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Lola Falana: From Sammy Davis Jr. Protegee To Queen Of Las Vegas

Entertainment | June 10, 2019

Left: Publicity photo of Lola Falana circa 1970. Right: Lola Falana portrait from CBS-TV. Source: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons

Lola Falana burst onto the scene in her early 20s with the help of the Rat Pack’s Sammy Davis Jr. Falana could sing, dance, and act, and she made sure to make the most of her abilities by appearing onstage and onscreen as much as possible. Even though she was mired in controversy at the end of the ‘60s she didn’t let that keep her from becoming the "Queen of Las Vegas" by 1980.

Falana’s story is one of dedication and hope working in conjunction with a little bit of good luck. She’s one of those stars that would have been famous no matter the era, but she just so happened to come around in the glamorous and groovy ‘60s. 

It All Began In New Jersey

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Born in Camden, New Jersey in 1942, Lola Falana was always a performer. She began singing and dancing around the house at a young age, and like many young women, she found her first taste of celebrity in the church choir as a stand out performer at the age of five. In 1952 the Falana family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a few years later the young Lola started going to nightclubs to dance along with her mother.

With her love of performing bolstered by her late night trips to the city with her mother, Falana dropped out of high school and moved to New York City to pursue a musical career. 

 Sammy Davis Jr. Discovered Her At A Young Age

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Falana found work as a dancer shortly after moving to New York City, but it was hardly the glamorous work she desired. She worked as a dancer in a chorus line for a few years until one night Sammy Davis Jr. saw her dancing during a show in Atlantic City. Davis put her in a featured role his Broadway musical Golden Boy, then in 1965 she released the single “My Baby,” she’d finally made it to the big time.

Davis took Falana under his wing and the two began working on a variety of projects together while pursuing a clandestine romantic relationship. In 1966 Falana and Davis appeared in A Man Called Adam, and a year later Falana starred in Black Venus, a spaghetti western. Throughout the late ‘60s, she and Davis were jet setting across the world to sing and dance on shows in between Falana’s performances at the London run of Golden Boy

She Broke Away From Davis In The 1970s

Left: Lola Falana in a publicity photo. Right: Falana on the poster for her 1975 blaxploitation film 'Lady Cocoa' (also known as 'Pop Goes the Weasel'), which also featured football player 'Mean' Joe Greene. Sources: Pinterest

All good things must come to an end, and in 1969 Falana and Davis ended their romantic and professional relationship after Davis revealed to his wife, Swedish-born actress May Britt, that he’d been having an affair with Falana throughout the ‘60s. Falana notes that she wasn’t heartbroken at the divide and that she saw it as something that had to happen for her to find continued success. She said:

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.

Falana continued acting, and in 1970 she earned the Golden Globe for New Star Of The Year for her role in The Liberation of L.B. Jones. Throughout the ‘70s she appeared in everything from Blaxploitation movies to The Muppet Show

The Queen Of Las Vegas

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Falana’s film career may have been waining by the end of the ‘70s, but she wasn’t hurting by any means. In the late ‘70s, her old fling Sammy Davis Jr. brought her to Las Vegas where she played huge shows up and down the strip. Whether you were staying at The Sands, The Riviera, or the MGM Grand you had a chance to see “The Queen of Las Vegas” ripping it up onstage. She finally settled at The Aladdin for $100,000 a week, a fee that made her the highest paid female performer in the city.

She played 20 weeks out of the year while appearing in the CBS soap opera Capitol. During her run playing casinos, Falana had more than a stroke of good luck and while playing baccarat in Atlantic City she won a minority stake in the New York Mets - a property that netted her $14 million in 1988. 

Falana Retired In The Late ‘80s Due To Health Concerns

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Unfortunately, Falana had to cut her career short because of her battle with multiple sclerosis. In 1987 she suffered a relapse of MS that paralyzed her left side, made her partially blind, and impaired her voice and hearing. It took her a year and a half to recover, but by the end of the ordeal, there was no way that she could keep up with her performances that kept her onstage for nearly half the year.

She moved back to Philadelphia in 1996, and even though she no longer performs she’s still with us and her output in the ‘60s and ‘70s is truly something at which to wonder. 

Tags: Blaxploitation | Ladies | Las Vegas | Lola Falana | Sammy Davis, Jr. | What Did She Do?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.