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*On this date in 1942, Lola Falana was born. She was an American singer, dancer, model, actress, and minister.
Loleta Elayne Falana was Born in Camden, New Jersey; she was the third of six children born to Bennett, a welder, and Cleo Falana, a seamstress. Her father, an Afro Cuban, left his homeland of Cuba to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, later becoming a welder shortly after meeting Falana's mother, who was African American. By age three, Lola Falana was dancing; by age five, she was singing in the church choir. In 1952, Falana's family, which by this time included two more siblings, moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By the time she was in junior high school, Falana was already dancing in nightclubs to which her mother escorted her.
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 was influential in fostering Falana's early career. Pursuing a musical career became so important to her that, against her parents' wishes, she dropped out of Germantown High School before graduation and moved to New York City. 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," in 1965. Later in her career, she recorded under Frank Sinatra's record label. In 1966, Davis cast Falana in her first film role, in A Man Called Adam. Falana became a major star of Italian cinema beginning in 1967, the first of which was considered a spaghetti western. She was known as the "Black Venus." During this time, she was busy touring with Davis as a singer and dancer, making films in Italy, and reprising her role in Golden Boy during its revival in London.
In 1970, she made her American film debut in The Liberation of L.B. Jones and was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for New Star of The Year. That same year she posed for Playboy magazine. She was the first black woman to model for the Faberge "Tigress" perfume ads. In those early years, she also starred in a few movies of the blaxploitation genre. She appeared at the Val Air Ballroom sponsored by Black Pride, Inc., in 1978. With help from Sammy Davis, Jr., she brought her act to Las Vegas and became a top draw there. By the late 1970s, Falana was the "Queen of Las Vegas," the highest-paid female performer in Las Vegas. Her show ran twenty weeks a year and became a significant tourist attraction.
While still playing to sold-out crowds in Las Vegas, Falana joined the cast of a short-lived soap opera, Capitol. In 1983, Falana appeared at Bally's hotel and casino in Atlantic City and, while playing baccarat, won a minority stake in the New York Mets, a stake she held until she sold it in 1988 for 14 million dollars to Frank Cashen. In 1987, Falana suffered a severe relapse of multiple sclerosis. Her left side was paralyzed, she became partially blind, and her voice and hearing were impaired. Her recovery lasted a year and a half, during which she spent most of her time praying.
Falana attributes her recovery to a spiritual experience which she described as "Being able to feel the presence of the Lord." Falana converted to Roman Catholicism in 1988 and worked her newly found spirituality into her daily life. Though she performed again in Las Vegas shows in 1987, Falana's practice of religion and faith became the center of her life. After another bout with multiple sclerosis in 1996, Falana returned to Philadelphia and lived with her parents for a short time. Later, she turned to religion for comfort and solace, touring much of the time as an evangelist.