They are the most amazing dancers I have seen in my life . . . ever.
on the Nicholas Brothers
In the film Hook, one of the Lost Boys is sadly unable to recognize the now grown-up Peter Pan until, gently pulling and stretching the face of the adult, the face of the youngster finally emerges. “Ah, there you are!” he says, grinning. With Harold Nicholas, it was always the dancing that stripped away the years. Like many others in Los Angeles who first saw him perform live in 1982 in Sophisticated Ladies, I saw a 61-year-old man strut out onto the Shubert Theater stage. He had taken over the part from Gregory Hines, 22 years his junior, but the moment he began to dance, he was magically transformed. There was the 14-year-old Harold’s impish grin from Black Network (1936), and the slightly sexy swagger of the 18-year-old Harold of Down Argentine Way (1940). Murmurs of recognition floated up from the audience when he slid flawlessly into his signature split and bounced back up a beat later, almost as smoothly as he had done so many years earlier.
Nicholas was scheduled to make several appearances in Los Angeles last week, with his older brother Fayard, ending with a Jazz Tap Ensemble tribute in their honor at the John Anson Ford Ampitheater. But illness prevented his traveling from New York, where he died on July 3 at 79, closing an astonishing career that spanned seven decades.
Like any great dancer, movement is his legacy, and though he could have gone further had more doors been open to black entertainers of his era, Nicholas still leaves behind a unique talent preserved on film. “I’m so glad that’s all on film,” Fayard tells audiences now. “You’ll never see us do that again!”
Without fail audiences audibly sighed after watching a Nicholas Brothers routine. The two brothers — who spun, flipped, slid into splits, catapulted down massive staircases, ran up walls, tapped and sang — exuded such ease and precision that just watching them brought on a contagious joy. Those flawlessly performed feats were inspired by choreographer Nick Castle, who worked with them in most of their films at 20th Century Fox in the ’40s.
“Nick made us aware that we could do dangerous things,” Harold once told a television interviewer. Their most famous routine — in the film Stormy Weather — featured the brothers bounding up and down a huge, steep staircase, ending in successive leaps down over each other’s backs. You have to see it to believe it — and even then it’s unbelievable.
Harold loved to perform, but hated to rehearse. “I never wanted to go all out until there was a reason to go all out,” he said in a 1988 New Yorker article. In the middle of rehearsals for the 1948 MGM film The Pirate, Gene Kelly was annoyed that Harold was only marking the steps, while Gene and Fayard were both putting their full energy into learning the number. “I don’t believe you could have learned the routine that quickly,” Gene said. When Harold replied that he knew it perfectly and didn’t want to waste his energy, the disbelieving Gene demanded, “Okay, then let’s see you do it by yourself.” Gene and Fayard sat astonished as Harold performed the routine for them without one mistake, ending with a flourish and an impish grin. “Gene Kelly was so mad, he didn’t know what to do,” Harold remembered.
While most audiences remember the brothers in their prime from the Fox musicals, few are aware of their early career as precocious, self-taught child stars the Nicholas Kids — who headlined at Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1932 at ages 11 and 18, without ever taking a single dance lesson. “All I did was follow him,” Harold said of brother Fayard in the 1992 documentary We Sing, We Dance. “Fayard taught me everything.”
Born to musician parents Viola and Ulysses Nicholas, who had a pit orchestra at the Standard Theater in Philadelphia, Fayard taught himself steps by watching vaudeville artists like Buck and Bubbles, Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant. He then taught Harold, and the two proved so talented that after seeing their routine, their parents quit the orchestra and managed the youngsters full time.
When the Nicholas Kids’ popularity soared, the family moved to New York and the phenoms were given star billing at the Cotton Club. Harold was the youngest to ever perform at the illustrious showplace, and the two brothers were the first performers allowed to mix with the all-white audience. They went on to work with choreographer George Balanchine in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms and shortly thereafter moved to Hollywood, where they appeared in a series of Fox films: Down Argentine Way, Tin Pan Alley, The Great American Broadcast, Sun Valley Serenade, Orchestra Wives and Stormy Weather. Often used to inject some much-needed energy into these musicals, their routines had only a thin connection to the plot, allowing them to be easily cut for showing in southern states.
Outside the South, the Nicholas Brothers proved so popular that movie theaters grew accustomed to having to note the precise time the pair would perform in the film, because patrons would buy their tickets just to see their number — and then leave. Before they did, however, audiences would often applaud so long and loud that the projectionist would be forced to rewind the film and repeat the routine. ã
Beyond the pure joy they gave their audiences, the brothers’ historical contribution to dance is in linking those who came before — dancers such as John Bubbles and Bill Robinson — and those who followed them. “You recognize their style in breakdancing,” Baryshnikov says in We Sing, We Dance. “They are the chain, and that’s why they are important.” But though many dancers today look with admiration to Harold and Fayard, no dancer or dance team since has equaled their unique blend of talents.
“People used to say that me and my brother were going to be the next Nicholas Brothers,” Gregory Hines has said. “Until I saw them and realized that nobody was going to be the next Nicholas Brothers.”
For most black performers of the day, roles outside of specialty acts were impossible to secure unless it was to portray a servant or other similar character, something that never interested the Nicholas Brothers. “We wouldn’t do the ‘Mammy’ thing,” Harold recalled in the 1998 PBS documentary Vaudeville. “Maybe that’s why we didn’t get too many parts in films.”
While they were forced to stay in separate hotels and use back entrances, and were forbidden the freedoms of white performers in the States, they were lauded and showered with attention whenever they performed abroad. “When we went overseas, it was just like the Beatles,” Fayard recalled. “Crowds of people would come to meet us at the airport.”
Racial barriers in the U.S. finally prompted Harold to live in France for more than a decade. During his years in Europe, he taught himself several languages, performed extensively as a vocalist as well as a dancer, and pursued film roles. Fayard, meanwhile, stayed in Los Angeles, and when the brothers reunited for a 1964 appearance on the Hollywood Palace television show, Harold returned to the United States permanently. Though he ultimately settled in New York, he maintained strong ties with L.A. audiences and the local dance community, appearing most recently at the Getty Center in December.
Along with all the brothers’ accolades — including receiving the Kennedy Center Honors from President Bush in 1991 — Harold had received his fair share of negative publicity of late. His lifelong penchant for women — and they for him — came under scrutiny in Donald Bogle’s 1997 biography of Nicholas’ former wife Dorothy Dandridge. Likewise, television audiences saw him portrayed in HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge as a womanizing and inattentive husband. Harold admitted to his far-from-perfect treatment of Dandridge, mostly blaming his age: “I was just too young.”
Harold Nicholas approached life like he did a dance routine: He attacked it with gusto, in one take. If the results weren’t always perfect, they were certainly memorable. The image I’ll carry with me is that of the spunky adolescent in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1936 who fearlessly belted out a Johnny Mercer tune and carried the same sentiments throughout his long career:
Just throw your head out, stick your chin out,
Bring your best Sunday grin out.
You know that you can win out soon,
Thanks to the twinkle in your eye, and the twinkle in your toe . . .
Paula Broussard is writing a biography of the Nicholas Brothers.