watch, and seems to show a lot of influence of icon Josephine Baker. Falana’s sparkly leotard is very reminiscent of Baker’s in ZouZou from 1934, and some of her movements in her dancing (particularly the little forward foot shuffle step) remind me of Baker’s dancing in the soundie Plantation from 1927.
”By the time she was in junior high school, Falana was already dancing in nightclubs to which she was escorted by her mother. In 1958, Lola Falana's first dancing gig was at age sixteen during a Dinah Washington nightclub appearance in Philadelphia in which Washington gave her the opening act slot to perform. Washington, dubbed the "Queen of Blues", was influential in fostering Falana's early career. While dancing in a chorus line in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Falana was discovered by Sammy Davis Jr., who gave her a featured role in his 1964 Broadway musical Golden Boy. After the musical, Falana launched her music career later in 1964. Her first single, "My Baby", was recorded and released for Mercury Records in 1965. Later in her career, she recorded under Frank Sinatra's record label. In the late 1960s, Falana was mentored by Sammy Davis, Jr.Wikipedia
LIFE IN ITALY
In the mid 1960s Lola made some appearances on Italian TV, which prompted her to move to Italy and learn Italian, where she became a major star on Italian TV, most notably on the Saturday night main TV show Sabato sera. While in Italy, she starred in multiple films, including a spaghetti western!
In 1969, she made the powerhouse move to break her working relationship with Sammy Davis Jr. She reflected on this decision, saying:
”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.TV Guide Interview
WORK IN THE 1970s
Following her split from Davis, she went on to work in her first American film, The Liberation of LB Jones (1970), for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of “New Star of the Year – Actress”.
She also posed for Playboy magazine and became the first black female to model for Faberge’s perfume, Tigress.
In the 1970s, Lola’s fame in America really took off. She made appearances on countless tv shows as a performer, including:
- The Joey Bishop Show
- Hollywood Palace
- The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson
- The Muppet Show
- The Flip Wilson Show
In 1975 she starred as the lead in the Broadway musical Doctor Jazz, and, although the show ended after a run of only 5 performances, she was nominated for a Tony Award (Best Actress, Musical) and won the 1975 Theater World Award (Wikipedia).
She then reached out to longtime friend, Sammy Davis Jr, to help her bring a show to Las Vegas.
LIFE IN LAS VEGAS
It is here in the 1970s where Lola earned the nickname “Queen of Las Vegas“, where she became the highest paid female performer in the city, regularly selling out The Sands, The Riviera, and the MGM Grand. At one point, she was even offered $100,000 A WEEK to perform at The Aladdin.
On top of all her Vegas performances, she also had her own TV specials, The Lola Falana Show, as well as acting in the CBS Soap Opera, Capitol (where she played a wealthy entertainment mogul, soooo…. herself but under a character name).
LATE 1980s – MODERN DAY
In the late 1980s Falana suffered some severe side effects of her battle with multiple sclerosis, and attributed her recovery to her connection with God. She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1988, and religion soon took center stage in her life.
”No longer performing, she now tours the country with a message of hope and spirituality. When not on tour, she lives a quiet life in Las Vegas working on the apostolate she founded, The Lambs of God Ministry. The ministry is focused on helping children who have been orphaned in Sub-Saharan Africa, and works closely with the group Save Sub-Saharan Orphans. Lola Falana's last known musical performance was in 1997, at Wayne Newton's theater in Branson, Missouri.Wikipedia
There are COUNTLESS other incredible photos and videos of Lola Falana online – I really recommend going down the rabbit hole on Google of this incredible performer and showgirl. And make sure you also check out this great write up on Lola on the Instagram account Black History.