The fabulous dancing of brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas amazed and delighted audiences the world over during the 1930s and 1940s, and they are remembered today as perhaps the greatest dance team ever to appear on film. Combining tap, jazz, and ballet moves with gravity-defying acrobatics, the Nicholas Brothers created a unique style of dance that they exhibited on Vaudeville, Broadway, on international stages and in Hollywood films. "They were confident, dapper, and gifted and always appeared to be relaxing, playing themselves, whether extending the limits of human flight in dance or resting within its myriad rhythms and stops, in top hat and tails and tuxedos, in boaters and spats," wrote Emory Holmes II parents managed the orchestra. "The main dancer of in the Los Angeles Times. Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times wrote that "the Nicholas Brothers epitomized flashy acrobatic brilliance during their long career as a star nightclub, film and Broadway dance duo. They sailed through 10-foot jumps, danced up walls and flipped off into full ballet splits…. In a time of graceless racial stereotyping, they, like [Lena] Horne, never lost their dignity."
Followed Family into Theater Career
Fayard Antonio Nicholas was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1914. His unusual first name was suggested by a family friend who had traveled to France and encountered the name there. Fayard's younger brother, Harold Lloyd Nicho las, was born in New York City in 1921, and named after the famous silent film come dian. Their parents, Ulysses and Viola Nicholas, were musicians at Black Vaudeville the aters. The Nicholas family, which included a sister, Dorothy, moved frequently. While living in Philadelphia in the early 1930s, Fayard, a teenager, began to carefully observe the dancers at the Standard Theater, where his the day was Bill Robinson, and his personality just knocked me out. His taps were so very clear. He used wooden soles on the toe and on the heel, which made him unique. And, man, he had personality. He could do a little step like dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, and get a big hand for it. And when somebody else did exactly the same step, it didn't mean anything," Fayard recalled to Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune.
By imitating the performers he saw on stage, Fayard taught himself to dance. He then passed along his newfound skill to his younger siblings. Dorothy did not take to dance but Harold, like Fayard, showed a remarkable natural ability. This raw talent, combined with hours of practicing in the living room of the family's apartment, made the Nicholas Brothers a dance team of professional quality. "We never had teachers, Fayard could watch and pick up things…. He was a natural," Harold told Robert Blau of the Chicago Tribune. The brothers were soon featured at the Standard and Pearl theaters in Philadelphia and also made an appearance on the Horn and Hardart Children's Hour radio show. Recognizing their sons' gift for dance, Ulysses and Viola Nicholas relocated the family to the Harlem section of New York City, where the boys appeared at the Lafayette Theatre and made their screen debut in Pie, Pie Blackbird, a musical short starring the Eubie Blake Orchestra. Their work in the short film won them a long-running job at the prestigious Cotton Club, performing on the same bill with such legendary entertainers as Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, and Duke Ellington. Reflecting the racial standards of the time, all the performers in Cotton Club shows were black, but only whites were allowed into Cotton Club audiences. But those among these restricted audiences were often top names in show business. Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead was so charmed by young Harold she bought him a bicycle. "I rode that bicycle for years around Harlem. It was an English one with brakes on the handlebars, the first one we'd ever seen there," Harold Nicholas recalled to Dunning. Harold appeared without Fayard in some films produced in New York, most notably The Emperor Jones (1933), a screen adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill drama starring Paul Robeson.
Danced in Hollywood Films
In 1934, film producer Samuel Goldwyn saw the Nicholas Brothers perform at the Cotton Club and invited them to appear in their first Hollywood movie, Kid Millions, with Eddie Cantor and Ethel Merman. After appearing in a few other Hollywood films, including The Big Broadcast of 1936, the brothers returned to New York to make their Broadway debut in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. Their act preceded that of the show's head liner, famed comedienne Fanny Brice. The applause Fayard and Harold received was so tumultuous that Brice routinely asked "Is it all right to speak now?" before starting her comedy skit. In 1936, the Nicholas Brothers went across the Atlantic for the first time to appear in the London revue Lew Leslie's Blackbirds and in the film Calling All Stars. The following year they were back on Broadway in the musical Babes in Arms, featuring songs by Rodgers and Hart and choreography by George Balanchine. In Babes in Arms, Fayard did a flip across eight bent-over chorus girls and Harold did a split slide underneath the chorus's spread legs, finishing standing up. Despite athletic moves such as these, the Nicholas Brothers objected to their style being characterized as acrobatically oriented "flash." "We call our style of dancing classical tap. Some people think we're a flash act. But we're not. At the end of the act, we'd put those splits in, but we'd do them gracefully. You don't just hit, bam and jump up. We tried to make it look easy. It's not easy. But we tried to make it look that way—come up and smile," Fayard explained to Carla Hall of the Washington Post.
At a Glance …
Born Fayard Antonio Nicholas in Mobile, AL, in '1914; son of Ulysses Domonick Nicholas (a drummer) and Viola Harden Nicholas (a pianist); married Barbara, January, 1967 (deceased 1997); married Katherine Hopkins, 2000; children: Anthony, Paul, Nina.
Career: Dancer on stage and in films. Began career in vaudeville in early 1930s. Performed regularly at the Cotton Club, NY, 1932–34; made Broadway debut in The Ziegfeld Follies, 1936; also appeared in nightclubs and variety shows around the world, 1950s through 1970s; performed at the White House in 1942, 1955, and 1987; Royal Command performance, London, 1948.
Awards: Inducted into Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1978; Ebony magazine, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1987; Antoinette Perry Award, Best Choreography, 1989, for Black and Blue; Kennedy Center Honors, 1991; National Black Media Coalition Lifetime Achivement Award, 1992; Dance Magazine award, 1995; inducted into the National Museum of Dance, 2001.
In 1940, the Nicholas Brothers returned to Hollywood to appear in Down Argentine Way with Don Ameche and a young newcomer, Betty Grable. Fayard recalled to Hall that "when they first released this film and showed it in all the theaters all over the world, right after our number, the audience in the theater started clapping their hands and whistling and stomping their feet. The operator in the projection room had to rewind the film and show it over again." On the basis of this film's success, Twentieth Century-Fox Pictures gave the Nicholas Brothers a five-year contract. Their movies for Twentieth Century-Fox include Sun Valley Serenade (1941), in which they danced their highflying "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" number; Orchestra Wives (1942), in which they bounced off walls in backflips; and Stormy Weather (1943), which showcased an all-African American cast including Lena Horne (whose rendition of the title song became a classic recording), Fats Waller, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Cab Calloway, Eddie Anderson, and Dooley Wilson. In Stormy Weather, the brothers, clad in tails, danced up a gleaming white staircase, then came down in a fabulous display of leapfrogging.
Deeply impressed by the Nicholas Brothers' ability, Twentieth Century-Fox studio choreographer Nick Castle challenged them to take their talent to the limit. "He thought of all the crazy, impossible things for us to do," Harold said of Castle to Blau. When performing their dance numbers on film the Nicholas Brothers did not wear taps on their shoes since the sound would not be picked up clearly. Instead, the brothers would go into a studio to record the right tapping sounds, which would then be inserted into the soundtrack.
Racism Limited Success
Despite their popularity with audiences and obvious talent, the Nicholas Brothers remained a specialty act. In Hollywood of the 1940s, stardom for black performers was out of the question. "We never got a chance to do Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire routines and have songs written for us and be in the movies throughout. We would do one number and steal the show. The [white] actors would come on and do a whole script, talking and singing. And then the Nicholas Brothers would come on and do one number and the picture was ours … they weren't writing dialogue for blacks unless they were chauffeurs, maids … or something like that," Harold told Aldore Collier of Ebony.
Fayard and Harold Nicholas objected to the notion that in lending their talents to Hollywood they were self-serving "sell-outs" to a racist system, however. A sequence in the 1996 Tony Award winning musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, directed and co-created by George C. Wolfe, featured a tap dance team called "Grin & Flash," clearly based on the Nicholas Brothers. They were portrayed as smiling pawns without any concern for the condition of other African Americans. Also slammed in the show was Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who was dubbed "Uncle Huck-a-Buck." Fayard and Harold argued that criticism of this kind mischaracterizes the racist climate of Hollywood and America in the 1930s and 1940s. "We were never written into the script. They just didn't know how. They couldn't put us up there with Betty Grable, so … there was no need to talk about it," Harold explained to Pamela Sommers of the Washington Post. Fayard agrees that efforts to diminish their screen legacy are unfair. "Why should they try to bring down the pioneers who made it possible to do what they're doing today? They should say, 'Thank you,'" Fayard told Sommers.
As the popularity of the Hollywood musical and of tap dancing began to decline after World War II, so did the career of the Nicholas Brothers. Though both brothers possessed vocal and dramatic talent, it was difficult for others to see them as anything but tap dancers. "They never thought about giving us other things to do. When tap dancing faded, people weren't all that enthusiastic about hiring us," Harold told Collier. In 1946, the brothers returned to Broadway to co-star with Pearl Bailey in the all-black musical St. Louis Woman, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. In the show, which received mixed reviews and lasted for only a few months, Harold introduced the song "Come Rain or Come Shine," later to become a standard recorded by countless singers. In 1948, the Nicholas Brothers made their last joint appearance in a Hollywood film in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production The Pirate, starring Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. In the film, Fayard and Harold danced with Kelly in the "Be a Clown" number.
The Nicholas Brothers spent most of the 1950s working in Europe. Late in the decade Fayard returned to North America to tour the United States and Mexico as a solo act. Harold remained in Europe until 1964, performing in theaters and casinos. Adjusting to not being part of a brother act was not easy. "I was always looking for him. But eventually I got used to it," Harold told Hall. An appearance with Fayard on the television variety show The Hollywood Palace brought Harold back to the United States. The Nicholas Brothers worked as a team in engagements around the world until age limited Fayard's ability to perform in the 1980s. Harold continued as a solo, with an increased emphasis on singing. "I never got the opportunity to sing as much as I wanted to. We made such a thing with the dancing," Harold told Dunning. Harold also appeared in the touring company of the play The Tap Dance Kid in the mid-1980s and performed in a nine-month show as the lead in the Las Vegas production of Sophisticated Ladies, a musical featuring the songs of Duke Ellington. On screen Harold has had acting roles in several films, including Uptown Saturday Night (1974), with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier; Ta p (1989), with Gregory Hines and Savion Glover; The Five Heartbeats (1991), directed by and starring Robert Townsend; and Funny Bones (1995), with Jerry Lewis and Leslie Caron. Fayard appeared in a dramatic role in the drama The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), a drama about Southern racism with Roscoe Lee Browne and Lee J. Cobb, and in 1989 won a Tony Award for his choreography of the Broadway revue Black and Blue.
Grand Old Men of Dance
A revival of interest in African-American participation in early films brought renewed attention and recognition to the work of the Nicholas Brothers beginning in the 1990s. They were celebrated at the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 1991 and won a Dance Magazine award in 1995. "The Nicholas Brothers' film performances helped to further develop and to pre-serve a form of dancing that grew out of a vernacular tradition and was amplified and refined in vaudeville and variety theaters. Like Fred Astaire and Charles 'Honi' Coles, Fayard and Harold Nicholas enriched and polished a specifically American dance style and transformed it into theatrical art," wrote Joseph H. Mazo in Dance Magazine. In April 1998, a tribute to the Nicholas Brothers was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The star-filled event, entitled "From Harlem to Hollywood," was hosted by Bill Cosby and offered a line up that included Lena Horne, Bobby Short, Ben Vereen, Maurice Hines, and Savion Glover. Seated in a position of honor on stage, neither Fayard nor Harold got up to dance but Harold did add a few side steps to his rendition of the song "Mister Bojangles." Fayard joked to Caroline Palmer in an article on the Theatre-Dance Web site: "I'll do a little shim sham shimmy, but I can't do what I used to do. I'd be crazy if I tried to do a split now. My mind says I can do it, but my body says no way!" In 2001, the brothers were also inducted into the National Museum of Dance.
Both brothers remained active and engaged until late in their lives. Harold lived on the Upper West Side of New York City until his death on July 3, 2000. Fayard—widowed in 1997 after a thirty-year marriage to his second wife, Barbara—remarried in July 2000 to dancer and yoga instructor Katherine Hopkins. The couple made their home in a cottage at the Motion Picture and Television Village in Woodland Hills, California, and Fayard occasionally appeared at dance events and had a bit part in the 2002 film Night at the Golden Eagle. Looking back on his long career in a 2005 interview with People Weekly, Nicholas said "If my brother and I were doing our thing in this time, there's no telling what we would have accomplished. But we got along pretty well in this prejudiced world. We had such wonderful times. And I'm still having a wonderful time." That wonderful time continued until January 24, 2006, when Nicholas succumbed to pneumonia following an earlier stroke. The Nicholas Brothers will be remembered as some of the greatest dancers ever to appear on stage and screen.
Kid Millions, Samuel Goldwyn, 1934.
The Big Broadcast of 1936, Paramount, 1935.
My American Wife, MGM, 1936..
Down Argentine Way, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940.
Sun Valley Serenade, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1941.
Orchestra Wives, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1942.
Stormy Weather, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1943.
The Pirate, MGM, 1948.
The Liberation of L.B. Jones, Columbia, 1970.
Night at the Golden Eagle, 2002.
The Ziegfeld Follies, New York, 1936.
Lew Leslie's Blackbird, London, 1936.
Babes in Arms, New York, 1937.
St. Louis Woman, New York, 1946.
Sammy on Broadway, New York, 1974.
(Choreographer) Black and Blue, New York, 1989.
Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Films and Television, Garland, 1988.
Hill, Constance Valis, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1986, sect. 13, p. 10; December 22, 1991, sect. 13, p. 10.
Dance Magazine, April 1995, p. 40; July 1998, p. 62; April 2006, p. 96.
Ebony, May 1983, p. 103-106; May 1991, p.88-90.
Independent (London), July 5, 2000.
Jet, July 24, 2000, p. 53; February 13, 2006, p. 64.
Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1998, magazine sect., p. 18-20, 36.
Michigan Chronicle, June 17, 1998.
New Yorker, February 15, 1988, p. 25.
New York Times, March 28, 1998, p. C18; April 8, 1998, p. E8.
People Weekly, February 21, 2005, p. 102.
Variety, January 30, 2006, p. 72.
Washington Post, December 8, 1991, p. G1; June 9, 1996, p. G4.
"Fayard and Harold Nicholas," Tap Dance, www.tapdance.org/tap/people/nichbros.htm (July 12, 2006).
The Official Fayard Nicholas Website, www.nicholas-brothers.com/index.htm (July 12, 2006).
Palmer, Caroline, "Amazing Feet: The Nicholas Brothers," TheatreDance, www.theatredance.com/nicho-las01.html (July 12, 2006).
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