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Nicholas, Harold and Fayard

Fayard and Harold Nicholas

Dancers

Never Took Dance Lessons

Continued Success in Hollywood

No Brotherly Battles

Sources

The fabulous dancing of Fayard and Harold Nicholas has amazed and delighted audiences the world over since the 1930s. Combining tap, jazz, and ballet moves with gravity-defying acrobatics, the Nicholas Brothers created a unique style of dance, which they exhibited on vaudeville, Broadway, and 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 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] Home, never lost their dignity.

Never Took Dance Lessons

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. Fayards younger brother, Harold Lloyd Nicholas, was born in New York City in 1921, and named after the famous silent film comedian. Their parents, Ulysses and Viola Nicholas, were musicians at black vaudeville theaters. 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 parents managed the orchestra. The main dancer of 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 didnt 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 familys 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 Childrens Hour radio show. Recognizing their sons gift for dance, Ulysses and Viola Nicholas relocated the family to the Harlem section of

At a Glance

Born Fayard Antonio Nicholas in Mobile, AL, in 1914; Harold Lloyd Nicholas in New York, NY, in 1921; the sons of Ulysses Domonick Nicholas (a drummer) and Viola Harden Nicholas (a pianist). Married (Fayard) Barbara January, 1967 (deceased 1997): children: Anthony, Paul, Nina. Married (Harold) Dorothy Dandridge, c.1941 (divorced c.1949); Rigmor Newman (a businesswoman), c. 1991-; also married to a Frenchwoman, c. 1950s-1960s.

Career: Dancers on stage and in films. Began career in vaudeville in early 1930s. Performed regularly at the Cotton Club, NY, 193234; made Broadway debut in The Ziegfeld Follies, 1936. Other Broadway appearances include Babes in Arms, 1937; St. Louis Woman, 1946; Black and Blue, 1989 (choreography, Fayard only). Appeared in Lew Leslies Blackbirds, London, 1936; and in the Las Vegas production of Sophisticated Ladies (Harold only), 198283; and the U.S. national touring company of The Tap Dance Kid (Harold only), 198586; 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. Made film debut in Pie, Pie Blackbird, 1932. Other films include Stoopnocracy (Harold only), 1933; The Emperor Jones (1933); Kid Millions, 1934; Black Network, 1936; An All Colored Vaudeville Show, 1936; The Big Broadcast of 1936, 1936; Calling All Stars, 1937; Tin Pan Alley; 1941; The Great American Broadcast, 1941; Down Argentine Way, 1941; Sun Valley Serenade, 1942; Orchestra Wives, 1943; Stormy Weather, 1943; Take It Or Leave It, 1944; The Reckless Age (Harold only), 1944; Carolina Blues (Harold only), 1944; The Pirate, 1948; Botta E. Riposta, 1951; LEmpire de la Nuit (Harold only), 1963; The Liberation of LB, Jones, (Fayard only), 1970; Thats Entertainment, (1974); Uptown Saturday Night, (Harold only), 1974; Disco 9000 (Harold only), 1974; Thats Dancing, 1985; Tap, {Harold only), 1989; The Five Heartbeats (Harold only), 1990; Funny Bones (Harold only), 1995.

Selected awards: Antoinette Perry Award for Best Choreography for Black and Blue, 1989 (Fayard only). Kennedy Center Honors, 1991; Dance Magazine award, 1995; Carnegie Hall tribute, 1998; Apollo Theater Hall of Fame; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame;

Addresses: Home(Fayard) Woodland Hills, CA; (Harold), NYC.

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 legendary entertainers such 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. Often among those restricted audiences were 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 wed 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 ONeill drama starring Paul Robeson.

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 shows 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 Leslies 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 side underneath the choruss 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 were a flash act. But were not. At the end of the act, wed put those splits in, but wed do them gracefully. You dont just hit, bam and jump up. We tried to make it look easy. Its not easy. But we tried to make it look that waycome up and smile, Fayard explained to Carla Hall of the Washington Post.

Continued Success in Hollywood

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 films 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 high-flying Chattanooga Choo-Choo number; Orchestra Wives (1942), in which they bounced off walls in backflips; and Stormy Weather (1943), which showcased an all-black cast including Lena Home (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.

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 werent writing dialogue for blacks unless they were chauffeurs, maids or something like that, Harold told Aldore Collier of Ebony.

Both Fayard and Harold Nicholas strongly object to the notion that in lending their talents to Hollywood, they were self-serving sell-outs to a racist system. 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 blacks. Also slammed in the show was Bill Bojangles Robinson, who was dubbed Uncle Huck-a-Buck. Fayard and Harold contend 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 didnt know how. They couldnt 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 theyre 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 werent 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.

No Brotherly Battles

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 Fayards 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; Tap (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.

In recent years the Nicholas Brothers have been the recipients of numerous honors for their contribution to American culture. Among them are the Kennedy Center Honors in 1991 and the Dance Magazine award in 1995. The Nicholas Brothers film performances helped to further develop and to preserve 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 of 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 Home, 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.

Recently widowed after a thirty-year marriage to his second wife, Barbara, Fayard makes his home in a cottage at the Motion Picture and Television Village in Woodland Hills, California. He has two sons and a daughter. Harold lives on the Upper West Side of New York City. Twice divorced (his first wife was actress Dorothy Dandridge), he is married to his Swedish-born manager Rigmor Newman. Though separated by a continent, the brothers, remain close. Fayard told Collier, Some performing families love each other, but dont like each other. We like each other.

Sources

Books

Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Films and Television New York: Garland, 1988.

Periodicals

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.

Ebony, May 1983, p. 103106; May 1991, p.8890.

Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1998, magazine sect., p.1820, 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.

Washington Post, December 8, 1991, p. G1; June 9, 1996, p. G4.

Other

Information also obtained from the Nicholas Brothers website (www.cmgww.com/articles/nicholas.html).

Mary Kalfatovic

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