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PART TWO - by Billy Ingram / Click here for part one
LOLA FALAN CONQUERS ALL
In the midst of the busiest period of her career, Lola looked cryptically to the future in a People magazine interview, "One day I'm going to be a middle-aged lady and I don't want people to think I committed a crime or that I've got some strange disease. I don't believe in time. The past you can't account for and the future you can't count on. Everything is now."
She had conquered just about every aspect of show business by 1976; besides television, Lola was performing in Vegas at the MGM Grand and posing provocatively in advertisements for Faberge.
In the highly-successful Faberge Tigress perfume ads, Lola was seductively displayed in a cat suit with enormous hair. She proudly told the press, "This was the first cosmetics company that ever employed a black woman to show a line that wasn't made just for blacks."
Photo shoots and TV commercials for L'eggs and others followed; there was even a seductive Lola poster on sale at Spencer Gifts similar to the million-selling Farrah Fawcett poster.
Four years after her season on The New Bill Cosby Show, and six months after her stint on the summer series Ben Vereen- Comin' at Ya, Lola Falana finally took center stage as the host of her own excellent variety series.
Lola! was a series of four ABC specials broadcast during January and March of 1976. To distinguish the production from other variety shows of the era, Lola! took a decidedly urban attitude, often tackling serious issues hidden within cleverly-written comedy sketches.
The specials were produced by Allan Blye and Bob Einstein of Sonny & Cher and Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour fame. Lola was a natural for the variety show format but the specials were sporatically scheduled and there were only four... so they weren't easy to find.
The program's roster was a familiar one, including Sonny and Cher veteran supporting players Billy Van, Ted Zeigler, Murray Langston and announcer Peter Cullen along with ventriloquist Willie Tyler.
Guests included Billy Dee Williams, Dinah Shore, Gabe Kaplan, Bill Cosby, Art Carney and Dennis Weaver.
Clad in glittering Bob Mackie gowns (just as Cher was on her show), Lola was one of the most talented and exciting performers ever to headline a television variety series.
If you ever wondered what would have happened if the producers of the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour had produced the Cher show (and darn it, they should have) Lola! might have been the result. Undeniably, Lola Falana could put across a monologue in a way that Cher could only dream of.
On the four specials, there were lots of segments with Lola front and center singing and dancing the soul hits of the day in that overly-shrill mid-seventies fashion; contemporary tunes like Ain't No Mountain High Enough, I Wanna Be Where You Are, Let's Do It Again and Save The Country were covered.
One regular feature included a seriocomic skits with Lola as a sassy child playing on tenement steps. In this scene, guest star Dennis Weaver (McCloud) chases away some kids who are bullying Lola as the kid:
Dennis Weaver: Hey fellows, fellows. You see this end of the broom? That's for sweepin'. And this end - well - that's for something else! Now, unless you fellows want to find out what that end is used for, I suggest you just mosey along.
Lola Falana: I bet you expect me to thank you, huh? Well, you didn't need to do it anyway. I could have tied both of them dummies up in a knot and used you for the ribbon.
Dennis: Hey, would you open your mouth just a little bit wider? I think I found someplace to put this trash.
Lola: That ain't funny, big-time shoe store owner. You didn't want to help me, anyway. You don't even know me, and if you did, you wouldn't like me. Huh! Nobody likes me.
Dennis: Hey now, hold on, hold on, calm down there a minute. You know, I've seen you around the neighborhood, you're always arguing with the boys, always competing, always getting into trouble. And I want to tell you something. In spite of everything I've seen, in spite of everything the kids have told me about you, I can honestly say - I don't like you either.
Lola Falana bid the audience good night at the end of each show with her signature closing, "Be as good to each other as you have been to me."
In the fall of 1976, Lola was seen on Cos, Bill Cosby's second unsuccessful variety series of the seventies and on the Bob Hope Christmas Special airing December 13, 1976 with guest star John Wayne. She sang and chatted with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show April 8, 1977.
Las Vegas beckoned again as Lola became known on the Strip as 'The First Lady of Las Vegas Entertainment,' working for up to twenty weeks a year and earning around $100,000 per, often opening for Wayne Newton.
Consumed with a busy schedule, her primetime TV forays were mostly limited to Las Vegas based productions like Circus of the Stars in 1977 and 1979 and the Liberace Valentine Special. She also turned up on the Muppet Show in 1979 and Dionne Warwick and Friends.
Lola did concerts with Neil Sedaka in 1983 and in December, 1984 she joined the cast of the CBS big-budgeted daytime soap opera Capitol as Charity Blake, a wealthy art dealer. She left Capitol in 1985.
It was shortly after filming the Motown 1987 Christmas Special with Redd Foxx that tragedy struck.
"I woke up one day with a crooked face, a crooked mouth, and dragging limbs," Lola told Ebony magazine in 1988. "The whole left side - my arms and legs were dragging. And I woke up one day and said okay, it's not about physical prowess and glamor any more, Falana."
She had been stricken with Multiple Sclerosis. Left in a crippled state, Lola found it impossible to continue performing, forcing the cancellation nearly two million dollars in signed contracts.
"My whole world is God."
With help from family and friends (and "the promise that Jesus Christ will come through me and make me well"), Lola Falana methodically battled her way back to health and made a triumphant return to Las Vegas in 1989 with several sold-out shows at the Sand's Hotel. But Lola's priorities had shifted during her illness; she turned her back on the entertainment industry entirely after that Vegas gig.
And who can blame her? "I am not a star," she was quoted as saying. "I don't want to be called that dirty word."
In 1991 she converted to Catholicism and began giving lectures in churches that are described as part sermon, part personal memoir. She also narrated an episode (about dancing) of PBS' Reading Rainbow in 1992.
After 9/11, Falana became a spokeswoman for Save Sub-Saharan Orphans but refuses to give interviews about her show biz career - it's said she despises her former life and shuns all publicity. Her sole public performance since 1990 was joining Wayne Newton on stage for his 1997 Branson, Mo Christmas show.
Today Lola Falana lives a quiet life in the city of Las Vegas.
Lola Falana became known on the Strip as 'The First Lady of Las Vegas Entertainment.'
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